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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
For more information check the links below