It took local resident TOM BROWN five years, but he has published a book which goes deep under the surface of the Victorian era south London
It all started in early 2008. I’d recently finished my debut novel, and was scrabbling around for a new subject. The first book had fallen into my lap – a satire about those who believe Shakespeare didn’t write his own plays, inspired by my time working at the Globe Theatre – and I was longing to have my head turned by some unexpected new obsession.
As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. For just at that point, my girlfriend and I went for a walk.
I’d lived in West Dulwich for eight years, and my innate laziness and deep-rooted fear of hills had meant I’d only ever ventured up to Crystal Palace once or twice (mainly to visit the Warrior CD Store on Westow Hill, now much-missed).
One day, however, we found ourselves strolling from the blocked-up entrance to Crescent Wood tunnel in Sydenham Hill Wood to the equally blocked-up portal of Paxton tunnel to the west of Crystal Palace Parade – at which point, my girlfriend said something extraordinary.
“I take it you know about the skeletons.”
“‘Oh, yeah. Trapped in a tunnel somewhere round here. Abandoned in an old railway carriage. Victorians, apparently – still fully clothed.”
I went home and looked it up; Google yielded a tantalising minimum of information.
Indeed there was a story about buried Victorian railway passengers – one young woman, in 1978, claimed to have fallen down a hole and seen their fully intact skeletons – but it had nothing to do with the Paxton or Crescent Wood tunnels. Instead, the “urban myth” seemed to date back to a railway which had once run inside the grounds of the Crystal Palace – an experimental line that had operated for just a couple of months in 1864, and which had been powered, amazingly enough, by air.
One thing led to another. I searched online for information about the railway and its inventor, a civil engineer named Thomas Webster Rammell, and found surprisingly little about his trials with these “pneumatic railways”. So I headed to the British Library, the London Metropolitan Archive and the Parliamentary Archives, unrolling dusty plans of daring railways that never were, and leafing wide-eyed through old pamphlets and newspapers.
Bit by bit, I pieced together Rammell’s remarkable story – a tireless quest to build air-powered railways beneath London’s streets at a time when the nascent Metropolitan Railway was making do with the altogether more dangerous, dirty and unreliable grunt of steam.
At the same time, I was spending many happy hours roaming round Crystal Palace Park, working out exactly where Rammell’s trial railway had run, and falling helplessly in love with the park’s magical atmosphere: that sense of something lost, but still so palpably present in what remains. Walking around the ruins, I swore I could hear the drone of motor racing and the powerful pulse of rock concerts at the Bowl; I felt like I shared the sadness of the decapitated statues and crumbling sphinxes. Again and again I climbed the grand old staircases, and each time I pined for a world in which it was still possible to visit the cathedral of iron and glass to which they once led.
Those were special days. The park felt like an imaginative wonderland, and I couldn’t get enough of its eerie nostalgia. I moved to a house just off Church Road to be that little bit closer to its charms, and read exhaustively about the history of the Palace, becoming fixated on its gradual demise – from the first major fire of 1866, which did for the north transept and wing, through to the catastrophic blaze of 1936 and subsequent years of post-war neglect.
The more I read, the more I realised that the Palace and its park also had a tale that needed to be told – a grand, sorry saga about faded glory and serial misfortune. With the urban myth of the buried skeletons still looming large in my mind, the Palace’s story began to mingle with that of the ground-breaking railway once demonstrated in its grounds. I started to fantasise about a world in which the two histories were somehow entwined.
The result, five years later, is Strange Air – my second novel, which has just been published. It is, I’m proud to say, a London book for lovers of London. But I’m even prouder to say that it’s a Crystal Palace book for lovers of Crystal Palace – one which, I hope, does justice to the unique magic of this once-mighty corner of the capital.
- Strange Air is available from Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats; copies are also on sale in Bookseller Crow on Westow Street, Upper Norwood.
Coming to Croydon
- Old Mid-Whits hockey open day: Sep 8
- Friends of Ashburton Park meeting: Sep 11
- Toxic teddy bears’ picnic: Sep 21
- Three plays in a pub: The Ship, Sep 24
- Have a cup of coffee and help fight cancer: Sep 27
- Inside Croydon: Croydon’s only independent news source, based in the heart of the borough – 262,183 page views (Jan-Jun 2013)
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- Chinese Developer Plans to Build Crystal Palace Replica in London (archdaily.com)
- Cyclist dies in lorry collision in West Dulwich (london24.com)
- Missed in History: The Crystal Palace (blogs.howstuffworks.com)