A visit to a subterranean Victorian treasure.
The South London suburb of Crystal Palace takes its name from a huge Victorian glass structure and pleasure palace. The Palace, designed by architect Joseph Paxton (1803-1865), was originally created for the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851. It was such a huge success, the Palace was reopened on a permanent site on the top of Sydenham Hill in 1854.
With such a big attraction coming to the south London suburb, there needed to be adequate transport to bring the 2 million visitors a year. The first (lower level) Crystal Palace station opened in June 1854 and remains open today, providing Southern and London Overground services. However, it was joined by a second station, the Crystal Palace – High Level station, in August 1865. Located just north-west of Crystal Palace Parade, it was designed by local architect Charles Barry Jnr (1823-1900), cost £100,000 to build and was operated by the London, Chatham & Dover Railway. It was originally thought Charles’ younger brother Edward Middleton Barry was the architect due to a printing error at the time of opening. Edward and Charles’ father was the acclaimed Victorian architect Sir Charles Barry, who designed the Palace of Westminster.
The station was a red brick and terracotta construction with a glass and iron trainshed roof. It was connected to a vaulted subway under the road leading directly to the Palace, which opened four months after trains started running. The subway was designed to resemble a Byzantine crypt featuring 15 fanned columns and was built by the Lucas Brothers (Charles Lucas 1820-1895 and Thomas Lucas 1822-1902). However, the High Level station’s popularity dropped dramatically after the Crystal Palace was destroyed in a fire on 30 November 1936. The station temporarily closed for periods during the two World Wars. During World War II, the subway was used as an air raid shelter with beds for 190 people. Following VE Day, the High Level station was in a pretty bad state. The glass roof had been shattered by the relentless bombing sustained by south London and leaked whenever it rained. It didn’t take long before vegetation started sprouting on the timber platforms. As the 1950s progressed, the station fell into further decline. In its latter years, only one platform was in use and safety nets were used to protect passengers from falling roof debris. Finally, in September 1954 the station was closed for good and was demolished in 1961.
Today, a 1970s housing estate covers the site of the station. The station entrances on Crystal Palace Parade have been bricked up and demolished, with the only remainder of the station left being the subway and its adjacent roofless courtyard. The subway was Grade II listed in September 1972. Today, the subway is sealed off from the public due to health and safety reasons, but is occasionally opened to the public for tours by the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway. Unfortunately. the atrium walls have deteriorated further in recent months so the courtyard leading to the park is currently out of access.
2020 update: The Crystal Palace Subway has been temporarily closed to visitors after it secured funding for a £2.8 million restoration project. The project is scheduled to finish in summer 2022. Visit the Bromley Council website to find out more about the restoration.
- Crystal Palace Subway, Crystal Palace Parade, Crystal Palace, SE19 1LG. Nearest station: Crystal Palace. To find out when the subway is next open, visit the Friends Of Crystal Palace Subway website.
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