Sunday 27 October 2019

Crystal Palace parkrun

Crystal Palace is an area in South East London sitting atop one of the highest points in the capital, Sydenham Hill. Until the 1850s the area was simply called Sydenham Hill, but then something happened to change that...

the crystal palace in 1854 [photo: philip henry delamotte] (photo in public domain)

In 1851 'The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations' took place in London's Hyde Park. It was a celebration of industry and design, and the building which housed it was the magnificent cast-iron and plate-glass structure dubbed The Crystal Palace. It was designed by Sir Joseph Paxton and in total approximately 293,000 panes of glass were produced for the building. The exhibition lasted six months and attracted over 6 million admissions - this was a third of Britain's population at the time. The profits generated by the exhibition were vast enough to fund the building of the National History Museum, The Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington.

The Crystal Palace building was modular by design which made it relatively simple to take apart. So when the exhibition closed, it was disassembled and, following some major changes to the design, reassembled on the land atop Sydenham Hill (part of the Norwood ridge) on what was formerly the grounds of Penge Place. The grounds were transformed into a Victorian Pleasure Garden with vast terraces in front of the palace and numerous water features and gardens spread across the 200 acres of land. The rebuilt Crystal Palace and its grounds, now called Crystal Palace Park, were opened in 1854 by Queen Victoria.

crystal palace park - sir joseph paxton bust

One of the main features of the park was its collection of 33 life-sized models of extinct animals, known as the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs. They were designed by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins under direction from palaeontologist Richard Owen who is famous for coining the word Dinosaur (Dinosauria). Although they may look slightly odd to our modern-day eyes, at the time they caused a sensation as they were the first dinosaur sculptures in the world. Also bear in mind they were made almost 50 years before T-Rex was even discovered.

As time went on, some of the original Pleasure Garden features were removed. For example, the two large central water features were grassed over, the southern one becoming the site of a football stadium which was used to host the F.A Cup Final between 1895-1914. It was also home to Crystal Palace Football Club for the latter part of this period. The entire central area of the park is now home to the Crystal Palace National Sports Centre which consists of the athletics stadium on the same site as the former football stadium and the indoor arena occupying the site of the northern water basin. It was the venue for the London Athletics Grand Prix (now the IAAF Diamond League) from 1953 until 2012.

sports centre - racing track / radio control car track

The Crystal Palace itself suffered a few fires - One in 1866 destroyed part of the northern end and this was later replaced by a 400ft long aquarium which held 120,000 gallons of sea water - it was for a while the largest in the world and contained many ground-breaking elements. The final fire in 1936 was the one that saw this great building totally destroyed - it is said that its glow could be seen for miles around. The former site has now largely been reclaimed by nature.

From 1927-1972 the park was home to a motor racing track. It had a few configurations throughout the years, and it has a claim-to-fame for being the venue of the first-ever televised motor race. Various levels of motorcycle and car race meets were held including Formula 2 and even non-championship F1 races. If you search YouTube you can find plenty of videos, most with commentary by Murray Walker. Shortly after this in 1976, a small Remote Control Car racing track was built adjacent to the old circuit, ensuring that at least some form motor racing continues in the park to this day.

the grand walk

In the late 1960s the track was used for a scene in the movie The Italian Job (the minis being tested) and the adjacent grass used for the famous 'You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off' scene. In 2013 it was again used, this time for the movie Rush. Ultimately the noise generated by motor racing became its downfall - the area had become just too residential for such a noisy activity to take place and the track closed down. However, you can still trace most of the route as paths and access roads through the park.

As you can see from the above, there is a huge amount of history here, and what I've written doesn't even come close to covering it all... Anyway, the modern-day park has pretty much all the features that you would expect - café, toilets, playground, but also so much more - I'll try to pick out a few of its key features as I continue.

off we go around the park

On the 29th of May 2010 the park became home to Crystal Palace parkrun with a respectable 49 participants. This has steadily grown over the years and as of late 2019 you should expect to find somewhere in the region of 350 attendees each week. We first visited this venue in January 2013 where there were 114 attendees, so I thought it was time for a re-visit, and to write a proper blog on the venue. So on the 26th of October 2019 (event 458) we re-visited.

The park contains a few car parks, but the most convenient one for the parkrun is at the southern end just off Thicket Road - it's not very big so bear in mind that you may need to use one of the others. Thicket Road itself seems to be free of restrictions, but is popular with local residents. The majority of the on-site parking spaces are around the central part of the park next to the sports centre. The other option is the car park at the Sydenham Gate entrance, just off Crystal Palace Park Road. If using public transport, there are numerous bus services which pass through the local area.

terraces at the top

As for trains, Crystal Palace Station is the obvious option but Penge West is actually a little closer to the start area. It's also worth mentioning Penge East, which is on a different line, but also not too far away. Once in the park you need to make your way to the south-east tip which is also the lowest point of the park. Here you will find the surviving part of the original Grand Central Walk - this is where the parkrun starts. It is also where you will find the toilets which has some bicycle racks right outside.

