London can be a fairly expensive place to live and so it is imperative to learn about as many free and cheap experiences as possible. Visitors to my flat in Crystal Palace are usually treated to a walk to one of my favourite places – the home of the dinosaurs in my local park.
The dinosaurs – which are free to visit!
One of the coolest things about living in this area is being a five minute walk from (it’s official) London’s Favourite Public Sculptures.
Over 150 years ago, in the mid-1800s, a sculptor named Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins was commissioned to build life sized models of animals that no longer walked the earth. Luckily for us he decided that as well as huge mammals, he would build dinosaurs.
Mr Waterhouse Hawkins had been involved in the Great Exhibition in 1851, which is where the Crystal Palace was first built. When the decision was made to relocate the huge glass exhibition hall from Hyde Park to what was then called Penge Common in South London, the Crystal Palace company wanted the setting to be suitable dramatic and someone had the genius idea of creating a menagerie of massive extinct animals.
The scientific knowledge necessary to recreate these creatures came from one Richard Owen – whose name might be familiar. As well as being the chap who coined the name ‘dinosaur’ (terrible reptile), Owen was the driving force behind the creation of a separate building to house the British Museum’s collection of natural specimens. In 1881 London’s Natural History Museum opened in South Kensington – a gorgeous terracotta edifice covered in relief sculptures of plants and creatures.
Back in CP, my favourite thing about the huge dinosaur statues is not that they are almost totally wrong, but rather that they are a snapshot of an incredible time in terms of human learning and willingness to share knowledge. They were the first dinosaur sculptures in the world, and represented an attempt to educate the public about the existence of these incredible creatures. The public reaction was so strong that small versions of the dinosaurs were sold as educational models. Could this have been the first instance of promotional merchandising?
Sadly it wasn’t long before scientific advances revealed the inaccuracies of the sculptures and they fell out of favour for several years before being rescued in the 20th century. They are currently being refreshed again, with work ongoing to repair damage done by weathering and vandals. Hopefully this work will enable many more generations of visitors to enjoy learning not just about dinosaurs, but about the development of knowledge and the way in which ‘facts’ as we know them can change rapidly with the uncovering of new information.