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Steampunk Days Out

This series of blog posts will highlight places that offer a steampunk traveller an interesting, educational or inspirational experience

Steampunk Days Out-The Rest of Ironbridge Gorge

Ironbridge-Over 200 years of iron in graceful flight over the Severn

I started off this series with a day out to Blists Hill Victorian Town. I mentioned that Blists Hill is just one of several museums and other attractions in the Valley of the Severn. With this post I’ll cover much of the rest of that area.

Coalbrookdale Villa-Note the amazing scenery and the large car park!

We spent three days in Ironbridge basing out of the Coalbrookdale Villa http://www.coalbrookdalevilla.co.uk/. This Victorian period guest house was one of the best bed and breakfasts we’ve ever stayed at. As we mentioned previously the food was great, the rooms comfortable and the hostess and host quite hospitable. The one thing that was lacking was internet access, but that was available in town, which was only a short walk downhill.
The first museum most visitors see is the Museum of the Gorge. This gives a general history of the region. There is a short video but the most the impressive exhibit is a huge diorama of the valley in its heyday. The scale looks to be about 1/300th and the model is around twenty feet long (at least). As a gamer I could only look on enviously at such amazing work. This would be the best wargame terrain ever!

Entrance to and exit from the museum is through a truly dangerous gift shop. There are books, local food, products from the various living historians in the area (including the foundry at Blists Hill). The china service with the image of the bridge upon it was sorely tempting. It was only the thoughts of the condition in which we would find the fragile objects upon our return home that prevented us from getting a set of four cups and saucers. The shop had a number of Brunel titles I had never seen before, and several very nice books about Ironbridge, Coalbrookdale and the ironmasters who built so much, including the Industrial Revolution.

Speaking of buildings and iron the Ironbridge is within sight of the Museum of the Gorge. It is a graceful structure that blends well with its landscape. The smooth sweep of the span is cleverly reflected in the water of the river. When we were there a lovely interwar limo was parked by the bridge and a bride and her groom were having their wedding photos taken. It was a stunning vista for such pictures and I can only applaud the choice. The bridge appears to be designed not only as a functional structure and as a stand -alone object of art but also as integrated feature of the landscape. The bridge dominates the views from many locations in the gorge. From down on the water the bridge soars like a metal rainbow across the slow moving waters of the Severn. From everywhere the bridge makes a powerful statement, which was certainly part of its reason for its construction.
Not only is the structure a supremely and lasting aesthetic statement it is one of enduring practical value. From its completion until the 1930s the bridge served road traffic, first animal drawn carts and carriages and then motor transport. It has been restored since then and was made a historic location in the 1950s. It anchors the entire historic region. The structure looks different in various phases of light. I recommend looking at the bridge both at dawn and dusk as well as several times during the day. Different features of the bridge are enhanced by various states of lighting. I also believe that the bridge will look very different in moonlight or at various times of the year. I can only imagine how lovely the bridge would look in the snow.

There are a number of restaurants with views of the bridge. There are a number of really good pubs including the Swan. The food there was great and they had WiFi. The beer selection was very nice and I had a great cider. During our stay we had a number of meals there, all of which were excellent http://www.theswanironbridge.co.uk/.

Inside of Truffles, good food and some interesting quotes

We also ate and used the internet at Truffles http://www.trufflescafe.piczo.com/?cr=7. Truffles has really great food and a direct view of the bridge. The staff at Truffles, particularly the owner, was extremely friendly. The Swan’s staff was pretty good as well, a cut above many pubs but often a bit harried since the Swan tended to attract a bit of a rowdy crowd at times. If you are in Ironbridge on Sunday make certain to eat dinner early if you want a Sunday roast. The kitchens tend to run out of food and close early on Sundays (we tried all four pubs close to the bridge and all four were out of food!). This forced us into a march up the hill to an Indian place named Aftab http://www.aftabbalti.co.uk/. We hadn’t eaten in several hours and had walked nearly 10 miles during that time, so we were a bit peckish. The staff was friendly and the food was really excellent. I can’t in all honesty say of the food was good or if we were so hungry that anything would have tasted great, but it certainly was enjoyable and filling!

