The Tunnel We Love (Crystal Palace Subway, London, UK)

Pedestrian subways must be one of the most reviled types of transport infrastructure around. Thanks to the over-enthusiastic adoption of the pedestrian/car segregation policies outlined in Colin Buchanan’s 1963 report Traffic in Towns (more on that in this earlier post), they have come to symbolise everything that’s wrong about walking in towns. They’re a manifestation of the assumption that cars are the most important form of urban transport, while pedestrians can be shunted into rabbit warrens of dank tunnels. This is a typical example of its kind:

Pedestrian subway under the A40 in London. Phillip Perry [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Pedestrian subway under the A40 in London. Phillip Perry [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Even if the idea wasn’t completely without merit, many pedestrian subways were so ineptly executed, with such poor drainage, lighting and personal security considerations, that we’ve spent the rest of the 20th Century and the beginning of the 21st filling them back in again and restoring at-grade road crossings.

So how was it that I recently spent an hour with hundreds of other people, all of us waiting in a queue to visit a pedestrian subway?

The queue for Crystal Palace Subway, 18 September 2016. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
The queue for the Crystal Palace Subway, 18 September 2016. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

It’s because this was a rare chance to visit the best pedestrian subway in Britain, possibly the world (though I need to do some more travelling before I can back up that larger claim). Located under Crystal Palace Parade in south London, the Crystal Palace Subway was open for London Open House weekend and over the two days it welcomed 3,700 curious visitors.

The subway opened in 1865 and connected the long-vanished Crystal Palace High Level station to the Crystal Palace itself. The High Level station was situated lower than the Crystal Palace (the qualifier is to avoid confusion with the even lower Low Level station which remains in use to this day) on the other side of Crystal Palace Parade. To allow visitors sheltered access to the Crystal Palace from the station, and avoid the need to climb stairs all the way up to road level, the subway was built. It linked to the lower levels of the palace via a glass-roofed vestibule. But there was a catch – it was only for the use of First Class train passengers. Second or Third Class passengers had to cross the road on the level, negotiating with the weather and road traffic. Considering the entirely second class facilities that pedestrian subways would become by the end of the 20th Century, there is a degree of irony in the Crystal Palace Subway’s role serving only First Class passengers. The subway, built ‘cut-and-cover’ style and necessitating a lengthy road closure, was designed to reflect its First Class nature; for this was no ordinary passageway.

Crystal Palace Subway, proving its appeal to some of the several thousand people who visited it during 2016's London Open House weekend. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
The Crystal Palace Subway, proving its appeal to some of the several thousand people who visited it during 2016’s London Open House weekend. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

A little Italianate gem finished in red and cream brick, it is an entirely surprising thing to find hiding under a busy south London road. Octagonal columns, made of cream brick with stone bases and capitals, support the roadway above on a fan-vaulted roof. Ovolo stone mouldings (convex in profile, in other words) line the edges of the fans and the roundels in between. The diamond-shaped design made from the two colours of bricks in the fans and roundels is more properly called diaper patterning.

Ovolo stone mouldings and patterned brickwork at Crystal Palace Subway. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
Ovolo stone mouldings and patterned brickwork at the Crystal Palace Subway. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

I guarantee you, it’s not like any pedestrian subway you’ve ever seen before. If it resembles anything else in the world of transport, it’s perhaps most closely related to Lucien Bechmann’s Rotonde at Gare Saint-Lazare Métro station in Paris. The identity of the designer of the Crystal Palace Subway is subject to some confusion. It was either Edward Middleton Barry (who also designed the Royal Opera House Theatre in Covent Garden) or his brother Charles Barry (who also designed the Great Eastern Hotel at Liverpool Street station in London), while the London, Chatham & Dover Railway’s engineer William Shelford might have had some degree of design involvement too.

The Crystal Palace burnt down in 1936, after which the High Level station and its connecting subway lost their main purpose. Years of slow decline followed, with an interlude in which the subway was used as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War, until the High Level station closed in 1954 and the subway was bricked up in the 1970s. Its importance was recognised with its listing at Grade II status in 1972, but it was largely forgotten despite being occasionally open for community and/or cultural events. It took until 2010 and the formation of what is now the Friends of Crystal Palace Subway to really get the Subway more widely recognised. The Friends have done a sterling job of raising awareness, and most importantly raising funds to allow the installation of safe access to the subway, allowing it to open on selected occasions.

