Exploring Southwark and discovering its history
The Crystal Palace and the High Level Railway station to the right, separated by the Crystal Palace Parade in 1928. From the Britain from Above website
The Crystal Palace in Sydenham must have been a spectacular sight, a vast structure made from cast iron and glass, located high on a hill and visible from far away. Designed by Joseph Paxton, it was built originally to house the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park and was a great success. Nevertheless, when the exhibition came to an end after six months, the greenhouse-like structure had to be taken down. The Crystal Palace Company was formed, which had connections to the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway, and plans got underway to dismantle the Crystal Palace and move it to the site on Penge Common to create a centre of recreation, entertainment and education. Paxton enlarged and redesigned the building and added two water towers at each end designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The LBSCR ran a spur line from Sydenham and Penge Stations to a new station called Crystal Palace especially built to accommodate the crowds of sightseers and revellers. The station opened on the same day that Queen Victoria opened the newly redesigned and rebuilt Crystal Palace on 10 June 1854.
However, there was a “tedious” walk of half a mile up staircases and corridors covered by iron and glass after leaving the train before reaching The Palace and the station was criticised as inadequate. There were other companies seeking to make a profit from the enterprise and for providing transportation to the developing middle class residential suburban area. In August 1862 an Act of Parliament was passed that empowered the Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway Company to construct a railway line from a junction east of Peckham to a site on the same level and adjacent to the Crystal Palace. The new station and some of the new railway was built on land sold by Dulwich College who maintained some control over the design of the new building. Most sources give the architect as Edward Middleton Barry which was quoted in an article in the Illustrated London News, but the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway have spotted the ILN printed a correction a week later to say the architect was in fact Edward’s older brother, Charles Barry Jnr, who was the architect and surveyor to Dulwich College.
Work started on construction of the station in November 1862 and was opened for passenger traffic on 1 August 1865. The station was a grand affair and reflected the Crystal Palace itself. The tracks were laid on a floor excavated to a level lower than the roadway with an arched retaining wall and the station built over with the entrance on the bridge in Farquar Road. It was constructed of red and terracotta bricks with towers at the four corners, each of which had four further turrets at each of their corners and included a booking office, waiting rooms and refreshment rooms. There were four platforms, two of which were for use by first class passengers only. Passengers entered the Palace though a 30ft long and 40 ft wide well lit subway beneath the roadway with segregated routes and entrances for the different classes of passengers. The first class subway was said to be designed and built by cathedral craftsmen from Italy and provided access to the centre transept under a fan vaulted ceiling in red and cream brick with tiled roundels and supported on octagonal pillars. The Illustrated London News described it as “handsome” and indeed it is.
The new railway station was named Crystal Palace High Level station whilst the original station was renamed Crystal Palace Low Level Station. The new railway line was able to carry away between 7,000 and 8,000 passengers an hour and was operated by the London, Chatham and Dover Railway Company at 50% of the gross receipts. The line from Crystal Palace to Peckham Station was six and a quarter miles long, reflecting the indirect path of the route as it curved north east to Nunhead then north west to Peckham and then continuing west to Brixton.
As the terrain was hilly, it involved complex engineering with railway lines laid in parts at steep gradients and the necessity of digging tunnels through hills. Just outside the High Level Station, trains entered a tunnel that’s still visible named the Paxton Tunnel for a short distance, emerging north of Westwood Hill where the tunnel can still be seen in The Gradient. The trains went very nearly under Rockhills, the house where Joseph Paxton lived at the north of Crystal Palace Park and where he was to die in 1865. A short way after leaving the tunnel, the train reached Upper Sydenham Station which opened in 1884.
Paxton Tunnel in Spinney Gardens
The station house was in Wells (Park) Road and the platforms reached by a steep descent down steps.
The former Upper Sydenham Station, now converted into flats
Immediately after leaving the Upper Sydenham station, the train entered another tunnel that went under Wells (Park) Road, Sydenham Hill and Crescent Wood Road, emerging into woodlands now called Sydenham Hill Woods. A footbridge was constructed where the route intersected with Cox’s Walk and from there it was possible to see Lordship Lane Station, the next station going north which was just to the south west of Lordship Lane. It was from the Cox’s Walk footbridge that Camille Pissarro painted his view of a train leaving Lordship Lane Station on its way to Crystal Palace: today the view is obscured by trees that have grown since the railway lines were lifted.
Left: A view from Cox's Walk Footbridge facing in the opposite direction to Pissarro's painting, towards the tunnel under Crescent Wood Road. Right: Cox's Walk Footbridge when the railway line was still in operation.