So while we were zipping from eatery to eatery and imbibing the occasional pint while surfing the web and checking email what did we see?

Besides the Bridge itself Ironbridge has ten museums. I’ve already reviewed Blists Hill. Not only are the museums exciting but the industrial archaeological relics litter the area. You can’t got help but see the various blast furnaces built into the hillsides of the gorge. Backing up a car park for one of the pubs are some of the old furnaces. Further down the gorge are the famous Bedlam ones.

We did not see all the museums. Enguinity is a children’s museum and we ran out of time before we were able to see it. The time constraint also prevented us from touring the homes of the Darby family. The Broseley Pipeworks had not yet opened for the season, so we couldn’t go there as well.

The other seven museums showcase a number of Victorian technologies. OK, some of these sound just dull-how exciting could a museum of tile be? Pretty darned exciting, actually!

Let’s get the logistics out of the way. The full Passport is 22.50. All the museums have pay and display car parks and purchasing at one allows parking at all. The exception to this is the parking right by the bridge and the Museum of the Gorge. Those are municipal parking and do not allow the movement throughout the other museums. On weekends and Bank Holidays a shuttle bus is provided and goes to all the museums.

We’ll start down at the far eastern end of the area. Blists Hill is on the northeastern corner. We covered that site in the initial Steampunk Days Out blog. I’ll just take a moment and remind folks that Blists Hill takes at least half a day all by its self, and could easily be worth an entire day, especially if the foundry is operating.

From Blists Hill we took the shuttle down to the Coalport China Museum. This is located by the Shropshire Canal and the ruins of the inclined way that goes up into the eastern end of Blists Hill. The place where the inclined way comes down and meets the current roadway and canal is lovely. There are a vast number of hungry ducks in the canal and food can be purchased for them. Beware the ducks are wise to this activity and quickly clue in to who has food and will arrive by the legion, following anyone they feel might have food for considerable distances. For the most part they are friendly and well behaved.

Ducks on the canal

Tar Tunnel

The path from the bus stop leads past a youth hostel which has a nice café. The walnut toffee cake I got there was excellent. We followed the path to the Tar Tunnel http://www.ironbridge.org.uk/our_attractions/tar_tunnel/. This unassuming doorway leads to a passage cut deep into the hillside. In places tar still oozes from the brick walls. You get a hardhat and off you go into the tunnel. Beware, for if you are over five and a half feet tall the hard hat will be needed. The tunnel has some deceptive low spots! Interesting interpretive signs line the length of the passage. It took over a half hour to trek to the end of the tunnel. Creepy low ceilinged fun!

China production at Coalport

We went back to the Coalport China Museumhttp://www.ironbridge.org.uk/our_attractions/coalport_china_museum/. I have no great interest in china, but was really impressed with how china is made. The museum has plenty of examples of the fine art objects produced by the factory. The amazing tea services and commemorative items are astounding, even for someone with just a marginal interest. For me the real treat was learning how these objects were manufactured. The giant beehive shaped kilns are now exhibit spaces. Like much of Ironbridge living historian craftspeople show how it was done. We picked up a number of cool china items including a cat shaped salt and pepper shakers and a blackbird shaped pie vent. The gift shop also had a goodly number of excellent books. It took well over an hour to explore the china museum.

The weather was nice so we decided to skip the bus and walk to the Jackfield Tile Museum http://www.ironbridge.org.uk/our_attractions/jackfield_tile_museum/. If china sounds dull how can something as utilitarian as ceramic tile be worth a whole museum? Go and spend a couple of hours at the Jackfield Museum. One thing that really struck me was the myriad of uses for tiles. With the amazing variety of patterns and artwork on period tiles all I could think was that with so much Victorian space travel I can see tiles being used for heat shields on Steampunk spacecraft. A Victorian Shuttle Orbiter would be a hell of a lot more colorful than NASAs STS.

