Crystal Palace: Hill of the Mountain Kings

While eating a leisurely breakfast earlier this week (kidneys on toast, since you ask) I received a phone call. It was Deserter girlfriend, Roxy.

‘Dirty South says you’re doing one of your… bits on Crystal Palace’, she said.

‘That’s right.’

‘I’m going to the Palace game tonight if you fancy hooking up for a pre-match tipple.’

‘Sure, what time are you thinking?’

‘One-ish?’ she said.

One-o-clock. That was a seven hour pre-match ‘tipple’. On a Monday. That’s what makes Roxy special.

‘OK, see you on the Hill, Rox,’ I said, and returned to my offal.

Yes, the Hill. For where five boroughs collide, where Kent nudges Surrey and Surrey tells it to stop messing about, hidden up in the clouds, high above the big city bustle, there lies a mountain kingdom.

Once it was known as Upper Norwood (a reference to the Great North Wood, of which ‘Norwood’ is a contraction) but about 160 years ago North London decided it was bored with some giant iron and glass exhibition centre it had built in Hyde Park and decreed that it be moved. So in 1854 the entire shebang was shunted to Upper Norwood, like a barbeque being taken up the end of the garden for the winter, to keep it out of sight.

The reconstructed ‘Crystal Palace’ was for a while a major draw in the south. Two train stations were built to serve it, villas sprang up all around and Queen Victoria even stopped by for a gander. Upper Norwood was well and truly on the map.

Except it wasn’t, because now everybody called it Crystal Palace, the idiots.

‘How dare they fob us off with a fucking great second-hand greenhouse,’ said Half-life, whom I met in the café at the surviving ‘lower’ station. ‘And I bet it was full of toffs. I would have torched the place.’

Funny that, because after years of decline and a valiant attempt at rejuvenation, for one night only, in 1936, the Crystal Palace once again became South London’s biggest attraction, as 100,000 people turned out on Sydenham Hill to watch it burn to the ground.

Before
Before
After
After

But despite the rise and fall of the palace itself, the area has managed to maintain an independent spirit and sense of community. I put this down to a number of things physical, psychological and socio-economic.

Firstly, the hill-top location imbues Crystal Palace with something like an island mentality. Before the invention of the combustion engine, if you didn’t really need to slog it all the way up to Upper Norwood then you would have been content to buy your logs, jerkins, manure, etc, in nearby Forest Hill or Penge. The hills are such that if even your horse got wind that you were going up that way, it would have given you one of those miserable glassy-eyed stares in which they specialise.

Couple that with the absence of the tube and central railway stations (both Gipsy Hill and Crystal Palace stations are situated halfway down steep hills), add its unusual three-sided commercial area – the ‘Triangle’ – into the mix, and you find a tight-knit social scene that not only embraces the unusual but is also resistant to the march of commercial homogenisation. (McDonalds famously closed down a few years back, due to lack of local interest).

Psychologically, as a visitor, just glimpsing those exhilarating views of the city from between buildings on Westow Hill makes you feel like a king. Imagine what it must be like to see them every day. ‘I’m not coming into work today, for I am the Master of the Universe’.

And the perceived lack of transport (actually the buses are great) has, at least until recently, kept rents and house prices at more affordable levels, meaning that Crystal Palace has been filled with younger, singler people, which always adds to the fun.

I mentioned this to Half-life.

‘Well, let’s go and fucking find them, then,’ he said, handing me the bill.

Green

From the station, we made our way through Crystal Palace Park, up to where the palace itself once stood. There we found Roxy and Deserter colleague, Dirty South, already installed on a bench, smoking a suspiciously long roll-up.

‘Alright, Rox,’ said Half-life.

‘Alright, Half-pint,’ said Roxy, which she’s called him ever since he made the grievous error of buying her a half instead of a pint, ten years ago.

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Crystal Palace transmitting station on the site of the old Crystal Palace

From this vantage point it is easy to see why Crystal Palace Park has already featured in our best places to pause and seek deep philosophical certainty. It’s not only one of the best spots in London for the taking of the herb, it’s also 19th in the world, just behind Victoria Falls and one ahead of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

It’s not just about the sheer size of it (200 acres), it’s also the amazing views that stretch out for miles across Kent and Surrey. Not to mention the life-size dinosaur models, the lakes, the maze and the ruined splendour of Sir Joseph Paxton’s original vision for the park; around every corner is a sphinx, a ghostly flight of steps or a headless statue to freak you right out.

There has been talk of rebuilding the Crystal Palace, but we’re unconvinced. The new one would be bound to feature a 20-screen megaplex and South London’s biggest Nando’s. But we’re happy to review the plans. Just drop us an email.

Best Café

The café in the very grand Crystal Palace station, where I met Half-life, is called Brown & Green and is that rare beast in London, a decent café in a station, even if they do have some novel additions to the classics.

‘Would you like rocket in your bacon butty?’ asked the charming girl at the counter and Half-life gave her a look that could chill humours, shatter dreams and wither youth.

The toilets are an issue too, being the other side of the ticket barrier, down steps, round corners and halfway down one of the platforms. As Half-life said on returning from a caffeine-induced evacuation, ‘One wrong turn and you’re on a train to Sutton.’ And no-one wants to go to Sutton.

Another cracking café is St Germain on Crystal Palace Parade. Authentically decked out as a Parisian café, it’s got a great covered front terrace, from which you can view the Eiffel Tower-like Crystal Palace transmitting station while cupping un chocolat chaud.

‘If you squint, it could be Crystal Paris,’ I said.

‘Please tell me you’re not going to write that,’ said Roxy.

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Where’s that Thing?