Lordship Lane Station was opened a month after Crystal Palace High Level. The railway line then crossed over the road by bridge and then continued roughly parallel to Wood Vale and Camberwell Old Cemetery to Honor Oak Station (not to be confused with Honor Oak Park Station) which opened in December 1865. The line then continued north east then curved round to the west to reach Nunhead station which opened in 1871.
Initially there were 33 trains daily each way and for the first 20 years the railway was successful but after a while public interest in the Crystal Palace faded. Attempts were made by the Crystal Palace Company to revive interest including hosting the FA Cup Final most years between 1894 and 1911 and staging the Festival of Empire in 1911 but despite this the company went into bankruptcy in that year. It was initially purchased by the Earl of Plymouth and then subsequently purchased by subscription by the nation. The condition of the building had deteriorated badly and in the 1920s a programme of restoration works were commenced. The visitors to the attraction returned and the Palace began to make a small profit. Disaster struck on 30 November 1936 when the iconic building was burned to the ground. Brunel’s water towers were the only major structures remaining.
There were now other railway routes travelling through Crystal Palace Low Level Station so that station was able to survive the disaster. Most passenger traffic to the High Level Station came to visit The Crystal Palace despite efforts of the railway company to attract residential passenger traffic, even renaming the station Crystal Palace and Upper Norwood in 1895, but even before the fire, the line was in trouble. Despite electrification of the service in July 1925 and a 10 minute interval weekday service to St Pauls, a survey in 1926 survey revealed an average of 13 persons per train departing from Crystal Palace High Level. Services were reduced in 1940 and ceased completely in May 1944 due to lack of manpower but the line reopened in March 1946. The station however had deteriorated dreadfully and it was said that “More rats and bats now used the terminus than people.” The last public services from Crystal Palace High Level left the station on 18 September 1954, the tracks lifted two years later and the station demolished in 1961. Before it was demolished, Ken Russell used is as a location for one of his short films, Amelia and the Angel, which can be seen in the background here at about 12.10 minutes in. Very sad to see such a once grand station in such a sorry state at the end of its days.
The London County Council purchased the land where previously railway stations had stood and railway tracks had been laid. The LCC passed the land on to local councils and as a result the land was used for the community in the boroughs of both Lewisham and Southwark. Prefabs were originally built on the land adjacent to Crystal Palace Parade to help meet the need of the post-war housing shortage where previously the High Level Station had stood and the tracks run into the Paxton Tunnel. Today there is an NHS Rehabilitation Centre at the station end and a private residential development at the end closest to the Paxton Tunnel called Spinney Gardens.
There is a Lewisham social housing estate called the Hillcrest and High Level Estate at the other end of the tunnel with a woodland and, as already mentioned, Upper Sydenham Station has now been converted to flats.
Sydenham Hill Woods, managed by the London Wildlife Trust, extend from the tunnel entrance beneath Crescent Wood Road to the Southwark Council Sydenham Hill Estate that was built on the site of Lordship Lane Station and surrounding area. Cox’s Walk Footbridge is still there and was replaced in 1908 in teak to the original design.
The next section of the route has become the Horniman Nature Trail, the oldest woodland nature trail in London, and the site of Honor Oak station and surrounding area in Wood Vale is now a Lewisham Council housing estate.
Crossing Forest Hill Road and returning to the Borough of Southwark, part of the route of the railway was incorporated into the parkland of Brenchley Gardens and a small Southwark Council housing estate was built further east before the line swept round to Nunhead Station which still remains today serving other railway lines.
While little remains of the grand scheme of the Crystal Palace High Level Line, there is one jewel that remains, mostly out of sight and barricaded but cherished. This is the first class subway that took passengers underneath the roadway to the centre transept of the Crystal Palace. After the station was demolished in 1961, the subway attracted vandalism and to prevent further damage was bricked up in 1971. A year later it was Grade II* listed. The entrance to the subway is on the Southwark (west) side through an open terrace leading through to an open courtyard which once had a glazed roof on the park side (Bromley) though some damaged arched walls remain. A Friends of the Crystal Palace Subway group has been formed and occasionally the subway has been opened to the public, notably at the annual London Open House. Presently (February 2018) the subway is mainly closed as repair work needs to be undertaken to ensure its structural safety. Both councils, the Friends Group and Historic England are working together to ensure the future use and accessibility of the Subway.
Matthew Frith (1995) From the Nun's Head to the Screaming Alice