Capital Ringing: Crystal Palace Park

23 Aug

It’s been a while since I last wrote about the epic folly that is the Capital Ring walking route: since I last touched base, Ferdy and I have skirted the fringes of the Boroughs of Lewisham, Bromley, Croydon, Lambeth, Wandsworth and Merton, crossed the river at Richmond and slogged our way as far North as Greenford, home to London’s most exciting (if inconvenient) escalator. I’ve decided that instead of recounting the entire saga in my tiresome, mock-mock-heroic style, I should pick selected highlights, of which there are almost as many on the route as there are interminable semi-detached avenues and tired-looking grassland.

It was to my eternal shame that I’d never before visited the giant adventure playground that is Crystal Palace: as Ferdy remarked as we stopped to gawp at yet another astonishing minor landmark, it is The Daddy of all London parks: sphinxes, headless Dantes, Brazilian Olympic teams and concrete structures that are dead ringers for Orly Airport in (the recently deceased) Chris Marker’s La Jetée: name pretty much anything and you’ll probably find it here.  Without even mentioning the Transmitter, its defining landmark, which- not to namedrop, or anything- the artist Mike Nelson once described to me as ‘London’s Eiffel Tower’- it’s SE20’s answer to Narnia.

We were in the park on a muggy Tuesday afternoon, and aside from the picnic crew in the photo above, the park was pretty much deserted. It felt extremely strange: I can’t speak for Ferdy, but I was stumbling around semi-catatonic. We were walking up the hill on a winding path when suddenly everything began to shake and a thirty second earthquake of House Music swallowed up the entire postcode, and then abruptly stopped: even when we did discover where it had come from (some engineers testing the sound on the very Ballardian stage below), it made the experience no less psychedelic.

The Crystal Palace itself was moved to Sydenham Hill from Hyde Park after the Great Exhibition of 1851, and stood on the site until it was destroyed in a fire in 1936: its absence is one of the most remarkable things about the park, as the extravagant statues and terraces that decorated the approach up the hill survive (relatively) intact to this day. The effect is not a million miles away from the parc de la Villette in Paris, a series of support acts that have been forced to headline a gig: it’s accidental post-modernism of the most serendipitous kind. The Transmmitter, the de facto focal point, stands aloof: a self-contained landmark that doesn’t interfere with the esoteric activity at ground level- unless, of course, you want it to…

Do I sound like even more of a loser than normal if I say that these sphinxes are the funnest things in London?

Then, of course, there are the famous Dinosaurs: anatomically dubious they may be (and no, I don’t actually know, but they don’t look like any of the sauropods I see round my way), but their sheer enormity is as bogglingly cowing as even the most leviathan of Henry Moore sculptures.

So that’s that, then: when I finally lose the plot once and for all and decide to bugger off to fantasy camp, I know where I’ll be moving.


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