Welcome, weary traveller, to the end of the East London Overground. I hope that, as you disembark, you still have the energy to be impressed by the scale of Crystal Palace’s cavernous station. Back in the glory days of the palace, this was one of only two stations carrying the deluge of Victorian gawpers to one of London’s top tourist attractions.
When the Crystal Palace was relocated here from the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park, plain old Sydenham Hill – “The fresh air suburb” – was transformed. Brunel’s fountains shot water 250 feet into the air! The British Empire filled a gargantuan greenhouse with objets d’art “liberated” from countries all around the world! Sadly, the palace burned down in 1936, but thankfully the name and the park remain.
Crystal Palace Park is enormous, and it’s stocked full of treats: London’s biggest maze with its threadbare hedges; an outdoor stage with a duckpond around it (placing the moshpit mostly underwater – ideal for crowdsurfing); and the Sports Centre, which Iooks like it was built for Logan’s Run. I do not care for sports, so the closest I get is pressing my nose up against the glass when the Wargames convention comes to town. Ladies get in for free, but my gingham dress did not fool the stewards.
I know you’re dying to hear about Crystal Palace Park’s most famous inhabitants: the dinosaurs. Head on down the hill to Dino Lake and prepare to feel just like Steven Spielberg when you round the corner and find yourself staring eye to eye with a hungry, full-size, concrete megalosaurus. Their vision is based on movement, so no sudden actions – and don’t wet your pants in terror.
Make your way to the top of the park and you’ll see the final vestiges of the Palace itself. Stone staircases and terraces criss-cross the slope, and sphinxes stare emptily at Beckenham in the distance. This is where the “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” scene from The Italian Job was shot, and is now a regular meet for Mini rallies – great if you like being woken by “La Cucaracha in E for car horn” at 8am on a Sunday.
Head past the bus station to reach the Crystal Palace Triangle, the area’s (triangular) beating heart, bounded by Westow Hill, Westow Street and Church Road. Now’s a good time to stop off for a pint: the cosy White Hart has a nice little beer patio for the summer, the Westow House is airy and lively, and the pub opposite has karaoke but is shaped like a bit of cheese and it scares me.
The Triangle offers an embarrassment of culinary riches – Edo, an unsurpassed Japanese restaurant with excellent sushi and deep-fried ice cream on the menu; Numidie, French-Moroccan food and cocktails; A Torre, a family-run Portuguese place which makes an irresistible francesinha (a steak and cheese sandwich in a tomato broth… Mmmm). Around the triangle you’ll also find restaurants and cafes specializing in tapas, vegan food, Nepalese, Italian, Chinese, Thai, and for celebrating a special occasion South London-style, fried chicken.
Crystal Palace is rapidly becoming a hub for antique furniture and retro knick-knacks. Bambino on Church Road is stacked high with musical instruments, 1940s radios and miscellaneous curios. In the four floors of the Jasper Road Antiques Market, you can buy yourself a Georgian sideboard or a 60s smoked glass hostess trolley. The Haynes Lane Market behind Sainsbury’s is two storeys of records, books, clothes and bric-a-brac; the White Hart has a tiny vintage shop within and the boutique Vien is just over the road. On Westow Street, Glitter and Twisted sells sparkly bits and bobs; just up the road, charming independent bookshop The Bookseller Crow is especially good for graphic novels.
I find Crystal Palace a constant surprise; the tinge of Victoriana, the bustling second-hand trade, the vast quantities of exotic foods I can shove into my delicate cake-hole; and there’s always new stuff popping up to keep me interested (this year, a custom guitar shop; next year, a cinema?). It’s been a long day, so off you go, back up the East London Line to Rotherhithe or Dalston or another of those magical lands that us Crystopalatians barely believed existed before May 23rd. Come back soon, but remember: don’t feed the dinosaurs.