The west wall of the East Lobby showing the subway, vestibule, terrace and stairs beneath Crystal Palace Parade

The Crystal Palace Subway

London’s buried treasure is getting a fresh polish


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

There are no crystals, palaces, nor parades on Crystal Palace Parade. But there is treasure: an ornate subterranean Victorian foot tunnel, hidden beneath a dusty main road at one of the highest points in London.

The Crystal Palace Subway — more Puglia than Penge — was untouched by the 1936 fire that destroyed the Crystal Palace, a catastrophe that seemed to sear the end of the Empire into the national psyche. Conservationists found the great scorched doors that helped protect the subway from the flames buried beneath weeds. In the decades after the fire, the tunnel survived much more: the Blitz, close demolition, years of dereliction, indifference — even the rave era.

It was a piece of architectural theatre, a device to heighten the drama of emerging from darkness into all that light

“It is the only remaining major part of the Crystal Palace,” says Ian Harper, an architect with Historic England. “Grade II* listed, and it was derelict. A wasted asset.”

As an architectural fragment, the subway remains virtually intact. In the coming months, it will reopen permanently for the first time in more than 50 years, following a decade-long, £3m+ rescue project to restore what once served as a portal to the world (or, at least, the world according to Prince Albert).

“It really is magnificent,” says Harper, chief architectural consultant on the project. “Beautifully constructed, good solid Victorian engineering. Most of what they did lasted 100 years in function, and only after 180 years or so begins to show its age.”

The columns with their stunning terracotta-and-cream brickwork

The dazzling centrepiece is an antechamber supported by eighteen stone columns, evenly spaced and topped by terracotta-and-cream brickwork fanned vaults [above]. Its history reflects the UK’s often casual attitude to heritage architecture, beyond the most obvious grand palaces and country estates.

Other remnants from the great exhibition are still strewn about Crystal Palace park — grand staircases to nowhere, sphinxes guarding nothing, hollow statuary — stripped of context and caked in lichen. They were never cleared, and are likely to remain mournful litter for a while to come. But the subway is different: the first relic to be returned to useful life.

Crystal Palace in 1865: “a sight the like of which has never happened before, and which, in the nature of things, can never be repeated”

Albert’s 1851 extravaganza displayed 100,000 works of the industry of all nations: “a sight the like of which has never happened before, and which, in the nature of things, can never be repeated”, according to a write-up in The Times. It was held within the Crystal Palace, Joseph Paxton’s cast iron and glass superstructure, which would be dismantled in 1854 after its first outing in Hyde Park, before being transplanted to what was then known as Penge Park, eight miles to the south in what was then one of London’s most chi-chi suburbs.

The Italianate-style subway is set apart from the palace, built a little later in 1865. It was probably designed by Charles Barry, the eldest son of Sir Charles Barry, an architect who specialised in intense neo-gothic, including the Palace of Westminster (Barry junior is acknowledged as the most likely architect of the subway, though tantalisingly, conservationists say the records are inconclusive).

The subway was part of Barry junior’s High Level station, one of two rail terminals built to serve the exhibition. “It meant you could travel all the way from Waterloo or Victoria undercover, straight into the Crystal Palace,” says Harper. Arrivals would receive a dose of architectural exotica before they passed through the turnstiles, up the subway’s grand staircases and straight into Paxton’s palace.

Corroded gas lamp fitting

According to the conservation team, Barry was just back from an architectural tour of Europe when he started work. He intended it as more than a means to guide the crowds beneath the road that separated the station from the palace; it was a piece of architectural theatre, a device to heighten the drama of emerging from darkness into all that light.

Its trippy, almost Seussian brickwork made an ideal backdrop for illegal parties and raves

The ceiling’s geometry is dazzling, but the effect of its delicate brickwork is something like cloisters. People tend to fall silent inside its cool, quiet chambers. Barry seems to have been intent on setting the tone: extend your quiet reverence beyond the turnstiles to the wonders within the glass behemoth beyond. It is almost manipulative in its ability to beguile.

