London has many tourist attractions to excite, interest, and entertain the visitor. Most of these are readily accessible by using the London Underground. However, there exists a relatively little-known gem, not quite so readily accessible, to the south of London, an area with some claim to be one of the world's first 'theme parks'.
In 1851 there was a Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, London. It was intended as a showcase for works of industry and technological design. The show was housed in an enormous glass building, over 500 metres long, 130 metres wide and 30 metres tall, which was known as the Crystal Palace. When the exhibition was finished, the entire building was moved a distance of more than seven miles to a new site in a park in South London, in an area which is part of the London Borough of Bromley.
The Crystal Palace itself is sadly no longer in existence, having been entirely destroyed by fire in 1936. However, some parts of the foundations are still visible to the visitor.
The Park Today
The park covers a huge area, similar in size to Hyde Park. It includes many common features found in London parks - extensive open areas of grassland, mature trees, a café, an information centre and a children's play area. There is also a national sports centre, with a large athletics stadium and an Olympic-sized swimming pool1. To the north end of the park are two television transmission masts, significant landmarks on the south London skyline.
For all these things, Crystal Palace Park is similar in many ways to many other large city parks the world over. There is one feature, however, that sets it apart.
Here Be Dragons
In and around the lake to the south of the park can be found the very first life-sized model dinosaurs ever created. They, and models of other extinct creatures, form part of an educational attraction intended to complement the relocated Crystal Palace Exhibition. They were designed and sculpted by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, under the direction of Sir Richard Owen, founder of the Natural History Museum and inventor of the word 'dinosaur'.
Numerous species are featured, including aquatic and terrestrial reptiles, and also extinct giant mammals including the giant ground sloth Megatherium, in an almost identical pose to the skeleton which can be seen in the Natural History Museum.
One of the most interesting features of the models is the way in which they preserve the state of the Victorians' knowledge of paleontology. Some of the models are quite accurate, having been built from complete fossils or representing species similar to extant animals. Megaloceros, for instance, is basically just a really, really big deer. Some of the others, however, are textbook examples of the way scientific knowledge, and particularly paleontological knowledge, advances.
The most obvious inaccuracy is that two of the most prominent actual dinosaurs, Megalosaurus and Iguanadon, are shown walking on four legs like an elephant. At the time, it must have seemed only logical that creatures so large would be quadrupeds. We now know that both these creatures walked on their hind legs. There are a number of other anatomical mistakes, the best known of which is probably the placing of a spike on the nose of the Iguanadon, making it look a little like a rhinoceros. More recent fossil finds have shown this conical spike to be a thumb.
Another interesting point is the lack of what might be termed 'headline' dinosaurs - there's no Tyrannosaurus Rex, no stegosaurus, no triceratops, no velociraptors, all for the very good reason that at the time the models were built, none of these now-familiar species were discovered yet.
Following the destruction by fire of the Crystal Palace itself, the dinosaurs fell into disrepair. The area of the park in which they sit became overgrown and various of the models were vandalised or otherwise damaged. However, in 2002 an extensive programme of renovation was carried out, the models were repaired, repainted and the area around them cleaned up and fitted with informative and educational notices guiding the visitor around the park. The dinosaurs are now officially Grade II listed buildings, and are well worth a visit.
As stated, the park is unfortunately not accessible by the Tube. It can be reached by rail, however, leaving Victoria or London Bridge stations and alighting at Crystal Palace. It can be reached by a number of bus services, and there is extensive free parking for those coming by car.