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Travel to the ancient world with the Crystal Palace dinosaurs

The history of the Victorian life-sized models of prehistoric dinosaurs and mammals in Crystal Palace Park.

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs Iguanodon © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

Victorian sculptures of Iguanodons at Crystal Palace Park

Crystal Palace is famous for many things – its football club (actually located in Selhurst), its telecommunications tower (South London’s very own Eiffel Tower) and for being the site of the actual Crystal Palace building. However, it is also famous for another unique sight – the world’s first dinosaur statues.

Following the success of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, the building was such a success, it was erected permanently on a huge site on Sydenham Hill in 1854. The Crystal Palace was sort of a theme park-cum-museum for Victorians, bringing attractions, antiquities and experiences most had never seen before. To accompany the palace, the surrounding land (in what is now the park) was landscaped with many features added, including lakes, a maze, and rides. Towards the south-west corner of the park, a dinosaur park was created by sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins (1807-1894), with landscaping by architect (and creator of the Crystal Palace) Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) and Professor David T Ansted (1814-1880).

In the mid 19th century, Victorians were further behind in their knowledge of dinosaurs than we are today. Palaeontologists and archaeologists of the time were still trying to piece together exactly what the prehistoric creatures looked like by studying fossils. When you visit the dinosaur sculptures of Crystal Palace today, you may well find it humorous to see how the Victorians’ believed they appeared. However, it’s important to acknowledge the people who made them just didn’t have the science we have today.

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs Megaloceros © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2020

The Megaloceros

Crystal_Palace Great Exhibition © Wellcome Images

An engraving of the sculptures, the Crystal Palace itself and other attractions in the grounds by George Baxter (1804–1867). Year unknown.
© Wellcome Images

Thirty sculptures from the prehistoric world were placed across three islands, grouped in species and following a rough timeline of their existence (Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic eras). The park made history as Hawkins’ creations were the first full-scale models of the extinct creatures in the world. The new Crystal Palace Company commissioned him to sculpture the ancient creatures, with advice from palaeontologist and biologist Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892). Hawkins set up a studio in the park and spent months creating replicas of the dinosaurs and other prehistoric mammals in 1853-1855. Using the scientific advice of Owen and other experts, the dinosaurs’ skin, claws and how they stood was mostly due to guess work by Hawkins. Read the rest of this entry

Crystal Palace Subway: A hidden survivor of a lost Victorian train station

Back to their Victorian glory | The restored sphinxes of Crystal Palace Park

Over 80 years after the Crystal Palace was destroyed in a fire, its legacy lives on with its Egyptian-style monuments.

Crystal Palace Sphinx restored © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

One of the restored red sphinxes in Crystal Palace Park

Crystal Palace Park is a south London gem. Although well-known by locals, many people living in the other parts of the capital haven’t made the journey… and they’re missing out! As a born and bred South Londoner, I’ve been visiting the park since I was a child and continue to do so today. The park was established in 1854 as a permanent base for the Crystal Palace – built for the Great Exhibition three years earlier. The Crystal Palace – a huge iron and glass structure designed by architect Sir Joseph Paxton (1803-1865) – had already wowed visitors in Hyde Park, and would have a long-term home at the expansive Sydenham grounds with views across Croydon and Surrey. Together with the surrounding land, the park became a Victorian pleasure ground. Two train stations serviced the park, while an Italian garden and fountains, a maze, an English landscape garden and dinosaur exhibition were opened.

