Richard Church at the Crystal Palace

Richard Church, the writer and poet, was born in Battersea in 1893, and lived in Herne Hill for many years.

The book on Kent in the ‘County Book’ series which he wrote in 1948 includes this piece about the Crystal Palace: ‘Looking at Kent as a general shape, one might call it a fan. The hinge to that fan – and a jewelled hinge – is, or was, the Crystal Palace on Sydenham Hill’. He goes on to say: ‘What a beautiful place in which to grow through those years of dawning consciousness and intelligence. I recall walking up to the Crystal Palace along College Road, through the Tollgate, past the Dulwich Wood where Robert Browning as a boy used also to wander, learning the nature-lore that was to inform so much of his baroque verse. That walk, a weekly pleasure, taken always with a brother dearly loved and in those days worshipped as an elder oracle of wisdom and artistic creativeness, often ended in a visit to the Palace, after a loitering stand by the walls of the Crystal Palace Parade, to enjoy the superb view over London, an aspect which set St. Paul’s hovering in mid-air and the great buildings along the Thames-side equally insubstantial, part of the ‘suddden city of dream spires’.

In those days the Crystal Palace was already somewhat derelict, its crystal panes grown cataracted, with occasional spots where the glass was gone. But not many weeks would pass without the old giant waking up and welcoming some festival or other, a band contest, a Policeman’s Fete, firework displays (‘Brocks’ Benefit’) and of course the annual Handel Festival, with the performance of the Messiah in the great Central Hall. My brother and I went to all these occasions and usually enjoyed them, as well as the shows in the little theatre within the Palace. The plays, the various great occasions, the crowds and spectacles are all confused in my memory now, and as dead and extinct as the stone prehistoric animals that stood about the lakes at the bottom of the grounds.

But one thing survives, isolated and intact. It is the moment of my first look-out over Kent when I climbed the great tower at the eastern end (the water chute end) of the Palace. I still find myself tonge-tied when I try to describe what that meant to me. It has something about ‘Pilgrims Progress’ about it. I am Christian gazing at the prospect of the Celestial City. I remember too how when I first read Keats’ sonnet on Chapman’s Homer, and came to the lines about stout Cortez staring at the Pacific, and all his men looking at each other in wild surmise, silent upon a peak in Darian’, I immediately recognized those men and their emotions. I was already one of them and had shared their experience. It took place on that tower of the Crystal Palace, and my Darien was Kent, the land of promise and unknown adventure, where later, as I grew bigger and possessed a bicycle, I was to explore every fine Saturday with my brother, ferreting out, as only boys can do, every bye-lane and odd copse and wayside station, every cottage where teas might be eaten and maps consulted……………. We will enter Kent by this back door which is the same door that Ptolemy took when he came as geographer to Britain two thousand years ago. So let us turn our backs on London and face the sun.

Immediately below us, to our left hand, lie Sydenham and Penge. They still have, from this height, something of their past seclusion and foliage. Once they were places of retreat for the successful merchants of the nineteenth century who built large houses amid dropping terrace gardens where the nightingales sang, and the terraces looked over the south to the Weald and the warmth. You can imagine the croquet on these lawns among the formal flower beds, the monkey puzzles and the double red May trees. You can picture the greenhouses with their palm courts, their chrysanthemums and orchids. You can hear the carriages spanking up from the station or right out from Town, along those tree-arched roads with their steep hills and their stretches of ancient common land, now roped off with white posts and chains, and shaded with great chestnut trees.

Alas, the tumescence of the Great Wen has broken down that dignified suburban life. No longer can a foreign musician, as did Mendelssohn, stay in those great semi-country villas and write his ‘Spring Song’ (Mendelssohn did this on Denmark Hill, closer still to London). Population has pushed all that seclusion away.

In 1821 Penge, the door to Kent, was a tiny hamlet of two hundred and twenty-eight people. Twenty years later it was only two hundred and seventy. Then the great Industrial Change began to ferment. By 1851 the railway had come out, and the population went up to 1,169. In 1861 the re-erection of the Crystal Palace (after the closing down of the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park) brought more inhabitants, and more building over the green fields. The population was then 5,000. By 1871 it had more than doubled, becoming 13,202, with resultant ugliness in municipal life that called down the wrath of  John Ruskin in his book “Fors Clavigera”. (He too sat on Denmark Hill and watched events). By 1921 the one-time hamlet was an indistinguishable suburb of 25,000 dwellers,

The boundary still stands, however, at the east end of the Crystal Palace parade, where once stood the Vicar’s Oak, an ancient mark of the frontiers for the counties of Kent and Surrey. He goes on to describe Penge and Sydenham, both ancient places, and how these were formerly covered with forest. ‘Patches of Royal Forest survived for many centuries, and we read that Sir Richard Grenville’s famous little shop, the Revenge, was built from oak felled in the woods of Norwood, which is the parish at the western foot of Crystal Palace. It lies to our right hand, immediately below, dropping steeply down from Norwood village which clusters round the end of the Parade.

Down these slopes, as also down the nearer ones of Sydenham and Penge, opulent houses still stand, many of them fallen into shabby-genteel condition, and their gardens gone to melancholy, with fallen fences, briars across the paths, and all the rest of those characteristics of a deserted garden, and the voices now silent, and the lamps gone out – and an echo of the ballade “Ou sont les neiges d’antan?”

Richard went on to become a literary critic, editor of J. Dent, lecturer and writer on several subjects, as history and topography, besides novels and poetry.

He died near Goudhurst, Kent in 1972.

Betty Griffin

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