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Cleaning a dinosaur statue at Crystal Palace Fox Photos/Getty Images

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The Crystal Palace Dinosaurs

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When you’re only allowed to leave the house once a day, it puts a lot of pressure on the morning walk. Do I point the buggy north or south? Fortunately for me, just down the road from my house is Crystal Palace park, which offers two great benefits: first, a lot of space for social distancing and the avoidance of joggers, and second, a chance to travel back in time a few hundred million years. Even luckier, this route — down to the park, round the dinosaurs, back again — is almost exactly the right length for my daughter’s first nap of the day. Synergy in the time of corona.

From time to time, I like to imagine that the Crystal Palace dinosaurs catch somebody entirely by surprise. An unsuspecting soul, ambling along the path, KeepCup in one hand and phone in the other. Then all of a sudden: horror. A creature — a monster — scaled and dreadful, clambering out of the water, out of deep time. Teeth from a nightmare; spikes serried along its back. Cracked, staring eyes. Mouth open to bite. To roar. To … to … hang on, it’s not moving.

But even if this does happen, the shock can’t last long. Once the brain catches up with itself, it will remind its owner that the dinosaurs have all been dead for a while now. And in any case, this doesn’t look like any dinosaur you know. The legs are wrong. It’s fat in the wrong places. It’s the wrong kind of strange.

Crystal Palace Dinosaurs In London Mike Kemp/In PIctures via Getty Images

When I first saw the dinosaurs, some 15 or so years ago, I laughed. They were funny. They were wrong. They were funny because they were wrong. I was 20-odd years old and so I knew everything; certainly I knew what dinosaurs looked like. I’d seen Jurassic Park. As a child, I’d memorised every name from Aardonyx to Zupaysaurus and back again. And so, as a young and irritating adult, I knew just how silly and incorrect these weird lizards were.

They were built in the 1850s by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, a sculptor and natural history artist, in collaboration with various experts in early paleontology including Richard Owen, the man who came up with the word “dinosaur.” They were based on reasoned extrapolations from the available fossils and they were, for their time, as good a job as anybody could likely have done. They became a minor sensation, and Queen Victoria and Prince Albert dropped by several times.

They even made it into literature — the titular hero of HG Wells’ Kipps takes his bride to be to walk among the “strange reminders of the possibilities of the Creator … huge effigies of iguanodons and deinotheria and mastodons and suchlike”:

Kipps meditated on the monstrous shapes in sight. “I wonder ‘ow all these old antediluvium animals for extinct,” he asked. “No one could possibly ‘ave killed ‘em.”

”Why, I know that,” said Ann. “They was overtook by the Flood …”

Kipps meditated for a while. “But I thought they had to take two of everything there was —”

”Within reason they ‘ad,” said Ann …

The Kippses left it at that. The great green and gold Labyrinthodont took no notice of their conversation. It gazed with its wonderful eyes over their heads into the infinite — inflexibly calm.

But neither history nor paleontology have been kind. The park was ravaged by fire in the 1930s and afterwards the dinosaurs became run down. Even now, despite their addition to the UK’s list of protected constructions and ongoing restoration efforts, they still seem quaint. Polish them however you like, but Hylaeosaurus looks like a Harryhausen, the Teleosaurs raise their long snouts to the air like they’re tooting on trumpets, and the Labyrinthodonts, whatever Wells might have said, look like nothing so much as a pond of idling toads.

Moment Editorial/Getty Images

Of all London’s many parks, Crystal Palace is the most post-apocalyptic. As such the dinosaurs, long-fallen monarchs dragged forward through time by their planetary heirs, suit their space well. So does the coronavirus, as it goes: the quiet skies, the awkward distance, the sense of the world moving from a known past to an unknowable future.

It is named for a vast Victorian glass exhibition house that was built in Hyde Park, up in central London, to host the Great Exhibition of 1851. After the exhibition ended the whole edifice was taken down and moved eight miles south, to preside over a newly defined park in a leafy suburb. New lakes were dug, dinosaurs were built.

