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Holborn Viaduct: The history of London’s first flyover with a royal seal of approval

Holborn Viaduct © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

Holborn Viaduct links Holborn to the City of London

One of the upper entrances to the step buildings

Linking the City of London and Holborn is a rather ornate road bridge. While other bridges in the capital attract a lot more attention due to their location and viewpoints, the Holborn Viaduct isn’t such a familiar sight to many Londoners. The bridge dates back to the Victorian era when London’s road and sewage system were given a massive overhaul. Built between 1867-69, it spans the valley of the River Fleet, which now exists underground and flows out into the River Thames by Blackfriars Bridge, a short distance south. It connects the steep hill of Holborn (the actual road) and Newgate Street, crossing Farringdon Street below, which follows the trail of the Fleet. It was designed by architect and engineer William Haywood (1821–1894) to improve access to nearby Smithfield Market and the City in general. Haywood had worked closely with Sir Joseph Bazalgette (1818-1891) on improving London’s sewer works in the 1860s, including the creation of pumping stations, like Crossness. Before construction began, city authorities agreed to demolish a series of old streets and buildings by the Fleet Valley, with the owners being financially compensated for the loss of their homes. The plans also meant destruction of St Andrew Holborn’s north churchyard, leading to an estimated 11,000-12,000 remains being reinterred elsewhere.

Holborn Viaduct is 1,400ft long, 80ft wide and made of cast iron. It covers three spans and is supported on granite piers. When it was completed, it became the first flyover in central London. Along the bridge are bronze statues, winged lions and replica Victorian-style globe lamps. The female statues represent Agriculture, Commerce, the Fine Arts and Science. Henry Bursill (1833-1871) sculpted Commerce and Agriculture on the south side, while Science and Fine Art on the north side are by the sculpture firm Farmer & Brindley.

Holborn Viaduct © Illustrated London News. Image from Wikimedia Commons

The royal procession under the Holborn Viaduct in 1869 from the Illustrated London News

Holborn Viaduct © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

The Holborn Viaduct was designed to span the valley of the River Fleet, which is now covered over by Farringdon Road

Holborn Viaduct © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2019

The Viaduct was opened by Queen Victoria in 1869

Two step buildings were erected either end of the viaduct, with steps on both north and south sides allowing pedestrians to move between the upper and lower street levels. The upper storeys now contain offices and have ornate details, including more Bursill sculptures and wrought iron balconies. Each of the four buildings feature a statue of famous Medieval Londoners on the façade: merchant Sir Thomas Gresham (1519-1579); engineer Sir Hugh Myddelton (1560-1631); and London mayors Sir William Walworth (d.1385) and Henry Fitz Ailwin (1135-1212). Gresham founded the Royal Exchange in the City, while Sir Hugh headed the construction of the New River to bring clean water into London. Meanwhile, Alwin was the first ever Mayor of London and Sir William is particularly notorious for killing Wat Tyler during the Peasants’ Revolt. Read the rest of this entry

Explore 125 years of Tower Bridge with special after-hours talks this autumn

Learn about the history, people and architecture of a London landmark at special late-night openings of Tower Bridge.

Tower Bridge being constructed ©City of London, London Metropolitan Archives

Tower Bridge being constructed in 1893
© City of London, London Metropolitan Archives

Tower Bridge is one of London’s most iconic sights. Instantly recognisable the world over, the bascule and suspension bridge is one of the most photographed landmarks in the capital. To mark the bridge’s 125th anniversary, there will be a series after-hour talks for Londonphiles.

Kicking off in September and running until December 2019, each session will invite experts to share their knowledge and skills in a specially-curated event which explores the history of Tower Bridge. Each experience will last an hour and take place in the new Learning Space, high up in the South Tower. Film, food and art are among the themes explored over the talks.

Listings

  • Thursday 5 September : Illuminated River Project

The Illuminated River Project is a London wide public art commission that will transform the capital at night, lighting up 15 bridges across the River Thames. Once complete, the project will be the longest public art project in the world. Join Director Sarah Gaventa and Project Architect Chris Waite at the Bridge to explore the ambitious decade-long public art project and how Tower Bridge will shine in its role.

