Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, London…Not many of us aren’t at least a teensy little bit interested by the Dinosaurs. I for one have a childhood fascination with them that has continued – a bit less obsessive, perhaps, but still there – in to adulthood.
To cater for our continued intrigue with those ‘terrible lizards’ that roamed the earth many millions of years ago, there are a multitude of books, toys, movies (if you haven’t seen at least one Jurassic Park movie then where have you been?!) and, of course, dinosaur parks, where you get the chance to check out life-size models of these awe-inspiring monsters.
What makes the ones that reside in the pretty park at Crystal Palace unique and different is that the collection here is a historical monument in its own right, dating from 1853. And the depiction of the dinosaurs here are very different from how we know (or think we know…) they looked now: making this a site of historical significance in the field of science, as well as a curious insight in to early paleontology.
At the time the park was built the study of dinosaurs was very much in its infancy, hence the bizarre form they take that you see in the photos here. In my view they look more like lumpy, clumsy precursors of the stop-motion models dreamt up by the great visual effects pioneer Ray Harryhausen. They’re actually the creations of the sculptor Benjamin Hawkins, who was acting under advisement of Richard Owen, the man who, among other things, first coined the phrase ‘dinosaur’.
When they opened to the public they were a major, if controversial – this was shortly before Darwinism took full effect, and outraged the establishment and the religious sectors of the time – attraction, but they did fall in to neglect for a while, and became overgrown by the surrounding vegetation. Now they’re on full view again, with the visually striking Iguanadon model being the star attraction.
Of course, visitors today have a totally different experience to those who enjoyed the dinosaurs in Victorian times (apparently Queen Victoria and Prince Albert loved them so much they visited on several occasions). For us, they’re decidedly more surreal: residing on an islet in the middle of a tranquil pond – which, I’m afraid, means you can’t actually get up right next to the dinosaurs – they almost look like tamed domestic pets. Doubly so when you consider the ducks that paddle on the water so close to them!
While they do attract a decent number of visitors these days, the collection is sufficiently off the main tourist trails of London to ensure you’ll rarely have to contend with crowds. But at the same time it’s accessible enough from Central London so as to not be too off the beaten track, with the dinosaurs being a mere five minute walk away from Crystal Palace train station.
Coming to see these unusual (to contemporary eyes) models isn’t just about visiting a dinosaur park of course – if you’re a true dino enthusiast, I’d recommend other ones with more realistic models, or a museum with bones and animatronic models galore, such as the Natural History Museum in London’s centre. This park is also a whimsical insight in to Victorian-era folly, and says at least as much about the era that gave us these models as it does about dinosaurs themselves.