The route the parkrun uses varies based on time of year and if any there are other events taking place on-the-day, so bear in mind that you may end up running a different variation based on what's available to the organisers. The summer route is the main, multi-terrain, one-lap course, and this is the one that takes you through the entire park where you get to see all its features. I ran the original winter course in 2013 - this sticks to the eastern half of the park only and is two-and-a-bit laps all on tarmac and light gravel. There is also a third version of the course. We revisited in 2023 and this one was in use. This one uses the southern section of the park and is also two-and-a-bit laps (or two large laps followed by a final small lap), but you get to go around the dinosaur lake twice. In three visits, I've managed to run/walk on a different course every time.

All routes are fine for buggy runners. The GPS data and Relive course fly-by videos for all three versions I've taken part on can be found via the links at the bottom of this page.

parts of the terraces / rusty laptop stage

The single-lap summer route was in use on this occasion. This takes participants on a meandering journey around the entire park. The Grand Central Walk is nice and wide and lets individuals start and filter into where they feel most comfortable before the paths narrow down to the standard kind of width you'd expect. With the start being at the lowest point of the park, the early sections are where you will find most of the uphill work, in fact all of the inclines are taken care of within the first mile. Although the elevation rises by about 30 metres it is done in quite a gradual way with the exception of a couple of steeper slopes.

As you ascend, you'll no doubt be fully aware that you are in the shadow of the Crystal Palace Transmitting Station - visible for miles around. It was constructed in the mid-1950s and stands at a height of 219 metres. At the time of completion it was the tallest structure in London. It kept that status until 1991 when One Canada Square at Canary Wharf stole its crown, and as of 2019 is still the 8th tallest structure in London. The tower is used to broadcast a multitude of TV and radio signals across the whole of London.

the maze entrance / off-road bit / concrete section

Once at the top, the course heads along the original Crystal Palace terraces where you can try to imagine what it must have been like standing in the shadow of that magnificent structure. Some, but not all, of the original staircases have survived, and most of the statues have sadly been removed. There are three pairs of sphinxes on the top terrace which have been restored to their original condition and colour. If you are lucky, you may be able to spot the bust of Joseph Paxton over near the sports arena - not only did he design the palace, he was the head gardener at Chatsworth House and is responsible for cultivating the Cavendish banana which now accounts for about 50% of all bananas produced.

As the course heads back downhill you'll see the open-air concert area which has staged all kinds of musical performances since 1961. Between 1971 and 1980 the Crystal Palace Garden Parties featured the likes of Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, Beach Boys, Eric Clapton, and Elton John. The original stage was replaced c.1997 with a new one, known locally as the rusty laptop. Sadly it hasn't been used for a few years and the stage has fallen into disrepair - the council are still deciding on what its future should be.

around the dinosaur lake

Up to this point, the course has been on a mixture of tarmac and other firm or gravelly surfaces (sometimes a little bumpy), but now it changes to an off-road section as it circled around the back of The Maze which dates back to 1866. As we visited at the end of summer, it had already started to hold onto some water and was quite muddy in places. The grassy path continues alongside the old racing circuit and at the end, it passes through part of the 1960s concrete walkway that was erected when the sports centre was built.

The final part of the course is a wonderful loop of the Dinosaur Lake, past the brand new cafe and the 1961 David Wynne sculpture of London Zoo's most famous former resident Guy the Gorilla (named Guy because he arrived at the zoo on 5 November 1947). Then it's a case of heading back along the Grand Central Walk where the finish line will be ready and waiting. The new cafe is adjacent to the finish line and this is where you'll be able to mingle post-event. The food looks fantastic but comes at a price. So as I had a family of four to feed, we took the cheaper option of using the cafe in the sports centre. (please note that as of 2023 the sports centre cafe appears to have closed down).

guy the gorilla and the finish

We had already decided that we were going to have a post-run day out in the park, so once we had refreshed ourselves, we got on with that. We found the centre of the maze, explored a little more, watched some people playing beach volleyball, and then visited the farm - I didn't mention that before, did I? It's a City Farm, quite small, but free-of-charge and open from midday. As well as the usual farmyard animals they also have some meerkats, snakes, lizards, turtles and frogs.

Another thing I haven't mentioned so far is a hidden gem called Crystal Palace Subway - this is only accessible a few times each year and looks incredible - I'd love to come back to see it. Anyway, with a final walk past the dinosaurs we wrapped up our visit to this incredible place and hit the road back home.

cafe / farm / beach volleyball / centre of the maze / dino photobomb 2

The results for event 458 were published shortly after and attendance numbers were a little lower than usual, most likely due to an England rugby match being played at the same time as parkrun. As always, my full GPS data of the route can be found on Strava and the Relive fly-by video on YouTube. See below for further links to the winter route files from 2013.

Related Links:

London Borough of Bromley parkrun write-ups:

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