  • Thursday 12 September : Sir Horace Jones and the Architecture of Tower Bridge

Dr Jennifer Freeman, architectural historian and writer, and a specialist in ‘at risk’ conservation buildings will guide guests through the extraordinary life of Tower Bridge architect Sir Horace Jones. A specialist on the man behind a number of London’s most iconic buildings, including Smithfield Market and Billingsgate Market, Jennifer will not only explore Jones’ legacy and his innovations as a designer and planner, but the architectural marvel Tower Bridge remains as to this day.

  • Thursday 17 October : Tower Bridge Eats – Cooking and Dining with the Denizens of Tower Bridge in 1894

Don your kitchen whites and test your taste buds to explore the past century through an exclusive tasting talk with food historian Dr Annie Gray. Foodies will be taken on a whistle-stop tour of 125 years of gastronomic history at Tower Bridge.

  • Thursday 7 November : An Illustrated Construction of Tower Bridge

From the fanciful to the downright farcical, explore some of the alternative river crossing designs presented to the City of London’s special committee in 1876. Tom Furber, Engagement and Learning Officer with the London Metropolitan Archive offers a fascinating insight into some of the weird and whacky designs submitted for the design competition, as well as the ground-breaking construction of Tower Bridge.

  • Thursday 5 December : Tower Bridge & the Thames on Film

This illustrated talk by British Film Institute curator Simon McCallum will give a flavour of the BFI National Archive’s unparalleled collection of film and TV about London, with a particular focus on life along the Thames. Drawing on a rich array of newsreel footage, documentaries and home movies, this archive tour will include glimpses of the majestic Bridge itself across the past century. These films are part of the Britain on Film initiative, with thousands of newly digitised titles from the BFI and partner archives around the UK now free to explore on BFI Player. Simon’s talk will be complemented by a screening of the classic 1959 film The Boy on The Bridge, made possible by the estate of Director Kevin McClory.

(Please note this event will finish later due to the film screening).

  • Talks will take place in the Tower Bridge Learning Space. At Tower Bridge, Tower Bridge Road, SE1 2UP. Nearest stations: Tower Hill, Tower Gateway or London Bridge. All events: arrive at 7pm for a 7.30pm start. Tickets: £20pp (includes a welcome drink and a return ticket to visit Tower Bridge within 12 months). For more information and booking, visit the Tower Bridge website.

For a guide to what else is on in London this November, click here.

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45-47 Ludgate Hill: A Victorian bank masquerading as a wine bar

An architectural remainder of the former City Bank Ltd.

47 Ludgate Hill Bank © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

45-47 Ludgate Hill is a former branch of the City Bank, built in 1891

Ludgate Hill City Bank Encyclopædia Britannica

A drawing of the Ludgate Hill bank in 1911 from the Encyclopædia Britannica

The City of London is full of old buildings originally designed to be banks. In the 21st century, there are significantly less banks and building societies due to various takeovers and mergers and the growing popularity of online banking. While many brand names have died out, some former Victorian and Edwardian bank buildings still survive today. Back in the 18th and 19th century, the sheer volume of banks meant they had to stand out amongst the competition. As their directors attempted to attract rich customers, their buildings needed to exude luxury and stability so many hired top architects to make sure their HQs and branches really looked the part. With considerably less banking names existing today, their former buildings have been repurposed for new businesses, restaurants and bars, with many keeping their original features.

One such former bank no longer offering financial services is the former Ludgate Hill branch of the City Bank. Now a wine bar, this Victorian building certainly stands out as one of the most attractive buildings on Ludgate Hill. Known by many as the road leading toward St Paul’s Cathedral, Ludgate Hill is one of two London hills where the original Roman settlement of Londinium was founded in the 1st century. Around 200AD, Lud Gate was constructed – one of seven gates into the walled city. The Lud Gate was rebuilt in 1215, with its upper rooms used as a prison by the 14th century. After being rebuilt again in 1586, it lasted nearly two centuries before Ludgate and the remaining city gates were all demolished in 1760. A plaque on St-Martin-within-Ludgate church marks the location of the Ludgate, although a stone remainder of the gate is thought to survive on the eastern corner of Pilgrim Street just 100ft away. Although the gate is long gone, its name lives on in Ludgate Hill.