The Crystal Palace stood for decades until it was destroyed by a fire in November 1936. Today, the only remainder of the Palace is its Victorian terraces, ruins of its water towers and the surviving six of the original collection of 12 sphinxes. The sculptures of the half-man, half-lions flank flights of steps on the Upper Terrace and feature cartouches and hieroglyphs on their bodies and base. The sphinxes were based on the red granite sphinx at the Louvre museum in Paris – from the reign of Egyptian Pharaoh Amenemhat II (1929-1895 BC). They are likely to have been the idea of architect Owen Jones (1809-1874), who was partially responsible for the decoration and layout of the Palace in its new environment and designed the Egyptian, Greek and Roman courts within the exhibition.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

One of the sphinxes before and after restoration

Crystal Palace Sphinx restored © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

These two sphinxes sit in the north-east corner of the terraces

For decades, the sphinxes were painted red to match their original inspiration across the channel in France. Tests have shown the re-painting stopped in the 1900s when the popularity in the Palace had declined. For most of the 20th century, the sphinxes were their base grey colour. Understandably, they’ve taken quite a battering from the elements over the years and were cracking, ending up on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register.

In 2016, the Grade II-listed sphinxes were restored as part of a £2.4million project funded by the Mayor of London, Historic England and Bromley Council. The project also includes the restoration of the terrace steps, the famous Victorian dinosaur sculptures and a new café. The work included repairs to the holes and cracks and repainting to their original Victorian colour of red with a mineral paint to help conserve them longer. I’ve loved the sphinxes since I was a child and having witnessed their deterioration over the years, I was thrilled to see them restored to their former glory. I hope they continue to survey the park for another 150 years and beyond.

  • The Sphinxes are located by the terraces on the northern-western part of Crystal Palace Park (access from Crystal Palace Parade, Upper Norwood, SE19. Nearest station: Crystal Palace. For information about visiting the park, check out Bromley Council’s website.
Crystal Palace sphinx before restoration © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2015

One of the Crystal Palace sphinxes looking south over the terraces and park in 2015 – before restoration

© Paul Furst/Wikimedia Commons

Some of the sphinxes (circled) outside the Crystal Palace in 1854
© Paul Furst/Wikimedia Commons

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Urban Orient review: A taste of Vietnam in a laidback, cafe setting

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

To start: Banh Khot – Vietnamese pancakes with shrimps

Vietnamese has been steadily growing in London as a popular cuisine after years of dominance by other Asian food, such as Thai, Chinese and Indian. However, I found I’ve often had to go into East London to find decent Vietnamese… until now. I’m quite well acquainted with the many venues on offer in Crystal Palace. However, due to their lack of a website or Twitter presence, I wasn’t aware of Urban Orient until a friend suggested eating there. Last weekend, a large group of booked a table, and were given one by the large windows so we were able to watch the bustle of Crystal Palace going by. Although open for dinner, as well as lunch, the open kitchen and woodwork gave the venue a relaxed cafe-vibe which I really liked. The interior was decorated with vintage IndoChina paraphernalia and old typewriters which made it stand out to other Vietnamese restaurants.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Delicious: Bun Cha Ca – vermicelli noodles with salad and lightly spiced battered fish

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Piping hot: Won ton soup with pork

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Urban Orient is located on Westow Street in Crystal Palace, just on the junction with Church Road

To start with, a friend and I shared our starter of Banh Khot – a plate of four mini savoury pancakes filled with shrimps, mung bean and roasting herbal flavours (£4.80). They weren’t quite what I was expecting when I heard the word pancakes, but they were compact and delicious and I would likely order this again when I return. For my main, I had the Bun Cha Ca – vermicelli rice dish with crunchy salad and spicy fish sauce topped with delicately spiced battered fish. It was incredibly filling and delicious. One of my friends chose the Won Ton Soup with pork and really enjoyed it, but again found it very filling.

The staff were incredibly friendly and relaxed, especially having to put up with 12 of us chatting away. The menu is very good value and includes a mix of dim sum, soup noodles and rice dishes. The venue is cash only and BYOB – which frankly I believe a lot more venues should be BYOB. A friend and I shared a bottle of Sauvignon between us with corkage only £4. Overall, it is a good value and a pleasant place for a relaxed meal. I will definitely be returning.

  • Urban Orient, 74 Westow Street, Crystal Palace, SE19 3AF. Tel: 020 8616 4511. Nearest station: Crystal Palace.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2013

Relaxed cafe vibe: The restaurant is light, airy and informal


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Olympic Torch Relay comes to Crystal Palace