Just under 150 years ago, a subway was built linking a railway station to a shopping arcade, but was closed 60 years ago, and has been largely sealed up ever since. Which is a pity as it is a true marvel of Victorian brickwork.

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Rarely open to the public, today was a rare chance to have a look inside the Crystal Palace Subway.

The subway owes its existence to the Crystal Palace, which was built in Sydenham, but the existing “low-level” railway station was a bit too far for genteel Victorian ladies, so a “high-level” station was built right next to the vast glassy arcade itself.

As befits Victorian thinking, the poor left the station by a front entrance, walked around the hill, across the road and into the Palace via a public entrance. The rich though, they traveled first class, and took the private subway under the road and directly into the Palace from the station’s own private staircase.

The station was ill fated though, opening a decade after the Palace itself, but at about the same time as the Palace’s popularity had started to wane. Passenger numbers for the new station were low, and collapsed to nearly nothing during WW2.

Although the subway was built for the 1st class of Victorian society, it was used during WW2 for the common folk, as an air raid shelter. The station finally closed in September 1954, and was demolished in 1961.

The subway though, that was saved, although closed off and has been left largely untouched ever since.

It can be described as being in three zones — three sets of grand staircases leading to the Palace above, a once glass covered atrium, and the famous brick subway itself.

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The staircase and atrium are now fully exposed to the elements, and plants who chose to make their home in neglected buildings, but access is still fairly easy down reasonably safe steps. Here, one level below ground the outlines of the old Victorian glass ceiling can still be seen in the walls and the four arches leading to the subway itself.

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To lock the station up at night, huge wooden doors would have been slid in front of the staircases, and in a rare development, the doors were slid from recesses built into the brick walls. Very tidy and still not all that common a design.

It is however the listed subway that runs under the main road that is the main attraction here. Built by the cut and cover method, it contains 15 columns supporting fan-vaulted ceilings.

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A recent survey by the council found that the structure is still sound and strong enough to carry 40 ton lorries above. Indeed, it is thought to be so well built that it could outlast the surrounding retaining walls before needing serious maintenance.

The columns though, are not solid, but hollow for some unknown reason, not that has been an impairment to their strength.

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There is a claim that the subway was built by Italian workmen specially brought over for the job — but that might be an urban myth as there seems to be little to support the claim which can only be traced back a few decades.

Black metal circles in the ceiling mark the former locations of gas lanterns, which would have no doubt flickered most decoratively amongst the brick work.

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Although called a subway, and indeed is under the road, it is actually above the height of the railway station it once served — so steep is the hill in that area. Locked gates prevented us from accessing the landing where the steps would once have brought passengers up to their private entrance.

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Access to the subway is sadly very tightly restricted by Bromley Council for some reason, and it was only by special arrangement with the Friends of the CP Subway that access was possible for a small group from Subterranea Britannica.

Some more photos:

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14 comments on “Inside the derelict Crystal Palace subway
  1. Clary says:

    Wow, it’s lovely. Thanks for sharing!

  2. LadyBracknell says:

    What a beautiful space. What a pity that something cannot be done with it, although I should imagine that funding is the main constraint.

  3. Francesca Fenn says:

    This is lovely! In such good, clean nick, too. I hope it’ll be open to the public some day soon.Open House weekend?

  4. ChrisMitch says:

    I am impressed that the brickwork looks so clean! It’s in great condition – shame a use can’t be found for it.

  5. Plinky Plonk says:

    Yes, thanks for showing the photographs. It is indeed a pity that it is not open for viewing more often. I used to belong to SubBrit when I was younger and more agile. Members get to see some amazing things.
    However, I hope no commercial use is brought about by the Council. There would be a Starbucks branch down there at the drop of a hat! Curiosities should remain just that.

  6. James Wallis says:

    Presumably traffic to the station ‘collapsed to nearly nothing during WW2’ because the Crystal Palace itself had burnt to the ground in 1936.

    • Andrew Comley says:

      If memory serves me correctly, the greater Crystal Palace grounds were used as an interment camp during WW2 although other sources state that there was radar screens being manufactured in the area, so there would have been some traffic, but as James Wallis has correctly stated the Crystal Palace itself burnt down. It was also not a shopping arcade but rather a grand educational space before being used for the 1911 Festival of the Empire.

  7. Rory Drake says:

    Love the architecture.. Too bad that in this day and age it would be hard to replicate the actual craftsmenship as the trade and knowledge required have not been passed down. Hard to find true talent in masonary..

    • ianvisits says:

      I know a lot of craftsmen who hold their heads in despair at that misleading representation of the skills base in the UK.

    • LadyBracknell says:

      Indeed, there are still quite a lot of skilled artisans – blacksmiths, glassblowers, lime renderers to name but a few – who are required by the restoration ‘industry’.

  8. Loti Irwin says:

    The Crystal Palace subway was built by Messrs. Lucas Brothers, the great victorian contractors, who also built The Royal Albert Hall, the Alexandra Palace, the Metropolitan (underground) Railway and so much more. Isn’t it wonderful! (Reference: The Builder).

  9. steve sayer says:

    looks like something out of a hammer house of horror . very good pics very interesting

  10. Helen Sexton says:

    What a brilliant slide show! i can only hope that this the subway will be restored and open to the public.

  11. nikk51 says:

    Great – thanks for posting this. I used to live very close by in Sydenham in around 2001. I used to climb down from the pavement and peer through the locked gates into the subway and was always fascinated with what I could see, I would have loved to be able to get in for a good luck. This area has a great history, the tunnels that served this station can also be found in the the nearby Sydenham woods, the train track has long since been removed and the tunnels sealed at both ends.

    It was always amazing the amount of people always waiting directly above at the bust stops, totally oblivious to what was below!

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