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London's Historic Victorian Subway Set to Reopen After 68 Years

London's Historic Victorian Subway Set to Reopen After 68 Years
Photo Credit: I Wei Huang / Shutterstock
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OT Staff
January 17 , 2022
05 Min Read

We often hear of heritage structures, which have long since fallen into disuse, being pulled down to meet the demands of real estate. However, thanks to a group of concerned people and a timely grant, an old ornate subway in England (dating back to the Victorian period) is being restored to its former glory and repurposed as an area for cultural performances and a tourist attraction.

The Crystal Palace Subway in south east London (United Kingdom) is being restored by the Bromley Council and the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway (FCPS) in collaboration with architects Thomas Ford & Partners. The City of London and Historic England provided the much needed funding of 2.8million pounds.

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Before going into the details of the restoration project, let us delve into the history of the name and why the subway was built in the first place.

In 1851, London’s Hyde Park played host to an internationally acclaimed expo called the Great Exhibition. Held between May 1 and October 15 of that year, the exhibition was organised to showcase the technological advances achieved during the Industrial Revolution. Made of cast iron and plate glass, the exhibition hall – said to be three times the size of London’s St Paul’s Cathedral – was considered a high point of architecture; named the Crystal Palace, it housed over 14,000 exhibitors from across the world.

After the exhibition, the Crystal Palace was shifted to Penge Place in south London and rebuilt at Sydenham Hill. Interestingly, the reconstructed exhibition hall was even more extravagant, and was once again opened to the public by Queen Victoria in June 1854.

To enable visitors to reach the venue, two railway stations were opened – while the Crystal Palace Low Level catered to the general public, Crystal Palace High Level catered to VIPs and high profile visitors. First class passengers would get down at the High Level station and cross the parade (promenade or public square) through a special subway – a passage consisting of a series of spectacular vaults, built from red and cream brick, with an elaborate floor paved in two alternating types of stone – and reach the hall gate directly. Designed by Charles Barry Junior, the subway was opened to the public in December 1865.

 
 
 
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Unfortunately, Crystal Palace was virtually razed to the ground in a devastating fire in November 1936. While the Low Level station continues to function even today, the High Level station fell into disuse and was shut in 1954.

Designated as a Grade II heritage structure, the Crystal Palace subway would have probably vanished if it was not for the FCPS, who raised funds to open a new access to the subway in 2016. While work to refurbish and secure the structure continued, FCPS would organise various events and open days for visitors to raise awareness about the heritage structure. Until 2020, the subway was visited by 22,000 visitors, according to the Bromley Council’s website.

 
 
 
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A post shared by Crystal Palace Subway (@cpsubway)

The subway is currently closed to visitors as wide-scale restoration is taking place. The Council, in a recent press release, said ‘the restoration works will see the repair of the Victorian subway, including the rebuilding of existing walls, construction of new parapet walls, and a roof structure’. It also said that ‘the proposed new roof will be visible from Crystal Palace Parade, with the subway exterior being made from glass and stainless steel, and the gable enclosed with Corten steel’. According to the Council, the completion of the restoration will likely see the subway being removed from the Heritage At Risk Registry.

Incidentally, in July last year, a long forgotten underground tram station in the centre of London was opened to visitors. According to the London Transport Museum website, ‘the Kingsway Tram Subway [which accommodated double decker trams] was probably the most important stretch of tram track in London, linking together the extensive tram networks of north and south London’. Opened in 1906, it was shut down in 1952. Visitors can now join guided tours (ticketed) organised by the transport museum to explore the former tram station where many of the original features are still found.


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