But my favourite café – and not just because it’s licensed – is Café Thing. Linked to Antenna Studios (rehearsals, recording, dance, photography), it is tucked round the back of Haynes Lane where there is a weekly food and antiques market. Consequently it’s the busiest café in town on a Saturday but one of the quietest in the week (Weds-Fri), and you can sit undisturbed as you piss about with email and try not to order a brandy with your Volcano-roasted coffee.

I should also give a mention to Living Water Satisfies on Westow St, not because we liked it (we didn’t go in) but because Half-life took exception to the name and is considering suing for breach of the Trade Descriptions Act.

Shopping

Plenty of individual shops and a relative lack of chain stores reflect the independent spirit of the area – places like Bookseller Crow, the Good Taste deli and MacDonald’s hardware store are all much-loved local institutions.

But if you were forced to say what Crystal Palace is known for, in particular, you’d have to say antiques and vintage shops.

Five or ten years ago you might have called the clutch of second-hand places on Church Road junk shops. Now they’ve morphed into decent vintage and antique shops to complement the wonderful indoor market on Haynes Lane and Crystal Palace Vintage on Westow Street

Living Water Satisfies
What?

‘It’s quiet in the week, but from Thursday onwards Church Road has become a real attraction in itself,’ said Jim from the Tractor Factory, which does bespoke furniture as well as antiques.

One of the bigger places, Bambinos, now has a vinyl shop in the basement and, as you’d expect, it’s much better value than anywhere in Soho.

To be honest, after Half-life recently forced me to carry a side-board up and down Lordship Lane, we tried to keep him out these places. Later, though, when he went AWOL, we eventually found him in the daddy of them all, the Crystal Palace Antiques Warehouse, a four-floor furniture emporium just off Westow Hill. It turned out he’d gone down to the basement, taken a seat in a classic mid-century Scandinavian sofa to roll a joint and promptly fallen asleep, which is pretty impressive given that he’d only got up at noon.

Best Food

Crystal Palace Food Market on Haynes Lane, Saturdays 10-3pm, is a community ‘not-for-profit’ market, which doesn’t necessarily mean it’s cheap, sadly, but whether you’re buying bread, cheese, fish or meat, it is consistently excellent. Plus there’s food to eat on the spot and beer from the heavenly Late Knights brewery. It’s my pick.

I’ve never eaten in Joanna’s but it certainly has a devoted following. Roxy said it was a bit up itself, though, so we spurned it in favour of new kid on the block, Crystal Palace Market on Church Road. It is not so much a restaurant, apparently, as a ‘culinary concept’- a place where you can buy locally-sourced produce to take home or eat on the spot. It looks remarkably stylish and has been reassuringly busy whenever I’ve passed but unfortunately it was closed for ‘general cleaning’ when we turned up – which we weren’t sure was a good thing or a bad thing – so we ate at Casa Cuba instead, where we ordered bloody great rib-eye steaks for half-price (£9 a pop) using my trusty Tastecard. It’s not that I’m cheap, I just crave value. And if that makes me cheap, then yes, I am cheap, despite my earlier protestation.

We didn’t have time to try anywhere else as we were worried about Roxy getting to the game and we only had five hours left in which to research our favourite category.

View from The Royal Albert
View north from outside The Royal Albert

Best Pub

Finally.

For the views we liked The Royal Albert, where from the tables outside you can squeeze out a view over the city. But we didn’t like the beer.

For beer we liked The Grape and Grain which offered a superb array of fine ales and ciders, and does great music nights to boot. On the downside, there is no longer a discount for CAMRA members and, it being a big old gaff, it didn’t feel terribly homely.

For homely, we liked the Railway Bell, a small, unreconstructed backstreet boozer in what might actually be Gipsy Hill, but hey, we’re not Google Maps, we’re drunk.

Was there a pub, we wondered, that could combine all the above? Yes, there was.

In fact, there were two.

Westow House is everything you’d expect from an Antic pub, beautifully turned out with kooky touches (pinball, candles, vintage furniture) and well-kept beer. It’s in a great spot by the park and was pleasantly full in the late afternoon.

But in a complex marking system which involved 19 categories, marks out of 11, plenty of shouting and Half-life’s dark animal instinct, it was just edged out by The White Hart, on the southern most tip of the Triangle.

The signs don’t look great from the outside – it’s on a noisy, busy junction – but as soon as you step through its portals you are welcomed into a warm pubby bosom, and then, in a magical reversal, its position gives you a vista of a risibly busy world rushing about all over the place while you sit at the window, sipping drinks personally recommended by the friendly bar staff (thank you, Ali).

It also the only pub I know that has a vintage clothes shop and a milliner within its walls.

One to watch

Crystal Palace’s other railway station, Crystal Palace (High Level) was finally demolished in 1961. But beneath Crystal Palace Parade there remains a majestic 19th Century fan-vaulted pedestrian subway that once linked the railway station with the Crystal Palace in the park on the other side of the road.

The Friends of Crystal Palace Subway is lobbying Southwark and Bromley councils to re-open the subway, now a listed building, and has already gained permission to install new gates and handrails.

More power to them.

And Dirty South says can it have a little bar in it?

Talking of bars, we waved Roxy off in a cab to the match, decanted Half-life onto a train at Gipsy Hill, and retired to the brilliant Beer Rebellion opposite to compare notes.

Some time before closing we got a text from Roxy: ‘Lost 3-1, but the crowd sang “He’s Gus Poyet, he shits on the floor,” so going home smiling xx’*

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Further Reading:

Crystal Palace Park – what next? from the Bromley Council website. Useful for sufferers of insomnia.

* He didn’t.

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