One thing I learned while there was the tremendous versatility of ceramic tiles. In the Hive, Queen and Country universe they would be used as insulation for the aerolyth arrays, heat shields for reentry vehicles (and since the shields are external would be as colorful as the heat profiles would allow). I can see all sorts of other uses as well. In a VSF or Steampunk setting with alien contact (Like Hive, Queen and Country) or other advanced technology the improved ceramics will also have increased uses.

The views in the gorge are simply amazing

As we walked from these three sites we had a great time looking at all the period buildings. These include houses and industrial buildings, churches and shops. The historic district has fierce zoning regulations and even new buildings must make an effort to blend into the historical aesthetic. The walk around the valley was really wonderful. We fed the ducks in a couple of locations, after a while I think they were following us.
After the Jackfield we walked all the way to the Museum of Iron. This is up a huge hill in Coalbrookdale. The map is deceptive. The walk is longer than it looks and a steady upgrade. By the time we go there we were a bit footsore. We passed an interesting building that looked like a place HP Lovecraft would have been pleased to people with a family with “the Taint”. It had a room that was an obvious addition and was well equipped with a cross motif. We were quite certain that “something” had been kept in that room.

The hike up the hill was worth it. The Museum of Iron http://www.ironbridge.org.uk/our_attractions/coalbrookdale_museum_of_iron/ was nice, but the various dams and bridges for railways and other industrial structures were even better. The “Old Forge” is preserved under a pyramid shaped structure. Behind it is the high dam that provided water power for the area before steam was king. The area was just amazing. The hundreds of years that the structures have stood makes a mark contrast to the buildings we erect today that will be gone in less than half that time.

After the Museum of Iron we walked back to our hotel, the Coalbrookdale Villa. We took quick showers and headed into Ironbridge for dinner. This was when we learned that Sunday nights in Ironbridge are a poor place in which to find a meal. Aftab saved us! It was great, although again it might have been that we were just REALLY hungry.

Steampunk Days Out-Clifton Part II

Clifton. The Avon Gorge Hotel

Now I covered a number of things in Clifton already. How can there be more? Certainly such an unheralded place cannot contain more points of interest for the Steampunk enthusiast? This is not so, and Clifton will reveal some of its other hidden Victorian treasures this week.

First let us finish up with the Avon Gorge Hotel. After enjoying a good night’s sleep-which was occasionally interrupted to catch views of the bridge illuminated with electric lights at night we trooped down to have breakfast. I am not usually a fan of hotel breakfast buffets but in this case the food was above average both in quality and in variety. The sausages in particular were quite nice, although I found the bacon to be a bit over cooled.

Enough with that, what else does Clifton have to show us? First is the Bristol Zoo http://www.bristolzoo.org.uk/. This excellent zoo and garden dates back 175 years so was founded firmly in the Victorian. It contains both botanical and zoological specimens amid a lovely landscaped setting. Some of the buildings appear to date from the Victorian, but none of the animal enclosures offer the unhealthy effects that the tiny cages of the period would have. Adults pay the interesting sum of 12.72 for one year’s worth of entry. There are family memberships as well. The 175th anniversary of the zoo has been greeted with a historical look back. On the web there are several resources http://www.bristolzoo.org.uk/wow-history and a book has been published looking back at the zoo’s evolution to its current form. The many period photographs are quite valuable for the Victorian scholar or writer. How could a novel with Victorian children be complete without a visit to the zoo, and that visit would certainly include a camel or elephant ride. https://picasaweb.google.com/BristolZooGdns/1800sBristolZooHistoricalPhotos#5576531998529808722

Since HQC deals with a world that never was and one of the key fictional events was The Hive War anything about insects is of interest to me. One of the things I’ve woven into the HQC mythology is the statue of stag beetles at the zoo. Certainly this was a memorial to those who fought and died in that terrible conflict. I have wondered in the artist, in that fictional setting, was castigated for his taste in subject, showing the alien invaders rather than their human victims and foes.

Memorial to the Hive War?

So where else to go in Clifton? We’ll stop in one more area and have done., but first lunch. We were directed by the friendly and knowledgeable hotel staff to the Richmond pub. This served the best Sunday Roast we had on the trip. The setting was nice and the staff congenial. The cider on tap was excellent. We highly recommend this establishment.