47 Ludgate Hill Bank door © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The ornate corner entrance with wrought iron transom window

47 Ludgate Hill Bank © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

Looking up at the red brick and terracotta exterior

With the City being the commercial heart of the capital, there were a host of banks to cater for the multiple businesses nearby and the booming population in the 19th century. One such financial institution was City Bank Ltd, which was founded in 1855 by stockbroker and future Lord Mayor of London, Sir Robert Walter Carden (1801-1888). Its stunning palazzo-style headquarters at 5-6 Threadneedle Street were built in 1856 by architect W Moseley and still remain today as the 5-star Threadneedles Hotel. By 1863, the bank had deposits to £3.5million and was acting as a London correspondent for 40 foreign banks, so they could provide finance for international trade. It became a limited company in 1880 and by 1894, it had 14 branches across London, including suburban outposts in Croydon and Bromley. One of its original branch buildings (built 1889) can still be seen today at 138 Shaftesbury Avenue at Cambridge Circus.
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Crossness Pumping Station: A stunning remainder of Victorian engineering

Crossness Pumping Station © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

Crossness Pumping Station is a Victorian pumping station in Abbey Wood, south-east London

The word ‘sewage’ doesn’t bring up many positive associations. If we were to list the pros and cons of life, human waste is right at the bottom of the pile. It’s a subject we generally like to avoid and try not to spend much time thinking about. However, as over 8 million of us are cramming into the 611 square mile space we call London, a working sewage system is one of our most important utilities. Back in Victorian London, the Industrial Revolution had caused a huge population boom in the capital and the amenities were struggling to cope. The streets and rivers of the city were streaming with rubbish and human excrement… pretty disgusting and a breeding ground for disease. The frequent outbreaks of Cholera were blamed on the inhalation of ‘bad air’. Of course, it was physician Doctor John Snow (1813-1858) who found it was spread by contaminated water, not oxygen. The River Thames was essentially an open sewer and was so toxic it was unable to sustain fish or wildlife. The existing sewers built in the 17th and 18th century were in a bad state and were unable to cope with a population which had nearly tripled to 3 million. However, it wasn’t until ‘The Great Stink’ in summer 1858, when the hot weather exacerbated the smell of the capital’s untreated waste, that the Government finally took action.

Step forward civil engineer Sir Joseph William Bazalgette (1819-1891), who was the Chief Engineer for the Metropolitan Board of Works at the time of the Great Stink. He had already been working for years on plans to revolutionise London’s sewer system and came up with a solution to create a network of smaller sewers feeding into a network of larger sewers. The Government finally gave Bazalgette the OK for his ambitious plan, with work commencing in 1859. The scheme involved 1,100 miles of street sewers feeding into 82 miles of main interconnecting sewers, with pumping stations located both sides of the River.

Crossness Pumping Station © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The restoration has revealed the stunning Victorian decoration

Crossness Pumping Station © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

Crossness was designed by Sir Joseph Bazalgette and Charles Henry Driver

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The striking centre piece of the engine house

One of these pumping stations was Crossness, built in Abbey Wood in south-east London. The large site contained a beam engine house, boiler house, 208ft chimney, workshops, a 25 million gallon covered reservoir and homes for the employees. Crossness was designed by Bazalgette and architect Charles Henry Driver (1832-1900), with James Watt & Co building the four, huge beam engines, named Victoria, Prince Consort, Albert Edward and Alexandra respectively. Crossness was opened on 4 April 1865 by Edward, Prince Of Wales (future King Edward VII). As London’s population rapidly expanded, the need for an even more advanced sewage system grew. Crossness was further extended in 1895 with the addition of a triple extension engine house on the front of the original. This featured two triple expansion engines and reciprocating pumps. In 1916, it was extended again as 4 superheated boilers were added. However, by the 1940s, the beam engines were hardly used and eventually Crossness was closed in the 1950s with its chimney demolished in 1958. It was Grade I listed by Historic England in June 1970. Crossness has been under the care of the Crossness Engines Trust since it was founded in 1987.  Read the rest of this entry