High Level station closed in 1954, pointless without its glass palace, and was demolished in 1961 to make way for housing. Its slabby, serious form survives in remarkable detail in Amelia and the Angel, a short, quasi-surreal film by Ken Russell made in 1958. A lengthy song-and-dance sequence, shot on a derelict platform, suggests abandoned dreams of cavernous proportions. The subway escaped the demolition, partly because its pillars and vaults supported the A212 road above — they still do — and, at nine inches thick, concealed drainage pipes.

Barry’s subway was listed in its ruined state by English Heritage in 1972, after which it was closed up and deserted. But like many of London’s subterranean relics, it existed in folk memory.

A colourful afterlife — in 1980 an orchestra performed in the subway, which was also used to host illegal raves and was used to film a Chemical Brother’s video

First it was an illicit playground for the local children ingenious enough to break in (one 50-something local remembers smashing wooden shutters and climbing through in the 1970s). Later, its trippy, almost Seussian brickwork made an ideal backdrop for illegal parties and raves. The Chemical Brothers’ video to their 1996 hit Setting Sun alludes to this, with a disorientating party sequence shot within the vaulted antechamber. Inevitably, it ended up on Historic England’s “at risk” register.

One or two of the brick vaults are water damaged — possibly by utilities companies’ repairs to the A212, though their reconstruction is not urgent, says Harper. Otherwise, they are perfect — as is its latest restoration.

That was hard won. More than a decade ago, joint landowners Bromley and Southwark councils allowed occasional, community-led tours of the ruin by the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway, and limited access for events including the annual Open House festival, all constantly oversubscribed. In 2019, the group secured a £2.34m strategic investment grant from the City of London towards restoration, with more from Historic England and private donors.

Architects Thomas Ford & Partners and specialist heritage contractors DBR (which also worked on the restoration of Big Ben) have, where possible, saved most of the subway’s original walls by patching them with reclaimed Victorian bricks of the same shape and size, and rebuilt another with more. The white-tiled outer corridors are remarkably similar to the subterranean foot tunnels beneath Albertopolis in South Kensington, a project funded with the profits of the Great Exhibition.

Internal view of the East Courtyard from proposed plans for the restored subway

The architects have added an unobtrusive glass roof to the subway’s previously exposed ticketing hall [above], turning an empty courtyard once exposed to the elements into a sleek and elegant enclosure for “community activities and events”, some of which will be private hire for parties and the like — strictly legal, this time.

In September, a trust took over the lease from Bromley council of the entire Crystal Palace park, including the subway. At 200 acres with more listed Victorian treasures, the park is one of the biggest in London, and is undergoing a £52m upgrade including restoration of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’s eerie dinosaur sculptures, still scattered about the boating lake.

Construction work is already underway to revive the site

They were the first of their kind in the world, now Grade-I listed to reflect their significance as an early indicator of interest in evolutionary theory. The hope is that income from hiring out the restored subway, along with events such as massive concerts in the wider parkland, will contribute to the costs of maintaining it all.

What would have happened to the crystal palace had it not burnt to the ground? As an emblem of the empirical era, it may have become an embarrassment as its structure weakened. But the resurrected subway is something very apart from the grand ambitions of the Crystal Palace — a modest community asset given a sleek restoration by patient, local effort.

But the subway is not the Crystal Palace’s final secret. Harper says that, during the restoration, the team discovered a network of underground rooms behind its walls, which were likely once a part of the cellar system of the palace itself, though their purpose is unknown.

“There is great scope for more archeological investigation,” he says. “A very exciting project for the future.”

“Once you’ve paid for all the work to be done, obviously the risk is it will just decline. But now, at least, there’s a body that can generate income and maintain it,” says Mollie Lyon, a development officer with Bromley council, who has worked on the project. It will, she says, work a little like a permanent version of the pavilion at the Serpentine in Hyde Park.

Photographs courtesy of the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway/ Sue Nagle; Bromley Council/Thomas Ford & Partners/The Morton Partnership; Historic England; Ken Kiss

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