Now I have kept you waiting long enough, where else do I recommend you see before leaving Clifton? This might be a bit of a surprise, I’m going to send you into a shopping arcade http://www.cliftonarcade.co.uk/.

A view down the Arcade

Nave of the Clifton Arcade

This is no ordinary arcade. It was built in the 1870s and is a lovely Italianate structure. The interior is wonderful with a glass roof and a rosette at the far nave. The shops are an interesting mix or antiques and craft stores. Outside is a nice looking café (at which we did not eat, although the smell was enticing). We did purchase some excellent cheeses at the Arch House Deli http://www.archhousedeli.com/. Next door to them is a great vegetable shop Clifton Fruits and Veg http://www.regtheveg.co.uk/. These are excellent places to pick up some really nice food, to enjoy of an evening, in any of the parks nearby (what could be better than a bottle of wine and some nice cheeses and fresh fruit while looking over the gorge and bridge, this is about a ten minute walk away).

A view of the fine foods available at the Arch

And with that mental Iand digital) picture I will bid farewell to you until next week


Steampunk Days Out-Clifton and the Avon Gorge-part I

The Bridge!

Clifton is a suburb of Bristol and offers a huge number of interesting experiences for the Victorian Visitor. This may end up being a two part post. There are a number of truly amazing sites to visit as well as some that are no less exciting for their more subtle nature.
We’ve stayed at Clifton three times. We always stay at the Avon Gorge Hotel, which is located just downhill from the Clifton Suspension Bridge (much more about this amazing structure below). The Avon Gorge Hotel is a bit pricey. It’s usually the most expensive place we stay, so we consider it a guilty pleasure. The rooms are excellent. They have high ceilings huge bathrooms and heated towel racks. We’ve been really lucky and had bridge views on both our last visits. The photo below was the view of the sun setting through the bridge, taken from our room’s window. So how amazing is that?

The sun setting through the bridge. This photo was taken from our room window!

The hotel has a restaurant and an attached pub, and the food in both is surprisingly good. The breakfast is served buffet style and is surprisingly good for that. Good breakfasts are critically important for a explorer!

And there is a lot to explore in Clifton. Let’s start with the immediate vicinity of the hotel http://www.theavongorge.com/. The hotel started out as a Victorian Era spa using the hot springs found at the base of the cliff ay Hot Wells. In the 1890s the new spa hotel was constructed, as was the Clifton Rocks Railway, and the Clifton Grand Spa and Hydropathic Institute. These three ventures went hand in hand and were generally developed by George Newnes. The hot water was pumped up from below and the Rocks Railway provided a transportation link between the tramway in the river valley and the fashionable Clifton Heights area. Of the spa very little is left. On the river side of the hotel there is a huge chimney which is the most visible remnant of the laundry. Its different color easily stands out from the lighter colored main building.

The remaining material from the original turnstiles

The Clifton Rocks Railway is a funicular railway, meaning that each set of cars in the paired railways as a counterweight to the other. In the Clifton example there are four tracks, set on a gradient of 1 in 2 in tunnels inside the cliff. When one car in each pair goes up, the other comes down. Balancing was done by pumping water into and letting it drain out of reservoirs in the bottoms of the cars. The tunnels are 450 feet long and rise 240 vertical feet from the lower station to the upper. The railway was opened on March 11, 1893 and served into the 1930s. During WW2 the tunnels served both as a bomb shelter and as a secret location for a BBC transmitter and studio. Today the railway is being interpreted by a volunteer group that hopes to restore the railway http://www.cliftonrocksrailway.org.uk/.

On infrequent dates they offer open days of the railway tunnels. The short tour, which gives limited access to the upper station, requires about 45 minutes and has no charge. They do ask for donations and sell a number of interesting booklets about the railway and the area. They also have a DVD of the site. We were extremely lucky to find the railway open for investigation when we were dragging our luggage up from the Avon Gorge Hotel’s free card park. The guide was very knowledgeable and it was exciting to learn more about the unsuspected history of the nondescript upper station. We had walked by the subsurface building many times when staying in Clifton and always wondered what it was.
They also do a guided tour of much more of the site. These must be booked in advance. Please see their web site for additional details.

