Crystal Palace Subway: The Wondrous Remains Of A Victorian Ghost Station

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 20 months ago

Last Updated 13 September 2022

Crystal Palace Subway: The Wondrous Remains Of A Victorian Ghost Station
The red and cream brick octagonal pillars of the subway
Crystal Palace Subway looks more like the crypt of a Byzantine church. Image: Peter Cooper in Creative Commons.

Subways get a bad rap and often rightly so. The occasional miniature Solar System and history lesson aside, they're usually acrid-smelling burrows of gloom.

Then there is the Crystal Palace Subway. Hidden below the roaring A212, it's a crypt of Italianate cream and terracotta brickwork held aloft by a forest octagonal trunks — a dazzling subterranean antechamber you'd expect to discover beneath a cathedral, not abandoned at the side of an A road.

It's the work, of course, of those industrious Victorians — and was once as practical as it was beautiful.

Two trains inside the glass roofed station. passengers and guards stand on the platform
Crystal Palace High Level station in 1908. Image: public domain.

The Disneyland of its day

As many know, the south London neighbourhood of Crystal Palace gets its name from Joseph Paxton's great glass greenhouse, which was moved here following 1851's Great Exhibition in Hyde Park.

When it opened in its new location just south of Sydenham, the Crystal Palace — as it was dubbed by Punch magazine — became a Disneyland of its day, with exotic exhibits, funfairs, firework displays and balloon rides. There were season tickets and even branded bottles of ginger beer. All it was missing was a big-eared mascot.

people exploring the subway, taking photos, reading leaflets
There are occasional open days at the subway, but plans are now afoot to restore it to former glory and open it more regularly. Image: Londonist.

The attraction had its own purpose-built train station (today's Crystal Palace station), but its popularity was such that a second was mooted; this one on the London, Chatham and Dover Railway (whose insignia you can still see today writ large at Blackfriars).

Enter Crystal Palace High Level Station on 23 December 1865 — providing a shorter, less steep schlep to all the fun of the fair — plus the unique opportunity for first-class passengers to arrive via its rather magnificent subway. (There's a wonderful sketch of top-hatted gentlemen with canes and woman in flowing dresses, admiring the brickwork back in the day.)

A advert for the high level station
An advert for the high level station from 1866. Image: British Newspaper Archive

Crystal Palace goes up in smoke

Over the years, sadly, the public gradually fell out of love with the Crystal Palace; as Disused Stations explains, by 1890 it had been divvied into booths and stalls, and looked rather 'seedy'. A sudden coup de grace came about on 30 November 1936, when the whole thing mysteriously went up in flames. The high level station itself survived, but not long after, the roof was seriously damaged by second world war bombs. It fell into disrepair.

the crystal palace in flames
The Crystal Palace burned to the ground in 1936.

Still, the station, and its subway, soldiered on until 1954, when the last train departed. The grand building was all but demolished seven years later (damn you, the 1960s). The subway, though, was untouched — and thanks to its relatively sheltered position, has weathered the years well.

A sparkling future

Since the passengers dried up, the subway has encountered a steady trickle of visitors; vandals lit fires in it during the 1960s (DAMN YOU, the 1960s); statues were stashed here in the 1970s, and it was the backdrop for for the Chemical Brothers' ravy Setting Sun video, shot here in the mid 1990s. Classical concerts have played out beneath the subway's ornate ceiling, too.

Occasional open days have taken place since 1979, and today are organised by Friends of Crystal Palace Subway. Until now, the only way of seeing the subway is at an open day, but now thrilling plans are afoot to restore the subway to its former glory.

An artist's impression of the new roof of the renovated subway. Image: Bromley Council/Thomas Ford and Partners

With a grant of £2.8m secured — and planning permission granted by Bromley Council — the Crystal Palace Subway will be revived and taken off Historic England's 'at risk register'. Conservation architect firm Thomas Ford and Partners will clean the brickwork, clear staircases and construct a new steel and glass roof — turning the subway into a space that can be properly utilised and enjoyed — from as early as 2023. At last this tenacious south London treasure is getting the TLC it deserves.

Unfortunately, for anyone visiting the subway via Crystal Palace station, there's still the matter of a quarter-mile trudge up Anerley Hill. Where's a high level train station when you need one?

See a great timeline of the subway's history on the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway site.