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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

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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 element 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.

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

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Shopping in style – Part 3: Retail therapy Victorian style at the Royal Arcade

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The Royal Arcade is the oldest surviving Victorian shopping arcade

Decades before the likes of Westfield and Brent Cross came to London, those who wanted to shop in comfort headed to one of the capital’s arcades. Like the mega malls of today, these arcades featured numerous shops under one roof, providing a sheltered retail experience whatever the weather. However, as well laid out as these modern fashion meccas are, they just can’t compare to the historic and upmarket designs of the late Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian periods. As part of Metro Girl’s series on the five historic arcades of Mayfair and St James, Part 3 will be focusing on the only surviving Victorian one – the Royal Arcade.

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The Albemarle Street entrance to the Victorian arcade

London’s first ever shopping arcade – the Royal Opera Arcade in St James opened in 1818, with the Burlington Arcade in Mayfair following a year later. The Lowther Arcade was established in The Strand in 1830, but unlike its contemporaries, it didn’t survive far into the 20th century when it was demolished in 1904. After the Lowther opened, it was a 49 years before another arcade joined the capital’s retail industry.

The Royal Arcade was originally known as simply The Arcade and was first envisioned in 1864 as a link between Old Bond Street and Regent Street. However, these proposals were rejected due to the required volume of demolition of existing buildings. However, the plans were revised into its current design by Victorian architects Thomas Archer and Arthur Green (1847-1904). Archer & Green shared a practice for over 15 years before going their separate ways in 1889, during which they designed Whitehall Court, No.1 Cambridge Gate and the Hyde Park Hotel (now the Mandarin Oriental). Green was the father of Leslie Green (1875-1908), who designed many of London’s tube stations, including Oxford Circus, Camden Town, Covent Garden, Holborn and South Kensington. His stations are recognisable due to their ox blood red tiling on the buildings’ exteriors.

The Clarendon Hotel on Albemarle Street was demolished in 1870, freeing up the space for construction of The Arcade, which opened in 1879. In contrast to the older shopping arcades of the capital, The Royal Arcade is a lot more ornate in design. The two-storey arcade features curved bay windows on the ground floor with Ionic columns separating the 16 shops. The first floor features cast iron balconies overlooking the walkway. Looking up, the aisle is covered by a saddled glazed roof and arches with stucco detailing. Meanwhile, the orange and white façade of the building features reliefs symbolising abundance and commerce, caryatids (sculpted female figures taking the place of a column) and a portrait of Queen Victoria.

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The Old Curiosity Shop: A little piece of 16th century London with a literary link

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The Old Curiosity Shop in Holborn

Down a little unassuming side street in the back roads of Holborn is historic shop. Just two stories high, it is dwarfed by the modernity surrounding it. At first glance, fans of Charles Dickens may be thrilled to see the author’s name emblazoned across the upper storey as it claims to be his Old Curiosity Shop from the Victorian novel of the same name. Perhaps on close inspection the truth isn’t so clear cut.

Built in 1567, the building is believed to be the oldest surviving shop in London. It was constructed using wood from old ships, with a tiled, hipped roof. The ground floor windows today still feature 17th or early 18th century frames, with 19th century glazing. It managed to survive the Great Fire of London in 1666 as the fire died out before it reached the Holborn area. At one point the building was used as a dairy, run by one of the mistresses of King Charles II (1630-1685).

During Charles Dickens’ (1812-1870) lifetime, the building was apparently used by a waste paper merchant. The author originally serialised The Old Curiosity Shop in his serial Master Humphrey’s Clock from 1840-1841, before publishing it as a complete book in 1841. The novel told the story of orphan ‘Little’ Nell Trent and her grandfather, who live at The Old Curiosity Shop. The book was incredibly popular with the Victorian public, with even the Queen remarking it was ‘cleverly written’.

The idea that Dickens was inspired by this very shop in Holborn is tenuous – although he lived for many years in the area and neighbouring Bloomsbury. Around 30 years after book was published, one of the shop’s owners decided to cash in on Dickens’ popularity and named it The Old Curiosity Shop, proudly declaring it was the very one ‘immortalised by Charles Dickens’. Given he was a local, there is a chance Dickens would have visited the building, or at least walked past it. The real shop believed to have been the inspiration of Dickens’ tale stood on Orange Street, behind the National Gallery.

Regardless of Dickens’ association with the building, the signage linking him with the shop surely ensured its survival. The nearby Clare Market slums and shops were demolished in 1905 to create Aldwych and Kingsway, including the tramway subway. The Clare Market area today is mostly occupied by the London School of Economics (LSE).

At some point during the 19th century, the building became an antiques store, eventually closing in the 1970s. When it shut its doors, receipts and documents dating back as far as the 1920s were found. The building was Grade II listed by Historic England in 1958. Since the 1990s, the shop has been selling shoes by Japanese designer Daita Kimura. Why not pop in to see the low ceiling beams and winding staircases?

  • The Old Curiosity Shop, 13-14 Portsmouth St, Holborn, WC2A 2ES. Nearest station: Holborn or Temple.

For more of Metro Girl’s history posts, click here.

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