Another underground location, but one well up slope from the Rocks Railway is a series of caves located beneath the Clifton Observatory which houses a Camera Obscura. The collocation of a tower and the deep caves gives the opportunity for the visitor to climb an unholy number of steps. The lower tunnels are quite low and required care when traversing them. They open out to a fissure in the rock that gives a tremendous view of the gorge from partway up the cliff wall. The Camera and caverns require a small fee or around 2 pounds and require about an hour for each. The views from both the cave on the cliff wall and the top of the tower (which had originally been built as a windmill) are spectacular. For best effect pick a sunny day, cameras obscura (or is that camera obscuras?) do not function well on cloudy days. The tower is an excellent location from which to shoot photos of Brunel’s famous bridge.

I’ve waited long enough before discussing the Clifton Suspension Bridge http://www.cliftonbridge.org.uk/. The Bridge is the symbol of the city of Bristol and is famous from numerous photographs and images dating back over 150 years. A small visitor center and gift shop is located at the northern approach to the bridge. From this location guided tours are available. We arrived late in the day and only caught the end of the last tour of the day, but the guide seemed well versed in the lore of both Brunel and bridges. I picked up a number of souvenirs from the visitor center. Walking across the bridge is free, but driving across does cost a modest toll. It is more than worth it to get to use this great triumph of Victorian technology. Begun by Brunel in the 1830s it was not completed until after his death, as a tribute to him by his fellow civil engineers. The story of its design and construction are complex and I could not do them just here. Suffice to say that this is one of the most well balanced and sublime structures in the world and that something this lovely still performs its original function so many years after it was designed and built is a tribute to British engineering and particularly to Brunel himself. There are many locations around the bridge which give stupendous views. Treat yourself to a good long time here. Don’t be in haste. If you look long enough you will notice the purposeful asymmetries of the towers, designed in direct refutation to the Georgian mandates from which the Victorians broke free.

Finish up with a dinner at one of the many fine restaurants in Clifton. We can recommend at least three of them. Fishers is a seafood house which had excellent fare. Brunel’s Raj is (as you can guess from the name) an Indian restaurant and is quite passable and if you are in the mood for Italian try Strada. These all served excellent food at reasonable prices and are a quick walk from the bridge and hotel.

More on Clifton next week, as I said it offered more than I can discuss in a single installment.

Steampunk Days Out-USS OLYMPIA

The USS Olympia is arguably the second most historically significant preserved warship in the United States. She fought in the Spanish American War as Admiral Dewey’s flagship. Later she had the somber task of returning the body of the Unknown Soldier to the United States from the hell of Great War France. She was one of the United States Navy’s first modern warships and is the last of her breed. I went to visitor her last fall in what seemed to be her darkest hour. The Independence Seaport Museum was about to close this old lady down and was actively pursuing a course of action to have her sunk as a reef. That effort appears to have receded somewhat, but the ship still needs to find a museum that wishes to preserve her, noy submerged under the ocean, for future generations. Here is a site that will let you donate to help her find that new home http://www.preservationnation.org/travel-and-sites/sites/northeast-region/the-uss-olympia.html

Now, kicking my soapbox to the side let’s get on with exploring a glorious piece of steam and military technology!
USS Olympia is currently berthed in Philadelphia, PA at the Independence Seaport Museum at Penn’s Landing. To get there I took light rail in from New Jersey and walked through historic downtown Philly. Having recently watched National Treasure I was amused to look at the locations where the film, and far more importantly the amazing events that begat the United States of America took place. The walk took me past a very nice traditional hobby shop as well as the cradle of liberty. Independence hall was undergoing a renovation. The riverfront itself was preparing for an air race and an EPA research vessel was docked as well.

