I talked a little bit about the history of the Crystal Palace dinosaurs in my post on “Making Nature” at the Wellcome Collection, and mentioned that I would try to revisit them at some point in the future so I could blog about them. I was intending on going in nicer weather (though I only just realised I said I would try to see them over a year ago, so I don’t know what the hell my excuse was last summer, other than the fact that I was working a terrible horrible job at the time and didn’t want to do much of anything other than escape), but my friend who had never seen them kept badgering me to go with him until I finally just gave in, even though the day we picked was super cold (for April) and rainy, and to quote Gene Belcher, “I’m more of an indoor kid” even at the best of times.
Even though I was reluctantly going, I still always aim to be a punctual person (I think lateness is rude), so I felt like a real jerk when Marcus and I ended up meeting him there half an hour late (my fault because I wanted to get cake first, though mainly I blame the TfL website for not mentioning that a rail replacement bus service was in operation, because if the trains had been running we would have made it in time. Rail replacement my ass) and therefore tried to be more agreeable about the whole experience than I normally would, even when I was cold and wet and tired of walking around, which meant we ended up spending an hour and a half there instead of the half an hour I was planning on, and took in most of what Crystal Palace has to offer (not just dinosaurs!).
Crystal Palace takes its unusual name from the Crystal Palace, as in, the giant glass structure that was the centrepiece of the Great Exhibition of 1851, which was moved from Hyde Park to what was then called Penge Common in 1854 and soon joined by a number of other attractions, including the famous dinosaurs, which are the oldest dinosaur sculptures in the world. (They were made by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under the direction of Richard Owen, who was the dinosaur expert of his day. Unfortunately, he was working with incomplete skeletons and somewhat flawed scientific knowledge, so he got a lot of things hilariously wrong, as you can probably see.) Crystal Palace sounds like it was amazing until it fell into decline in the late 1800s, and eventually burned down in 1936. All that you’re left with today are some statues, some (most?) of the dinosaurs, and a pretty big park, which I suppose is nothing to scoff at, but still not as great as seeing the Crystal Palace itself would have been.
We started with the dinosaurs, some of which have recently been restored. The collection, which also includes some prehistoric mammals, is arranged on four different “islands” which surround a lake that is apparently meant to represent primordial ooze (you can paddleboat on it these days). I loved the signage they have there now about the dinosaurs, which explains what modern palaeontologists think the Victorians got wrong (to amusing effect…please read the last sentence on the Hylaeosaurus), and also describes how Hawkins and Owen deliberately hid the dinosaurs whose reconstructions they were least confident about (yet left the Iguanodon out there loud and proud…). The Mosasaur is my personal favourite (below right) – he’s so damn derpy, but they all are really, and you have to wonder how the Victorians thought they would obtain food with those big fat bodies. Maybe just sit there with their mouths hanging open and wait for something to fly in?
The mammals are marginally less hilarious, though I still have to wonder about the tails on those camel-headed things, and I don’t know what they’re trying to hide on the giant sloth, because you can’t even see his face from the path. The giant elk look fine, but that’s because elk are still a thing, so they didn’t have to guess what they would look like (they originally had real antlers, but they were too heavy for the sculptures and the heads were in danger of cracking off, so they had to be replaced with fake ones). There’s also a random gorilla statue off by himself (not part of the islands), though I’m not sure why he was there, because he didn’t have a sign (other than the dinosaurs, pretty much nothing here does, which is a little frustrating when you’re trying to figure out who a headless statue was meant to be).
After getting our fill of laughing at the dinos, we headed off to explore the rest of the park, which meant tramping through an awful lot of mud, mainly. I was thrilled to discover there was a maze, though when we got inside, the giant puddles proved the greatest impediment to our journey, as the hedges weren’t grown in yet at this time of year and we could see right over the tops (it still took longer than I thought it would to find the centre though, so that’s something).
We also found a stage, so perhaps they have concerts there on occasion, though it was in such a state of disrepair that I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to stand on it. There are a couple of TV towers that loom over everything, but really the main other attractions of note are the only remaining parts of the original Crystal Palace complex, which include the aforementioned headless statues (and some with heads -still no idea who they are, though I looked it up afterwards, and apparently they’re meant to represent different countries), and those rather grand sphinxes on an Italianate wall. They have also re-created a corner of the original structure, but it very literally is the bare minimum they could have done, and I would have loved to see more. I mean, why even bother just sticking up a couple of pieces of metal?! That’s just a tease!
After an hour and a half of exploring, we’d all had enough (frankly, I’d had enough after the dinosaurs, but like I said, I was trying not to complain as much as I usually do), so we headed off to a brewery in nearby Gipsy Hill (which I also didn’t complain about, even though I’m not normally very keen on drinking), passing a house that Leslie Howard used to live in on the way. The dinosaurs are a delight, and well worth seeing (in better weather, if possible), but I do wish they could rebuild more of the Crystal Palace (and restore more of the dinosaurs). There is also a tiled Victorian subway in the area that is occasionally open to the public, and a small Crystal Palace museum, which I strangely did not visit (I’m not even sure if it was open when we were there). It’s all free, and at any rate, it’s something to do of a weekend, especially if you enjoy looking at dogs in sweaters (and one with a tennis ball who followed Marcus around for quite a while, see below – I would have taken him home with us, but I think the owner might have objected).