Tunnel Vision

Crystal Palace High Level Foot Tunnel

Crystal Palace

London, SE26

Portal at TQ338712 and TQ341715


Crystal Palace High Level (known from 1898 as Crystal Palace High Level and Upper Norwood) was built on the side of Crystal Palace Parade. It was the southern terminus of the Crystal Palace and South London Junction Railway - the company founded to deliver flocks of daytrippers to the reconstructed Crystal Palace when it moved from Hyde Park in 1852. The company was later subsumed by the SECR.

The line opened to revenue earning services on the 1st August 1865.

As the line was specifically built to serve Joseph Paxton's immense glass and steel masterpiece and its grounds, the station site was specially chosen to be as close as possible to the attractions, even though this entailed major engineering works.

Competition with the established Crystal Palace Low Level station further down Anerley Hill - opened by the London Brighton and South Coast Railway on 12th June 1854 as a branch off its main line south of Sydenham - led the High Level's architect to indulge in more of a flight of fancy, echoing many of the design motifs of the Palace itself.

This image (from the early fifties we think) shows the high-ceilinged platform area of the station and the scale of the space. The brick arches on the left reflect the signature arches of the Palace.

From the authors' collections


The contemporary postcard shows the Crystal Palace as it looked from the south in around 1888. The caption on the card reads 'Palace at Sydenham, designed by Sir Joseph Paxton, consists entirely of glass and iron. It was constructed mainly with the materials of the first great Industrial Exhibition of 1851, and was opened in 1854. It is composed of a spacious central hall or nave 1608 feet long, with lateral sections, two aisles, and two transepts. A third transept at the north end which formed a palm house, of imposing dimensions, was burned down in 1866. The cost of the whole undertaking, including the magnificent garden and grounds, and much additional land outside, amounted to a million and a half sterling.' The entire Crystal Palace was of course destroyed by the catastrophic fire of 1936.

From the authors' collections


For the station to serve its intended purpose, easy access from the platforms to the pleasure grounds of the exhibition was essential, a route to link the station and the Palace with a visitor's concourse of a suitably grand scale and lavish design.

The result of this requirement was a direct connection for first class passengers from the refreshment room situated on first floor of the station's northern building, through a wide vaulted tunnel beneath Crystal Palace Parade to staircases which led up into the Central Transept of the Palace itself.

As a grand entrance to perhps the most startling structure to have ever graced the London skyline, the effect must have been breathtaking.

The Site in 2004

The station building has long gone, but the portals of the first-class tunnel can still be easily seen. viewed from the new housing estate below in the first picture and from Crystal Palace Parade above in the second.

This shot shows the entrance for first-class passengers on the old station site on the west side of the road. This is the set of arches just peeking over the newer retaining wall. The tunnel always had an elevated entrance and was originally entered from the upper story of the station building.

Photo Chris Fletcher

This is the same view but from above.

Photo Chris Fletcher

This photo, taken on 3rd June 1956 from the parapet above the portal of Paxton Tunnel, shows how the the first class area on the first floor connected with the tunnel that remains today. The section of the building above the track at the far left joins the retaining wall at the point shown in the images immediately above.

Photo R C Riley

The tunnel and the craftsmanship that was invested in it can only be described as spectacular; it thoroughly deserves its special status a Grade 2 listed structure. As you can clearly see, the entrances and interior are finished in contrasting red and white brick and tiles, giving an effect that is hard to capture in photographs.


This image shows a detail of the columns and faux-fan-vaulted ceiling in striking red and white masonry to highlight the shape of the brickwork.

Photo Chris Fletcher

A view through the tunnel emphasises its width against its relatively short length.

Photo Chris Fletcher


The entrances are on both sides of Crystal Palace Parade and their location is easily spotted by the fairly high brick wall on one side of the road and the bricked up pedestrian access directly opposite.

The high wall hides the staircases which sit inside a fairly deep well. The whole area is now sealed inside a fenced compound to protect the public from several deep and hidden drops. The staircase also has a separate gate just inside its entrance.

The staircase on the western (park) side of the road is blocked by an iron gate, but leads to....

Photo Chris Fletcher

... the concourse area that would have been covered by a twin roof,
the edge of which can still be discerned in the far wall.

Photo Chris Fletcher

On the station side, behind the walled-up section, a staircase leads down. A safety fence is installed but this is nearly always open thanks to the curiosity and persistence of some of the local kids. Descending the stairs brings you out onto the entrance platform where there are four entrances barred with heavy gates. You can't go any further than this but you can see into and through the tunnel very well.

This is a lovely little Victorian gem hidden just out of sight of the thousands who tread the bustling parade above every day. A local group is currently working to try and restore the tunnel as a public right of way to cross the busy A212. Their work may receive an unexpected fillip in the near future thanks to a new redevelopment plan for a controversial but quite beautiful glass'bubble' to sit atop the Palaces old foundations. The design, by Wilkinson Eyre Architects of Gateshead Millenium Eye bridge fame, is being actively promoted by the Crystal Palace Campaign, the same pressure group that thwarted the 2001 attempt to build a multiplex cinema on the western fringe of the park.

We hope that the High Level Foot Tunnel can find a new use to keep it out of the hands of the vandals who are doing their usual grim and stupid work while it remains hidden from view.

Sub Brit visit December 2004

Contributors and references:

Chris Fletcher, John Smiles

Londons Lost Railways by Charles Klapper (Book Club Associates)

Lost Lines of the Southern by Nigel Welbourn (Ian Allen)

London Suburban Railway series - Crystal Palace (High Level) and Catford Loop (Middleton Press)

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Last updated: 04 01 2011
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