I entered the Museum and had made contact with the staff. I had called ahead but was a day early. I made arrangements to see the restricted areas of the ship the next day and headed out to see the public spaces. Tickets for the museum, the Olympia and the submarine Bacuna are 12 dollars, admission between 10 am and noon on Sundays is “pay what you wish”. The ships are not handicapped accessible. The museum’s page is located here http://www.phillyseaport.org/. The museum has a really excellent small boat shop, where craftspeople restore wooden boats. It was wonderful to watch them work using old techniques. There is a great collection of small boats. There are a number of other good displays as well. Some very nice models and dioramas complelment period artefacts and displays. The museum has a great gift shop. I dropped a bit of change on their selection of books and on a USS Olympia T shirt.

With that said I took the short walk through the museum and down the to the ships. As is usual I skipped the submarine (as I did at Chatham) and boarded Olympia. Even though the museum had been hard pressed to provide for her upkeep I learned that a number of dedicated volunteers were still hard at work aboard her. She might not have met the standards of an active Victorian Warship but she was still tidy and clean. The period woodwork is lovely as is the brass.

I love being aboard both HMS Warrior and SS Great Britain and the interior reconstructions on both ships are amazing. In those cases they are both heavily reconstructed as both vessels had been gutted and abandoned for decades before their restorations. Olympia was never so misused and many, if not most, of her interior fittings are original. All the various valve covers have their original markings and the various doors and compartments have metal identification plates. The vessel served until the 1920s and was extensively rebuilt during her active lifetime.

Certain areas have been restored to their Spanish American War appearance and function. The ship has a dental office and surgery. These are fully equipped and look ready for patients. The surgery has an autoclave and a mechanical suction system. The period medical equipment is something that you don’t see very often, especially set up for use. Take a lot of pictures here.

The machine shop is also worth looking at. A large number of machine tools are present and they run off an overhead system of belts off a main shaft. When a button is pressed the machines operate (the overhead shaft is powered by electricity) and the activity there is fun to watch.

The junior officers’ mess looks much as it did in the 1890s as does the wardroom. Original woodwork and in some cases original furniture enhance the historic value of the compartments. The Officer’s cabins are generally quite small, until the senior officers such as the Captain’s cabins are reached. This compartment is as elegant as one would expect. The woodwork and furniture are wonderful. The bed seems a bit small but all things considered it was good to be the Captain or the Admiral!

I was able to access the below deck spaces and it was like visiting a cathedral. One of the engines is nearly complete. The other has been partially disassembled over the years. Its amazing to get to see such a large power-plant in situ. The decks and walkways criss-cross all over the place in purposeful chaos surrounded and surrounding gauges, pipes, valves and hoses. Brass is everywhere! I was surprised by wooden steam drum which is part of the condenser system. The intact unit looks like it could get steam up fairly quickly if needed. The various holds and coal bunkers were visible through assess hatches. It is obvious that the ship needs substantial refurbishment. Hopefully she’ll find a good home and dedicated caretakers who will give her the love she needs.
One great thing about Olympia is her assortment of armament. When built she mounted a main battery of eight inch guns. These were mounted in twin turrets fore and aft. Her secondary battery was 5 inch/40. She had a number of light weapons including 6 pdr and 1 pdr rapid firing guns. The 8 inchers were removed before the Great War and the 5 inch guns replaced with more modern 5 inch/51 weapons. Currently the 8 inch guns and turrets are representations. They are the correct exterior shape but have no interiors at all. The secondary battery consists of an assortment of guns some five inch and at least one six inch weapon. There are also a number of lighter guns including 6 pdrs. The guns are in good condition with much of the brass polished. The guns and carriages are much more complete than most museum weapons. They are also mounted in the original battery positions. The casemate batteries seem odd to those more familiar with turret batteries on more modern ships.

