Crystal Palace Subway Access Event – a unique glimpse of a subterranean gem.
23 Sept 2012 – The byzantine vaulted structure of the Crystal Palace Subway was opened for a unique event on Sunday. It was an opportunity for 130 local residents to enjoy the crypt-like underpass that formerly connected the original Crystal Palace building and the Crystal Palace High Level Station.
The Crystal Palace was opened by Queen Victoria in 1854 and burned down in 1936. The High Level Station began service in 1865 and was demolished in 1961 after the station was closed in 1954. The subway protected visitors from the elements as they crossed under the Crystal Palace Parade. Since then the public was allowed into the subway for Open and Victorian Days, organised by the Crystal Palace Foundation and the Norwood Society, but sadly these visits concluded to Health and Safety factors and the subway was closed to the public in 1995.
A local group of residents, the Friends of the Crystal Palace Subway, has been working for the last two years, together with the LB Bromley and other local stakeholders, to make safe and reopen the subway to the public. LB Bromley, who are joint land owners together with LB Southwark, permitted restricted access to the subway on 23 September after they were satisfied that appropriate safety precautions were in place for such a one-off event. These included the requirement that visitors must register in advance so that small, supervised groups could be allowed into the subway in 30-minute timeslots after they received safety briefings and protective hardhats.
All attendees were told in advance that they would need to sign a waiver form that confirmed that they understood the risks of entering the site. All were happy to do so and there were no incidents. The site was wet, with heavy rain showers persisting throughout the afternoon. Three people turned up carrying previous injuries (a broken arm in a steel frame, a broken ankle and a broken leg) all were accompanied by our first aiders in case of problems, none happened.
The purpose of the event was to allow a small group of residents into the subway to photograph it. The photos will be exhibited in cafes and other public locations in Crystal Palace to promote awareness of the Subway, to galvanise community support in reopening it to the public and to inspire local residents to propose potential ways in which they would like to see the subway used in future.
Everyone said how amazed they were by the subway space, that they were impressed by the relatively good condition of the brickwork and how pleased they were at being able to see it all. They were all hopeful that the subway would soon be reopened permanently.
The event was organised by the Friends of CP Subway and was led by local residents Jules Hussey and Ray Sacks who generously volunteered their time and worked tirelessly ensuring a successful and enjoyable event. They informed as many local residents as possible in advance, as well as making sure all preparations were in place for the day, from ensuring that first aiders were on site to securing the subway at the end. Jules is a freelance drama producer currently working for the BBC and is experienced in managing film crews working in hazardous locations. Ray leads the Crystal Palace Campaign and is a member of the Crystal Palace Community Stakeholder Group. They brought together the necessary skills in both overseeing the event on the day and also negotiating with the LB Bromley to ensure that the Local Authority was satisfied that all necessary preparations would be made.
Jules Hussey said “this was a fantastic example of community interest and social media. It was great to meet so many real 21st century people in this 19th century architectural gem. My fear is that after all this effort the momentum, and this heritage site, may be lost”.
Ray Sacks said “The proof of local interest in the subway was the fact that everyone who had a time-slot turned up on time in spite of the rain. It was great to see the support of the community who also recognised the potential of the subway.”
Special thanks to the community volunteers who helped on the day, they were (alphabetically listed):
The Friends of CP Subway are particularly grateful to Toby Smith (LB Bromley Parks Community and Infrastructure Manager) who, often working out of hours, ensured that necessary permissions were granted as well as Adam Jenkins and Rik Berry of Bromley Park Rangers to ensure that the venue was opened on a Sunday. Also Andy of Security who was on standby to help with locking up the site afterwards.
The event attracted strong interest from the local community, a local jogger [Craig] said his heart rate monitor recorded his excitement when he saw the subway open for the first time. One woman recalled how her father had told her of witnessing the Crystal Palace burn down. Another woman was so intrigued to see the subway that she was prepared to be separate from her 3 weeks old baby for the first time so that she could attend.
Valerie Shawcross CBE, Member of the London Local Assembly for Lambeth and nearby resident, attended with her husband and said “It reminded me of the Mezquita in Cordoba when I came in. I can see now why the people who are involved in heritage in this area are so excited by it…the [vaulted ceiling] is absolutely spectacular. It’s just a crying shame that it’s deteriorated particularly at the end where there is no roof and really it ought to be brought into some sort of use.”
Councillor Helen Hayes, College Ward Southwark, attended. Helen has been very supportive of the project and said ’It was really exciting to see inside the subway which offers a glimpse into the grandeur of the Crystal Palace. It is really important that the unique heritage of Crystal Palace is made accessible to local residents and I’m grateful to the team of volunteers who made this open day happen.’
Councillor Andy Simmons who also attended said ’The subway really is spectacular and it was great to be able to see inside it. I hope that further open days can be organised in future so that more local residents can visit the subway.’
LB Bromley are aware of the strong community interest in the subway and would like to reopen it to the public. They have prioritised this project amongst the many others in Crystal Palace Park which have a claim on limited resources. Public sector financial constraints mean that the CP Subway project will also require funding from the likes of English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Funding in addition to what the Local Authority can provide.
The technical challenges mean that it will take some time before the whole subway can be fully reopened. The Friends of CP Subway are in the process of submitting a planning application to reopen access via the western (Southwark) side to assist in more regular access until the full works can be completed.
Karl Richter, a local resident who submitted the original proposal in 2010 to LB Bromley to reopen the subway said “It’s great to see how the local community is galvanised by positive projects that they feel passionate about. This event has shown what can happen when local people are proactive and rise to the challenge. I am also continually amazed by the depth and breadth of professional skills that local residents have. We just need to find them and inspire them to get involved. This is an incredibly powerful resource that could be harnessed to help us shape the Crystal Palace we want to live in.”
Notes to editors: