The Early Days of a Microscopist - Part 1

by Mike Barry, UK



So how did you become interested in microscopy? Surely ponds are full of slime and bugs and creepy crawlies and are cold and smelly!’ she asked with a slight look of disdain on her face.

You are dead right there,’ I replied. ‘They are full of slime, bugs and creepy crawlies … but that’s the whole point. These are wonderful things! Look closely with your eyes, a hand lens or even, if you are lucky, through a microscope, and be amazed, entranced, mesmerised by a whole new world. What can you see? Wonderful things!’

To me at the age of twelve the microscope itself was a wonderful thing! An object of desire. Watsons and Becks, brass fittings and wooden cases; all so beautiful. Then to use it to explore the minute world around one … well, what can one say? The more one looked the more one wanted to see. A fly’s wing, the parts of a flower, a hair, that green ‘stuff’ on the tree, and then the pond. Yes, those ponds beckoned and did they beckon … and they still do … but let’s start at the beginning.

The trees stretched far into the distance and below their green canopy lay a world of secret paths bordered by woodland flowers. If you were lucky, and chose the correct path, you would find yourself in a clearing and there, before you, was that ancient chapel. A mysterious building now derelict and in ruins. A window here, a doorway there, a stoop and the carved heads with features barely discernable. Some days it would be impossible to find and one doubted its existence but there was always the pond. The pond with an island which was reached by the use of a fallen log. If successfully traversed one could then indulge in pond dipping; the catching of newts and frog spawn while dragonflies darted overhead and the carrying home of that glass jar full of those wonderful things.

Sometimes there was a glimpse of a fox and its cubs. Woodpeckers could be heard on nearby trees yet always just out of sight. Apart from the ecology there was the archaeology. Ancient walls and carved stonework protruded from the ground and earth banks could be carefully excavated to find glass bottles of various shapes, sizes and hues.

This was my back garden, not in the countryside but in the middle of London. Then there were the tunnels! The first one shorter and straight so that you could see light at the far end. That circle of light would get gradually larger as you approached and then suddenly you were out into the fresh air and at the site of Upper Sydenham Station. This was a place where the train could surface for air before entering the final tunnel. This was the longer one, the one with a bend in the middle. When the light from the entrance behind you was finally extinguished you hoped that the exit would show itself but for a moment all was dark, all was black! Upon exiting that second tunnel you had arrived at The Screaming Alice - Crystal Palace. One could imagine those trains in the Victorian era bursting forth triumphantly amid a cloud of steam and almost immediately drawing to a stop within that wonderful gothic construction of the high level station.

This back garden of mine then was the disused railway line, bordered on one side by the wooded, overgrown, back gardens of Victorian mansions and on the other side by the deep, dark woods belonging to Dulwich College. A public footpath crossed that railway line by way of a wooden bridge and on that bridge in 1871 the French artist, Camille Pissarro, painted his view of Lordship Lane Station. This painting depicts the branch line from Nunhead to Crystal Palace and a steam train leaving the now demolished station on its way to the now demolished high level station via an intermediary one at Upper Sydenham - also demolished. The Victorian buildings in the painting remain, unlike those on the top of Sydenham Hill whose gardens became my back garden. These gardens were without boundaries and had seamlessly blended into each other, along with the railway cutting and the college woods. That mysterious, ancient chapel was a folly and had been built as a ruin and those bottles had been discarded by the Victorian inhabitants of those mansions. I hasten to add that along the Upper Sydenham Hill Road, leading to the Palace Parade, are still to be found numerous magnificent Victorian houses each different and some appearing to outdo its neighbour in grandeur. One has a blue plaque showing it was the home to John Logie Baird. The nearby railway line carried its last passengers in 1954. It was a branch line, from Nunhead, to carry visitors to Paxton’s Crystal Palace at Upper Norwood. The Crystal Palace which had housed the Great Exhibition at Hyde park in 1851, to celebrate and promote British industry, had been dismantled and rebuilt on that high ground south of the Thames. After the Palace’s demise by fire in 1936 the locality continued to be called Crystal Palace. There still remains the lower level station but it is the higher level one and that wooded, overgrown area by Pissarro’s bridge, or really Cox’s Walk footbridge, which I find of particular interest. Linking these two stations, the Higher and Lower, was another short railway. A pneumatic railway. A train without an engine but utilising air from a large fan and gravity for its propulsion. Stranger still, it is said that it still exists … somewhere underground. Truly a lost line!

The Crystal Palace, as we know, has been lost and the wonderful high level station and turntable was demolished in the late 1960s. The branch line had been taken up along with the stations and bridges between the Palace and Nunhead. There is some good news. Not everything was destroyed as I found out one Sunday in February. All of the wooded area I have referred to has not been built upon but is actively managed as a nature reserve under the direction of the London Wildlife Trust. It is the largest remaining part of the old Great North Wood which once stretched from Deptford to Selhurst and had been considered, in recent years, prime land for redevelopment. The tunnels remain, though closed, the paths can still be followed, the pond still exists with its island and the folly still stands. There are working parties every week and I am told that there are at least 200 species of flowering plants and rare insects - the tunnels providing roosts for bats. One can still use the bridge though the view that Pissarro painted is now obscured by buildings.

Upper Sydenham Hill Station, that intermediary one, was demolished leaving two tunnel entrances, a station building and steps with original railings which led down to the platforms. Now these steps take you down into a small, wooded area and a housing estate which blocks the view to the second tunnel entrance. This is the longer of the two, the one with the bend, and leads out to that high level station which was parallel to the Crystal Palace building.

What remains at this final destination? Actually a surprising amount. The gothic station, the lines, platforms, and turntable have all vanished. Where the numerous train lines and station stood there are now houses and other buildings, but the vast retaining walls still stand … still carrying out their original function after all these years. The perimeter walls to the turntable area are still there. Farquahar Road bridge, which ran immediately next to the front of the station, still functions. The massive brick piers upon which it sits are original and surprisingly show the same pattern of brickwork as used for the main station building. If one looks closely one notices the attention to detail recurring time and again. Details not only to enhance its visual appeal but also for structural considerations. This is certainly the case with the pedestrian underpass. This allowed people to cross safely under the main road between the station and the Palace. This underpass, this hidden gem, was, and is, fan vaulted like a ‘Byzantine crypt’. It has been said that craftsmen were brought over from Italy to lay the red and cream terra-cotta bricks though subsequently this is thought not to be the case. This grade 2 listed subway is now managed and cherished and occasionally open to the public. I was one of the lucky ones. Little did I know it existed all those years ago.

There remains for me a return visit. A visit to the Crystal Palace museum, the park with the original wide steps and Egyptian sculptures, and the dinosaurs … life size! The rumour that the line was closed because of a tunnel collapse which entombed a train and its passengers I am sure is not true. At least I did not notice anything when walking through. I am sure it was only a bat or two that flew past and it did feel rather cold …

All this was basically part of an enquiring mind - exploring, observing, finding out - so microscopy was really an addition, a means to look further or would that be closer? Then to get my first microscope and back to those ponds …

All comments to the author Mike Barry are welcomed. Photographs by Mike Barry.


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Published in the December 2016 edition of Micscape Magazine.

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