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A ProgBlog guide to Crystal Palace

The Crystal Palace was originally built in Hyde Park for the first World Exposition in 1851, a structure designed to be temporary with the exhibition, themed around the industry of all nations, lasting from April to October that year. The success of the venture, attracting 6 million visitors (and subsequently spawning a litany of world fairs, the most recent of which was Expo 2015 in Milan) prompted architect Joseph Paxton to look for a permanent home for the Crystal Palace. He had tried to have the building remain in Hyde Park but aware that there was considerable opposition from within parliament, he busied himself raising £0.5m to form a company to buy the building and a new site for its reconstruction. The materials that made up the structure were bought from building contractors Fox and Henderson (who had lowered their original Hyde Park bid in return for ownership of the materials when the structure was dismantled at the end of the Great Exhibition); the land chosen was an area of wooded parkland on Sydenham Hill and the Crystal Palace reopened in 1854.

Bust of Joseph Paxton (F Woodington, 1869) - Grade II listed


The remains of the Crystal Palace, which burned down in 1936, are in the suburb of Upper Norwood, an area falling into four London Boroughs: Bromley; Croydon; Lambeth and Southwark. I moved to Upper Norwood from Balham while working in Tooting. During 1985 I moved into a basement flat in Colby Road (opposite Gipsy Hill railway station) with a friend from Barrow, and a good friend lived on the ground floor with his girlfriend; I had previously shared a flat with these two friends during my last year at university in Beechcroft Close, Streatham.

In 1984, prior to moving to Upper Norwood, I’d formed BCC2, a band that included my Colby Road flatmate on guitar which played a short set of self-penned numbers on each of three nights of a community revue at a hall in Thornton Heath. By the next year we’d recruited a female vocalist and evolved into HTLVIII (a blood-borne virus reference: two of us worked at the Blood Transfusion Centre in Tooting) with a beefed-up keyboard rig, including an analogue Korg synth and a more proggy set for the 1985 community revue. Sadly, this fledgling outfit fell apart because the guitarist moved out to Clapham and my bass was stolen when the flat was burgled while I was on holiday in Tenerife.


A further Crystal Palace - Barrow connection was future Hairy Biker Dave Myers, another Goldsmiths’ graduate who lived a short way up Gipsy Hill. The cost of renting Colby Road wasn’t too high in the overall scheme of things, but the facilities were challenging. The bedroom, at the back of the flat, was rarely blessed with sunlight and was consequently somewhat cold, though it was apparently ideally placed to receive a Sunday morning pirate radio show, Alice’s Restaurant, despite the transmitter being somewhere in ‘East London’. Alice’s Restaurant became London’s biggest rock station but at the time I discovered it, I was only interested in the two hours of progressive rock that I could pick up on my Technics SA-200 receiver on Sunday mornings, where I first heard Caravan’s Nine Feet Underground in full and promptly set off to buy the Caravan collection Canterbury Tales because it included that particular masterpiece.

At the time, Upper Norwood was hardly the most salubrious of areas but it had all the right amenities. Gipsy Hill station was very convenient for trips into London and I could use it to get to work on the days I was too lazy to cycle (Gipsy Hill is long and steep!) and there were some good pubs selling good beer (the Two Towers at the bottom of the hill and the Railway Arms half way up were regular haunts); the library on Westow Hill was extremely useful; the Tesco supermarket where we’d donate food to the families of striking miners; some good restaurants (Joanna’s and The Penny Excursion, the latter frequently changing hands and cuisine after I left the area); and Crystal Palace Park, including the site of the former Crystal Palace with its poorly barricaded entrance to the undercroft of the former High Level Station, a hidden vaulted space of beautiful Victorian brickwork (Grade II listed) and, for fans of palaeontology, the dinosaurs on islands representing different geological eras on the lower reservoir, creating a snapshot of paleontological understanding in the mid 19th century. My time at Colby Road drew to a close when the shower in the ground floor flat above leaked into the hall and my hot water pressure became so low it wasn’t practicable to run a bath. The landlord was an unpleasant individual who wasn’t interested in getting things fixed, so I eventually left in the middle of one night and stopped paying him any rent.

The undercroft, the only remaining part of the High Level Station


Crystal Palace Park dinosaurs (Grade I listed)


Crystal Palace Park was also home to the National Sports Centre and athletics track. A couple of my school friends had spent some time training there in the mid 70s and I became a member for the squash courts and still play there today, though I now better appreciate the brutalist architecture (Grade II* listed) and the concomitant egalitarian nature of the facility, bringing affordable leisure facilities to local residents; a new People’s Palace on the site of the old. The FA Cup used to be held on the football pitch which was where the athletics stadium now stands and Crystal Palace FC used to play there from when they were founded in 1905 until they were relocated due to WWI and moved to current ground Selhurst Park in 1924. I’ve been supporting them, through all their ups and downs, since 1995.


