The Crystal Palace subway is a beautifully designed and crafted relic of Victorian construction hidden under the A212 at Crystal Palace Parade.
Despite the unglamorous location the subway is a source of pride for those locals who know of its existence. New visitors are always amazed to find such a spectacular space propping up a main road but remaining out of sight and neglected.
On Christmas day 1865 The Morning Post reported that the arched subway leading from the High Level station into the centre transept of the Crystal Palace had been opened two days earlier, this was some four months after passengers began using the High Level line and the opening seems to have been much anticipated with The Illustrated London News including a drawing of the subway during a September edition of the same year.
Much is written about the Crystal Palace, less about the High Level line and station but the mixed fortunes of the Palace meant the station never handled the passenger numbers predicted. The Crystal Palace was destroyed by fire in 1936, the High Level station was closed to passengers in 1954 and demolished in 1961 leaving the subway in splendid isolation.
During Open House London weekend this year a local group of volunteers – ‘Friends of Crystal Palace Subway’ saw the culmination of several years work when the subway opened its security gates to nearly 600 visitors. This weekend also marked the launch of a Heritage Lottery project ‘Inspired by the Subway’ that is training local people in research and heritage skills, recording the memories of subway users across the decades and working with local children who will contribute to the final project exhibition.
What the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway have learnt so far through this project is that they are at the end of a long line of people and groups who have proposed inventive ways of using the subway.
During WWII the subway was converted into an air-raid shelter with bunk beds for 190 people and chemical toilets (toilets for emergency use only!). During the 60’s it was easily accessible to children looking for an exciting playground with wooden steps still in place so that it could be used as a cut through to track level and the disused tunnels in what is now Spinney Gardens. By the late 70’s the subway was home to ‘Subway Superdays’ hosted by the Norwood Society and The Crystal Palace Foundation. These were cultural and educational days and continued infrequently until the early 90’s. The 90’s also saw a new generation of visitors: party goers. This era was recorded in the video for the Chemical Brothers’ first number one single ‘Setting Sun’ that was partly shot in the subway and on the terraces http://youtu.be/p5NX1FC-7-w
In recent years the subway has been closed due to safety concerns and has only been opened for special visits. The Friends of Crystal Palace Subway aim to reopen the space for community use and have recently had planning permission approved by Southwark council to reinstate a gate on the Southwark side of the Parade. However long term plans are currently on hold due to the move by ZongRong Group to rebuild the Crystal Palace.
In the interim the Inspired by the Subway project is going full steam ahead and is looking for anyone who remembers the subway over it’s colourful past and would like to share their memories with our volunteers. No memory is too small to record, if you remember the subway we would love to speak to you.
All materials created by the project will be permanently archived at the London Metropolitan Archive, which is designated as an outstanding collection so we are proud to be part of that.
Photos are by Angie Davila http://angiedavila.co.uk/crystal-palace-subway.php.