Speaking of more modern ships Olympia is sandwiched between a pair of the most famous US ships of the twentieth century. The USS New Jersey is berthed as a museum and memorial in her namesake State right across from her older sister. The United States, the greatest ocean liner ever built and last holder of the Blue Riband awaits her still uncertain future just a few piers down from Olympia. New Jersey is open as a museum. United States is not open to the public but she is a stunning view from one of the bridges or from various locations along the water front. Please go to the conservancy linked below and check what they are doing to try and save this great ship.
Here are links to those vessels:


Within sight of each other are three of the most historic ships in the United States. Sadly two of them do not have the assured future they deserve and that the nations owes to them and that our generation owes to future generations (sorry the soap box came back out again, but its my blog and I can pontificate if I want to-but I promise to do so infrequently and only about really cool things like historic ship preservation)
A Ritz Carlton Hotel overlooks the ship and offers great views of the ship. I didn’t stay there on my visit but one of my coworkers did and shot some excellent pictures of Olympia from an angle not usually seen. And I’ll finish with comments on food. There is a restaurant just past the Spirit of Philadelphia, a nice looking ship and dinner spot. I chose a place who’s name escapes me at this time. The food was awesome as was the view of USS New Jersey. This was one of the most amazing meals a historian could ever hope food. Great taste and a view of one of the greatest warships ever built within the shadow of two of the most historic vessels in the US. Although the newer vessels are outside the VSF Steampunk period it still made for a wondeful Steampunk Day Out!

Steampunk Days Out-Crystal Palace Dinosaurs!

This Steampunk Day Out is less of a full day and more of an afternoon or morning. It is a trip back in time, either to the mid 1850s or to a time many millions of years before that. It all depends upon how one looks at it.

We find evidence of ancient creatures!

The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs are located in Crystal Palace Park in South London. It can be reached by the Overground’s East London Line branch. The train station is just a short walk from the park and a helpful sign gives easy directions to the sculptures. Admission is free and the park is open to dark. In addition to the dinosaurs the park has a café and a museum dedicated to the Crystal Palace. Due to the time of our visit we were unable to visit either of them. We did get to spend over an hour and a half with the concrete animals and their island homes.

Useful maps can be found around the park

Between 1852 and 1854 sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, under the technical direction of Richard Owens made a series of life-sized models of ancient animals. These were placed in what was believed to be an accurate landscape of small ponds and swamps in the shadow of the famous Crystal Palace at its new South London location at Sydenham Hill. Famously, Hawkins held a dinner on New Year’s Eve 1853 inside the Iguanodon, one of the largest animals. The animals themselves dated from three periods of prehistory. The most ancient fauna represented dates back to the Paleozoic. The more famous dinosaurs of the Mesozoic are the middle period and the giant mammals of the Cenozoic round out the collection.

Marine Reptile hunt in shallow water

Megatherium, the giant ground sloth. This is a beast that figures in my Hive, Queen and Country setting

That these sculptures have survived so long can only to attributed to a series of happy accidents. Although they were extremely well received both by scientists and the public when first unveiled (think of the reaction to the first Jurassic Park movie and you’ll have some idea of the frenzy around the sculptures) they were rapidly overtaken by events. By the 1890s the dinosaur sculptures had been overtaken by additional research and discovery. Scientists began to decry their inaccuracies. Around them London itself changed. The Crystal Palace itself was destroyed by fire in the 1930s. Brunel’s twin water towers were demolished to prevent their use by Nazi bombers in the Second World War. The dinosaurs weathered all those events over the years. However the petty pace of decay and corruption did not pass them by. By the end of the twentieth century the concrete creatures were in sad shape. Luckily the historical value of the sculptures was recognized and the remaining animals were saved. Some have disappeared in the intervening century and a half and have been replaced with fiberglass replicas.

One of the creatures is sighted

The restoration, completed for most of the animals by the early years of the 21st century was well done. By our visit in 2010 they animals were in need of a coat of paint. The photos on the BBC panoramic site (link included below) show the creatures in much brighter hues than our visit found. That being said the park is lovely and the paths clean and smooth. We were there in mid May but found very few people out and about. The winding of the trails further isolated us from the other visitors. They also allow for the “discovery” of the groups of sculptures. The animals are in various groups throughout the area of the ponds. There is a web based audio tour as well as a number of well written signs. The history of the sculptures is well documented.

Of the many places I’ve visited in the UK this is one of my favorites. If we go back there again it will be with picnic lunches and more than a couple of hours to spend. The rest of the park needs exploring! For folks in the area a promenade wearing Steampunk garb would be an amazing photo op!

The way back to the train station is clearly marked as well

For more information check the links below