Crystal Palace Bowl was the venue for the Crystal Palace Garden Party between 1971 and 1980, originally a concrete semi-dome structure with a small lake in front, located in a natural amphitheatre at the northern end of the park. Pink Floyd played there in 1971, featuring a band-only version of Atom Heart Mother and famously killing off all the fish in the lake when they attempted to inflate a giant octopus, pumping smoke into the water. Yes performed there in 1972, which must have been one of the first gigs for Alan White, and Rick Wakeman performed Journey to the Centre of the Earth during the 1974 Garden Party, when he used inflatable dinosaurs during The Battle but more dramatically, was admitted to hospital the day after the gig having suffered three minor heart attacks. He had intended to perform there again in June 2012 headlining a one day rock festival, but there were structural concerns over the stage and the event was cancelled. The Crystal Palace concert platform, constructed from Corten steel with an oak stage, was designed by Ian Ritchie Architects in 1997 and was a RIBA Stirling Prize nominee in 1998. Known as ‘the Rusty Laptop’, it fits beautifully into Paxton's Crystal Palace park landscape but despite being designed to require minimum maintenance, the wood deteriorated due to a lack of care and until the intervention of the Crystal Palace Bowl volunteers, its future was very much in doubt.

Crystal Palace concert platform - the 'Rusty Laptop' (Ian Ritchie Architects, 1997)


This neatly brings us to the present. Upper Norwood has undergone something of a renaissance since the opening of the East London Line of London Overground in 2010. This linked West Croydon and Crystal Palace in the south to Dalston Junction in the north, via Surrey Quays and Canada Water. The ease of the commute to the City meant that the area was a prime site for gentrification and property prices were relatively low in the down-at-heel suburb; the parallels with Shoreditch (the Overground stops at Shoreditch High Street) are quite remarkable and it’s evident that hipsters have marked their territory around the Crystal Palace Triangle and that some of the old businesses have adapted to meet their needs. There used to be a rambling flea market down from Westow Hill, where amongst other things I picked up a cheap and rather battered copy of the 1972 debut LP by Tempest. On the site of this former bazaar is Crystal Palace Antiques, where my wife likes to pick out reasonably priced art-deco items and I like to ogle the modernist furniture, at unreasonable prices, in the lowest of the four floors.


There had been a spate of pub closures in the area but there’s now an even better selection, covering a huge range of real and craft beers. There used to be an ‘open mic’ gig every week in the White Hart (on the corner of Westow Street and Church Road) to which a friend from squash, a Brazilian drummer, invited me and although I brought along a plectrum, I felt I was too rusty to participate and I knew very little of the music they played. There are a multitude of cafés and bars where it’s easy to find a decent lunch and a good coffee but there are also a couple of excellent second-hand record stalls. One is in Haynes Lane Market, a well kept secret just off Westow Street. Haynes Lane is a narrow, mews-like street where the terraced houses are resplendent with blooms and the market is a genuine flea market where it’s easy to while away many hours; the other is in the less well developed Church Road in the basement of Bambinos. Bambinos is run by Andy Stem and has been around for over 20 years, perhaps most famous for its leather jackets thanks to the Mario Testino photo of Kate Moss for Vogue. Best of all, downstairs from the eclectic mixture of items that spills out onto the street, is the vinyl basement, run by Mark Hill of the Crystal Palace-based electronica trio Metamono. A recent visit yielded the first two Steve Hackett solo albums, Voyage of the Acolyte and Please Don’t Touch; Alan White’s solo debut Ramshackled; the first Sky album; Phaedra by Tangerine Dream and an early US pressing of Switched on Bach. Mark Hill commented on Phaedra, suggesting he had been interested in buying it himself, and the connection with the excellent sub-section for electronica became clear; I’d bought a copy of Aqua by Edgar Froese from a consignment of vinyl that hadn’t made it downstairs to the basement the first time I visited the shop.


I retain affection for Crystal Palace; the record shops, the sports centre, the remains of the former palace, the football team. A great deal has changed since I lived there but it’s a much better place to visit now, and much easier. The local history is fascinating but better still, there are some genuinely friendly people who feed into the vibe, whether they’ve recently arrived or have been around for some time. It’s an uplifting atmosphere, very prog.

Must be the prevailing sea winds...


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