A tale of two tunnels

‘I take it you know about the skeletons.’

Crystal_Palace_Athmosperic_Rly.1864

Engraving of the Crystal Palace line (1864)

That chance remark, uttered by my girlfriend while we were out on a local stroll in 2008, ended up defining the next five years of my life.

The skeletons to which she referred turned out to be the stars of one of Norwood’s most durable urban myths – namely, that an abandoned railway carriage lies buried beneath Crystal Palace Park, occupied by a bunch of fully-clothed Victorian skeletons.

Fired by the notion that I might be able to work this up into a historical fantasy novel – a Neil Gaiman kind of thing – I dug a bit deeper. The ultimate source of the myth, I discovered, was a mind-boggling railway trial which ran in the grounds of the Crystal Palace in 1864. The experiment, astonishingly enough, involved a solitary railway carriage being blown and sucked back and forth through a tunnel by a giant fan.

strange-air for ebookIt snowballed from there. I started researching the little-known history of these ‘pneumatic’ railways, and in particular their keenest advocate, a civil engineer named Thomas Webster Rammell. At the same time, I fell further in love with the ruined melancholy of Crystal Palace Park, which lured me into an additional strand of historical research about the park and its Palace.

Fast-forward to 2013, and the publication of Strange Air – an urban fairytale which interweaves those two stories via the tale of Eric, a former tube driver who finds himself unluckily entangled with one of the aforementioned skeletons.

Looking back now on my girlfriend’s chance remark, what’s most striking isn’t so much the treasure-trove of ideas it unearthed as where it occurred. For the fateful words weren’t spoken in Crystal Palace Park. She actually said them while we were on a vaguely circular walk around Sydenham Hill – through the various woods and parks to the north of Crystal Palace Parade.

As regular Dulwich ramblers will know, any such walk is likely to result in inadvertent contact with the four boarded-up entrances to the long-deserted Crescent Wood and Paxton railway tunnels. And it was in relation to these that I first got wind of the skeletons.

Of course, it’s in the nature of urban myths that they become displaced, just as other details get embellished and exaggerated. Given that there’s no factual right or wrong, it’s not surprising that the buried carriage motif should have been applied equally enthusiastically to other abandoned tunnels in the area.

Crystal Palace-based author Tom Brown

Crystal Palace-based author Tom Brown

But what’s strange for me is that the seed for a story which became inextricably entwined with Crystal Palace Park was actually sown elsewhere – and that the enthusiasm I immediately felt, and which sustained me through two years of research and another three of writing and editing, originated somewhere that didn’t make it into the final version of the novel.

It wasn’t for want of trying. Early drafts had the tunnels taking their place amid the rich tapestry of local landmarks – the subway, the concert bowl, the old High Level railway station – which provide the backdrop to different bits of the plot. But as the story came more into focus, the tunnels disappeared in much the same way that time and woodland had overgrown their four forgotten portals.

So here I am, five years on, and those two magnificently eerie tunnels come back into view – strange old men whose mysteries I never got round to unlocking. Years ago, I’m told, it used to be possible to walk down them. Now, however, the closest you can get to the interior is the soft breeze that squeezes past each portal, whispering of untapped secrets within.

I wonder: could the key to my next novel lie where the last one began? Every time I walk round Sydenham Hill, I make a point of returning to the portals and letting my imagination run riot. There’s definitely something in them. Perhaps not skeletons, but something. Some kind of story. And having neglected them first time around, I’m more determined than ever to find out what it is.

Tom Brown will be talking about self-publishing at Upper Norwood Library at 2.30pm on Saturday 25th January.

Strange Air is available to buy from Dulwich Books, Bookseller Crow on the Hill, Kirkdale Bookshop, and at Amazon.

If you have any memories or stories relating to the Crescent Wood and Paxton Tunnels, why not leave them in the comments section below?


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