33-35 Eastcheap: This former Victorian vinegar warehouse is far from sour

33-35 Eastcheap © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

33-35 Eastcheap is a Victorian former vinegar warehouse in the City of London

Despite being extensively rebuilt following the Blitz, the City of London has retained many of its old street names. While some are rather humorous (e.g. Cock lane in Smithfield), others aren’t so flattering such as Eastcheap. Today, the word ‘cheap’ is used as an unattractive way to describe something low in price and quality. ‘Cheap’ actually comes from the Saxon word for ‘market’. In the Middle Ages, Eastcheap was the main meat market in the City. However, by the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had transformed the area with offices and warehousing replacing the butchers’ stalls.

33-35 Eastcheap © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

A sculpture of a Boar’s head can be seen on the façade in a nod to the site’s history

Walking down Eastcheap today, you will see a lot of the Victorian buildings survive and are home to offices, coffee shops and the like. One particular building that stands out from the rest is No. 33-35 Eastcheap, a dramatic Neo-Gothic, double-fronted structure. Prior to No. 33-35’s erection in 1868, the site was home to the famous Boar’s Head Tavern. The pub’s exact origins aren’t known, but it was used as a meeting place by William Shakespeare in several of his historical plays, most notably Henry IV, Part I (abt. 1597). The character Falstaff was a frequent drinker at the Boar’s Head Tavern. The original tavern was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and was rebuilt and became a pilgrimage site for Shakespeare fans. It stood on Eastcheap until 1831 when it was demolished to make way for a road widening scheme leading to the new London Bridge. At the time of demolition, the building hasn’t been used as tavern since the late 18th century and had been sub-divided into shops. The Boar’s Head sign was preserved and went on show at The Globe Theatre at Bankside in 2010.

The current building of No. 33-35 was constructed in 1868 to a design by English architect Robert Lewis Roumieu (1814-1877). Born to a Huguenot family, who had arrived in Britain 100 years before his birth, Roumieu was an original and daring architect for the time. Although many of his designs were Neo-Gothic – which was trendy in Victorian times – he did like to push the boundaries. As well as the Eastcheap building, he also designed Milner Square (Islington), the Almeida Theatre, the French Hospital in Hackney, among others. Roumieu was commissioned to design a vinegar warehouse depot for Hill & Evans at a cost of £8,170. Hill & Evans were founded in Worcester in 1830 and were, at one point, the world’s largest vinegar producers. By the early 20th century, they were selling 2 million gallons of malt vinegar a year. The company ceased trading in 1965 after 135 years of business.

No. 33-35 is a Neo-Gothic, five-storey building with a further attic storey in a slated roof. On the ground floor is a huge arched doorway which would have been used for delivery access and Devonshire marble columns. However, the current iron gates only date back to 1987. The top three-storeys feature Gothic arched bays with projected canopies over the windows. Above the second floor, central window is a sculpture of a wild boar peering through long grass – a nod to the site’s former Boar’s Head Tavern. Meanwhile, the second floor canopies to the left and right feature carved heads of Henry IV and Henry V. The building features a lot of decorative elements, including tiling, cast iron cresting, and plaster badges.

33-35 Eastcheap © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The top storey features a slated roof and cast iron cresting

When the building was completed in 1868, it certainly caused a stir, with Roumieu being labelled a ‘rogue’ architect for some of his daring styles. The British Almanac of 1869 described it as: “The style is French, but some of the details are Venetian. The general effect is novel and striking, though somewhat bizarre.” Twentieth century critics Gavin Stamp and Colin Amery were more positive, proclaiming Roumieu’s creation as “the City’s masterpiece of polychromatic Gothic self-advertisement”. Meanwhile, architectural critic Ian Nairn (1930-1983) gave it a rather dramatic review: “This is truly demoniac, an Edgar Allan Poe of a building. It is the scream that you wake on at the end of a nightmare.” Despite the critics’ mixed reviews to the building, it was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1971.