The Palace is no longer there. It burned down in 1936, and subsequent movements to rebuild the thing have founded on issues of cost, of time, and a general sense that there’s always something more important to be getting on with. But you can walk around the space where it was, which is still freighted with its absence. Stone mountings support a great emptiness. Grand steps carved into the landscape lead nowhere at all. Guardian sphinxes sit at rest, with nothing to watch over.

These sphinxes were recently restored and repainted a startling shade of red, somewhere between blood and rust. This, apparently, was their original colour, back when they guarded the steps of the Exhibition, but it has the odd effect of making them seem somehow less historical than they did. Old stone, historical stone, is crumbling and grey, stained with water and furred with moss. It wears its time like a lined face; the past can be read into it. Here the search for the authentic has produced something jarring, a double anachronism: they seem neither new nor old, but rather to have fallen out of time altogether.

Being older, wiser, and significantly more tired, and being reconciled to the fact I don’t know everything and often barely know anything, which I understand to be the condition of adulthood, I no longer find the wrongness of the dinosaurs funny. But I like them a lot more than I did. There is something encouraging and heartening about their wrongness. They stand now not as monuments to the power of Victorian science, an empire extending itself into the distant past, but bear witness to the fallibility of humanity.

Because, dear reader, it turns out that I was wrong as well. Jurassic Park was wrong.

I remember, as a kid, being impressed by the teeth and the horns and all the rest but most of all by the seriousness of dinosaurs: the grand longnecks, the terrible sharptooths. Even The Land Before Time is clear that its characters’ frivolity is a consequence of their childhood; the adult dinosaurs are just as serious as they should be. The dinosaurs I grew up with, once I’d left that early childhood stage where everything can be any colour and started reading books with pretensions to accuracy, were drab creatures. They ran from grey through brown and on to dark green, with just the occasional flash of colour to keep things interesting. Serious colours: all the flavours of military camouflage

We know better now. We know — we think we know; we are currently advancing as our best guess; the science has changed — that dinosaurs, or at least quite a few of them, were riotous explosions of feathers, profusions of colour. Hilarious, dramatic, and even a little bit camp. I wonder, sometimes, as I push the buggy past the Iguanodon’s portly shape, how the feathering of dinosaurs might have altered my childhood obsession. Perhaps it would have been less serious, less taxonomic — I know all the names! I am insufferable! — and more playfully strange. Or perhaps I would have just got into stamps instead.

A model of a feathered predatory dinosaur at the Vienna Natural History Museum Imagno / Contributor / Getty Images

For Christmas, my partner and I bought our daughter an A to Z dinosaur poster, painted by the artist James Barker. The paintings are colourful, gleefully ridiculous, almost expressionist; a far cry from the greens and the greys of my youth. This is not an attempt to depict dinosaurs as they were, with as much accuracy as the moment allows. Rather, these are dinosaurs as they might have been. As it would have been fun for them to have been. Why shouldn’t Allosaurus be bright blue, with an orange head. Are you going to laugh at it?

The Crystal Palace monsters aimed for accuracy and so, as knowledge moved on, became ridiculous. Now they have been reclaimed, are celebrated in their wrongness. You can buy a T-shirt. Meanwhile the Crystal Palace sphinxes were restored with dutiful attention to authenticity, which has had the paradoxical effect of taking them out of all possible places. The dinosaurs on my daughter’s poster dance the line between these two: they are playfully, consciously incorrect. They peer out from behind their probable-feathers, a rainbow of possible-colours, and in their ambiguity they propose a relationship to the past that is imaginative and free. That takes what we know, acknowledges that we don’t know everything, and asks not what a thing should be, but what it could be.

Image courtesy James Barker

Fun fact: there was an Andrewsarchus. Not a dinosaur, not quite, but a prehistoric ungulate that slouched around what is now Inner Mongolia some 25 million years after the last Tyrannosaur lay down and died. As delightful as having my own almost-dinosaur was, however, it could not stop me cultivating an obscure jealousy of my brother, Peter, and his near-perfect overlap with the mighty Pteranodon.