Underneath Crystal Palace Parade, these three arches are the entrance to Crystal Palace Subway where the High Level station used to be. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album
Underneath Crystal Palace Parade, these three arches are the entrance to the Crystal Palace Subway where the High Level station used to be. Photo by Daniel Wright [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0] via this flickr album

The fact that the Crystal Palace Subway attracted not too far off 4,000 visits over a single weekend demonstrates the considerable interest and affection that the public holds for transport, especially those bits behind the scenes. It’s a wellspring of goodwill that the transport industry almost entirely fails to tap. London Open House / Heritage Open Days weekends allow members of the public access to normally inaccessible railway electrical control rooms and under-construction Crossrail stations, while the London Transport Museum facilitates tours of closed Underground stations at other times, but that’s really about it.

The failure of the passenger transport industry to capitalise on this public enthusiasm for its product is a theme that Urban Transport Group director Jonathan Bray took up in a recent article for Passenger Transport magazine (find that article here). He’s absolutely right. The occasional enthusiastic bus manager reaching out to the public to share their excitement over his or her company’s latest initiatives is rare. Transdev Blazefield chief executive Alex Hornby (@alextransdev on Twitter) and Reading Buses chief executive Martijn Gilbert (@MartRDG on Twitter) are unusual and notable exceptions.

When it comes to the rail industry, I can’t think of a single chief executive doing anything on a similar scale and with such boundless enthusiasm. If you can find a train operating company chief executive on Twitter, there’s usually something a bit ‘proper’ about the whole thing. Instead it’s left to individual employees to give genuine glimpses inside the operations of train companies and tap into public interest in such matters. And if you like that kind of thing (I’m assuming you do – you’re reading this ultra-niche blog, after all…) then you could do worse than Driver H. Potter telling you what it’s like to drive for South West Trains (@DriverPotter on Twitter). Meanwhile, over at London Midland, its tiny Stourbridge Shuttle operation cries out for some personality-filled marketing, trading on its dinky People Mover rolling stock, community focus, and friendly staff. But no, nothing corporate shall you find. It’s one of its drivers who runs a one-man communications blitz on behalf of the Shuttle, in the shape of Phil Tonks (@PhilTonks2 on Twitter). Sam Jessup (@samthebox on Twitter) gives a fascinating insight into design, branding and marketing at Virgin Trains. And frankly, if I was the Rail Delivery Group, I’d be paying Tim Dunn (TV presenter and transport enthusiast) for the work he does spreading the joy of rail travel through his infectious enthusiasm and mind-boggling Twitter feed (@MrTimDunn) of obscure railway history. Why the ‘official’ rail industry seems so much less enthusiastic about itself than any of these people, I have no idea.

I’m pretty sure that of the 3,700 people queuing for an hour to look at the Crystal Palace Subway, not all of them could have been die-hard transport nuts. In fact one of them was my partner, who generally has more sensible things to do than be interested in obscure transport facilities, but who I dragged along anyway. She later declared the “tunnel thing” to be “quite nice”. The transport industry is amazing, the infrastructure it has built is often genuinely incredible, and its impact on wider culture outdoes that of any other industry I can think of (did you know electronic music duo The Chemical Brothers filmed the video for their ‘Setting Sun’ track in the Crystal Palace Subway?). Why most parts of the transport industry squander this opportunity to build a positive relationship with users and potential users, I fail to understand.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Friends of the Crystal Palace Subway, 2013(?): The Crystal Palace Subway – leaflet.

Historic England listing citation for the Crystal Palace Subway, here

Friends of the Crystal Palace Subway website, here

Jonathan Bray’s Twitter feed, @Jonathan_Bray, also well worth following, here

…and anything (and anyone) linked to in the text above.

How to Find the Crystal Palace Subway

Click here for The Beauty of Transport‘s map

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