In recent decades, the ground floor has been home to various shops and restaurants. Bewlay’s Pipes had a small shop from the 1950s to 1970s, while there was a branch of J. Lyons & Co tea shops at No.35 in the 1950s. Today, the upper storeys are home to offices, while the ground floor houses branches of Black Sheep Coffee and a Simmons bar.

  • 33 – 35 Eastcheap, City of London, EC3M 1DE. Nearest stations: Monument or Fenchurch Street.

For a guide to London’s Shakespearean sites, click here.

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Is this London’s skinniest house? The story behind 5 Thurloe Square

The history of the ‘Thin House’ in South Kensington.

Thurloe Square thin house © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

The ‘Thin House’ in Thurloe Place

Standing in a quiet square sandwiched between South Kensington tube station and the Victoria & Albert Museum is a rather unusual block of flats. No.5 Thurloe Square, nicknamed ‘the Thin House’, is thought to be one of the narrowest homes in the capital. Looking at the block from the south-west corner of the square, the house looks ridiculously narrow. However, it’s somewhat of an optical illusion as the building is actually triangular, which widens as you move further east.

Thurloe Square was built in 1840-1846 on land belonging to the Alexander Estate. The square was named after the Thurloe family – from which brothers John and James Alexander inherited the land following the death of their great-grandmother Anna Maria Harris’ son from her second marriage. Anna Maria, who inherited the estate in the early 18th century, was left widowed from her first marriage to John Browne (the Alexanders’ great-grandfather), and remarried John Thurloe Brace – grandson of the Puritan statesman John Thurloe (1616-1668). Their son Harris Thurloe Brace died without an heir in 1799, so the estate passed on to his mother’s family from her first marriage.

Thurloe Square © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2018

No.5 was designed as artists’ studios in the 1880s

Most of the houses in Thurloe Square were designed by London-born architect George Basevi (1794-1845), a student of Sir John Soane and a cousin of Benjamin Disraeli. The terraces were designed in his signature neo-classical style with Doric columned porches at the front doors. This entrance feature is now a signature design of mid-Victorian terraces in the area. However, just two decades later, 23 houses in Thurloe Square were designated to be handed over to the Metropolitan District Railway, who were working on a new transport advancement, now known affectionately as ‘the tube‘. Landowner at the time, H.B. Alexander was thoroughly unimpressed and fought against the plans, but the Government overruled him. Mr Alexander could only be grateful that the Government banned the railways from erecting an entrance to South Kensington station in Thurloe Square as it would have ruined the amenities and character. The railways bought Nos. 1-11 Thurloe Square for £3,000, but in the end, only five houses (Nos. 1-5) on Thurloe Square were demolished in 1867. The company had bought a total of 42 houses from the Alexander Estate over various roads, but only destroyed 19. Some of the surviving buildings had their back gardens dramatically reduced. In 1868, South Kensington station opened, providing services on the Metropolitan and the Metropolitan District Railway lines.

By the late 19th century, Kensington and Chelsea were world-renowned as a hub for art. Flocks of artists built studios in the area, many of which still exist today. Two Victorian artists’ homes Leighton House Museum and 18 Stafford Terrace are currently open as museums. With the railway lines just a few feet away from the south side of Thurloe Square, the triangular site of former Nos.1-5, remained vacant for many years. However, prolific local builder William Douglas saw its potential for seven artists’ studios. The wedge-shaped red brick block was built between 1885-1887. The large north-facing windows are perfect for letting in lots of light for the artists to work in. Building plans were submitted to the Metropolitan Board of Works by surveyor C.W. Stephenson on behalf of Douglas, suggesting he may have been the architect. At its narrowest point, the building is said to be 6ft wide, spanning to 34ft at its largest. The building proved popular with artists. The 1911 census showed a landscape painter named Arthur Johnson Ryle (1857-1915) was living in studio 3.

In 1899, Thurloe Square was surveyed by Charles Booth for his poverty map. Notably, the houses on the south of the Square overlooking the railway were labelled ‘middle class’, while the remaining residences were ‘upper middle and upper class, wealthy’. Today, Kensington remains an area with some of the most expensive houses in the country. Most of the original Basevi terraces are Grade II listed, as is South Kensington station. While not listed, the artists’ studios are an impressive piece of real estate today. In 2016, a top floor artist studio apartment covering just 600 square foot in 5 Thurloe Square went up for sale for £895,000.

