What?: I don’t know whether it’s because they’re a bit old and knackered or because they’re so anatomically incorrect they’re more like something out of Grimm’s Fairytales than dinosaurs as we know them, but I’d always found the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs mildly terrifying.
Ok, so I’d never actually seen them in person, but I’d seen enough photos of the humpy Iguanadon (whose hollow belly was the setting for a banquet thrown by a bunch of academics on New Year’s Eve 1853) and the Plesiosaurs, whose heads snake ominously out of the park’s murky green pond water, to know that they gave me the creeps – and for the same reason old wells and Victorian pumping stations and gas holders give me the creeps: they’re old and hollow and creepy.
Add to my fear of old hollow things the fact that I’m also quite scared of burnt-down building sites, even if the remains of the building in question are long gone, and you’ll probably see why I’ve waited so long to explore Crystal Palace Park, home of Victorian sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins’ 30-plus full-scale dinosaur models and former home of its namesake exhibition hall, which was destroyed by fire in 1936.
While the park, like many in London, has become something of a monument to its Victorian heyday, I didn’t find myself half as freaked out by it as I thought I might once we got inside. In fact, it’s all kind of beautiful, from the actually-quite-cute dinosaurs to the overgrown, sphinx-flanked steps that once led up to the palace. There is a kind of romantic urban-decay thing going on and while it’s sad that the park has in many places fallen into disrepair (although the dinosaurs are in the process of being restored), its withered beauty makes it much more interesting than your average green space.
Bab was perhaps a bit too little and unbothered by the concept of dinosaurs to appreciate the park’s lake-lurkers, but a day of monster-spotting would make a brilliant alternative to the Natural History Museum for slightly older kids with a penchant for prehistory. And if that fails then there’s also a great little dino-themed playground complete with a fossil-peppered sandpit, and a maze for warmer days (we went in January) when getting totally lost wouldn’t also involve freezing to death.
Where?: Crystal Palace station (Overground, mainline), is located at the southern end of the park.
Best Bits: The prehistoric theme park, closely followed by lunch in the cosy station cafe.
Worst Bits: Bits of the park are low-key sinister.
Facilities: Step-free access, children’s playground, toilets, Brown & Green coffee van in the park and cafe in Crystal Palace station.
Would We Come Back?: Yes, in summer.
Bab explores the dino-graveyard sandpit in Crystal Palace Park.