  • ‘The Thin House’, 5 Thurloe Square, Kensington, SW7. Nearest station: South Kensington. NB: This building contains private residences and are not open to the public.

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The old pillars of the former Blackfriars railway bridge

The story behind the red columns in the River Thames.

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The remains of the old Blackfriars Railway Bridge stands next to the current Blackfriars station

If you walk along the Thames Path, or perhaps cross the River Thames via foot or train on the two Blackfriars Bridges, you may have noticed these pieces of unusual river furniture. Running from north to south are pairs of red pillars, which used to support the original railway bridge before it was dismantled in the 1980s. Rather confusingly for Londoners, there were two Blackfriars railway bridges and various name changes between the current Blackfriars station and another station south of the Thames which no longer exists.

Blackfriars Railway Bridge By James Dredge, via Wikimedia Commons

The Old Blackfriars Railway Bridge in 1897
By James Dredge, via Wikimedia Commons

The red pillars we see today are what remains of Old Blackfriars Railway Bridge, which was built in 1864 by engineer Joseph Cubitt (1811-1872) for the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (LC&DR). The bridge brought trains across the Thames between the original Blackfriars Bridge station (south of the Thames) and Ludgate Hill station (closed in 1929). The original bridge was four tracks wide and supported ornate abutments featuring the LC&DR’s insignia. The original Blackfriars Bridge station was located near the junction of Southwark Street and Blackfriars Road.

It wasn’t long before Old Blackfriars Railway Bridge was joined by its sister bridge, the St Paul’s Railway Bridge, which led into the newer St Paul’s train station on the north bank of the Thames, aka the current Blackfriars station. St Paul’s station and the new bridge opened in 1886, the latter designed by civil engineers Sir John Wolfe Barry (1836-1918) and Henry Marc Brunel (1842-1903). Wolfe Barry was the engineer of Tower Bridge and the son of architect Charles Barry, who famously redesigned the Houses of Parliament. Meanwhile, Brunel was the son of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, famous for the Thames Tunnel and Bristol’s Clifton Suspension Bridge, amongst many other landmarks.

Old Blackfriars rail bridge © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The red pillars used to stand in rows of three, but only pairs are visible

Old Blackfriars rail bridge © Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

The southern abutment and LC&DR insignia have been restored

When the new St Paul’s station opened, LC&DR decided to close Blackfriars Bridge to passengers, but kept the station open as a goods’ yard. It continued in that guise until 3 February 1964, before it was demolished four years later. The only sign of the station today is the cobbled entrance driveway behind an office block.

Meanwhile, St Paul’s station was thriving and continued to serve trains heading through the City. In 1937, the station was renamed Blackfriars to avoid confusion with the tube station St Paul’s, which had been named Post Office since its opening in 1900 due to its proximity to the HQ of the General Post Office. The same year, Post Office tube station was renamed St Paul’s, as it remains today as a stop on the Central Line.

In 1985, it was decided the old Blackfriars Railway Bridge was too weak to support modern trains and it was dismantled. However, the red pillars and the southern abutment remained in situ. Originally the pillars were in rows of three, but the eastern columns were absorbed into the rebuilding of Blackfriars station on the younger bridge in 2011, so only pairs are visible to the public now. During the works, the LC&DR’s insignia was restored as a lasting reminder of a bridge and train company of yesteryear.

  • The original Blackfriars Railway Bridge abutments can be viewed from the Thames Path (south side) and the embankment running alongside Blackfriars Underpass (north side). Nearest station: Blackfriars.

For the history of the Blackfriars area, click here.

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Fitzrovia Chapel: A beautiful hidden gem

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

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

© 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 little and continue to 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

© Memoirs Of A Metro Girl 2017

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

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.
© Paul Furst/Wikimedia Commons

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


Read about the Victorian subway hidden under Crystal Palace parade here.

To find out about another set of London sphinxes on the Victoria Embankment, click here.

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