Or: A Child of Ray Harryhausen Encounters His Dream Creatures
by Chris Aldous
Jules Verne eat your heart out.
This is the tale of my expedition to the prehistoric Lost World of Forgotten Dinosaurs. A collective leap into the unknown. The Ranger, the Photographer, the Scientists and me.
A sun-drenched day last summer. Base camp was the café by the station where ominously the dinosaurs made their first appearance in a selection of painted pictures on the wall, one depicting a pair of Megalosaurus emerging out of the nearby rail tunnel as if they were suburban commuters that had just taken a wrong turn.
Dinosaurs on the City line.
I couldn’t help but be whisked back to a childhood populated with the Dynamation creations of Ray Harryhausen: prehistory rearing up in the cinema stalls, all bloody of tooth and claw: what’s not to love about stop-start dinosaurs fighting cowboys in the “Valley of Gwangi”?
And that was what was so irresistible about this South London pilgrimage: tracking down the re-appearance of dinosaurs in the real world. Not just artfully re-arranged bones in the safety of a roped off glass box, but creatures lurking in the parkland shrubbery, emerging from the undergrowth, sprawled out on the banks of a mysterious shoreline.
Waiting to pounce.
The trek through the park took in another set of dinosaur illustrations, this time a colourful mural of Hollywood hopefuls stomping all over the collective consciousness of impressionable kids.
The starbucking of saurians.
As we moved deeper into the park, my natural assumption was that we would be punting out across a dark water expanse – something akin to the River Styx – heading out to a mist-enshrouded Skull Island.
Fact was there was no boat needed: when we reached the water’s edge, we simply had to skirt the shoreline then balance our way across a narrow 10ft wide concrete weir (but note to any hopeful invaders: not only is this route treacherously precarious it has subsequently been defended by some intimidating new ironwork).
Even from the opposing bank, the shapes of the creatures were unmistakeable. They loomed and lurked. They re-sized their surroundings. Tall trees looked smaller. Fences looked frail. A visiting heron looked toy-like.
Here be monsters, boys and girls – way beyond the usual blue screen CGI inventions of tech-wizardry. Smoke and mirrors not needed. These Jurassic giants stand their ground in real life. Fantasy made flesh and stone.
Welcome to Isla Nublar, SE22.
Within three paces of leaving the weir behind it was evident we had stepped back in time. At our feet lurked the gaping maw of a hidden creature. An ambush of teeth bursting out of the foliage.
A prehistoric gargoyle, bulging eye tracking our passage to a safer vantage point. He looked hungry. The spray of weeds that decorated his dental array only seemed to suggest a meal half-finished as if we had caught him mid-chomp, Homo sapien salad with a balsamic vinegar dressing.
We didn’t hang about. He was at rest but that could change in an instant. One shake of that mighty head and we’d all be running for the hills.
We used a half hidden path to climb the bank, scrabbling for purchase amongst the sun-dappled overflowing undergrowth. A rocky outcrop jutted above our heads and as we crested the small rise, two angry Pterodactyls slid into view, bat-wings splayed, long lizard necks uncoiled, razor-sharp jawlines set indignantly at our outrageous intrusion to their prehistoric stone slumber.
They looked like winged gods. Rampantly enraged.
I couldn’t help but bow a little as we moved past them, guilty that we were not there to offer some small sacrifice to these overlords of the island. But perhaps they had already received their daily supplication: a whiff of something dead wafted our way and in the clearing ahead we not only confronted more great lizards but a half-eaten meal of fresh fish. It was big – almost too big for the murky waters surrounding the island.
A cloud of flies restlessly swarmed around it. The towering Iguanadons remained indifferent. Perhaps a fox swam ashore with it. Or that heron was a lot more ambitious than it looked. The Ranger wasn’t sure.
Nature buzzed all around us. Insects hived around the stone bodies as if they offered living sanctuary. Birds flitted through the canopy, nervously unable to quite accept the immobile, un-threat of the giant creatures below them.
Couch potato terrapins lounged about, sunning themselves on decapitated tree stumps and half-drowned logs. They resembled mini-monsters from a more up to date epoch. Again, I was transported back to those wonderful films where modern day lizards were fixed with extra frills and fake horns and shot in slo-mo from low angles, back protected in front of screaming actors, flickering ghosts evoking their prehistoric ancestors.
Maybe it was more than the summer heat that was making me feel light-headed.
It occurred to me that the dinosaurs themselves were like time machines: they exerted a chronal gravity that drew you into a previous orbit of childhood delight, warping your adult cynicism, re-forging it into a weightless trance of wonderment.
I inspected the weather wounds of the creatures – fractures and fissures where fingers of cold had forced their way in to wreak insidious harm on the internal superstructure of the dinosaurs.
Cracked toes: broken tails in desperate need of repair. Up close these island lizard kings had a desperate air of decrepitude and neglect. Suddenly the Mysterious Island seemed to feel more like one of those reprehensible retirement homes you see exposed on the News At Ten.
Megalosuarus stuffed in a wheelchair, parked in a draughty corridor, all requests for assistance blindly ignored. That seemed a rather sad state of affairs for such ancient creatures.
Down by the shoreline, a Teleosaurus raised its sinuous big beak of teeth as if to trumpet some triumph. I marvelled at the frozen rhythms of its swaying body. I’m sure I’d read somewhere that this species had been found along the Yorkshire coast. I tried to imagine a crowded Sunday on Scarborough beach being cleared by one of these crocodilian giants crawling ashore.
The Photographer waded out into the reeds for a closer look, camera at the ready to capture the first sign of something unexpected. I feared the worst. My imagination played out a sudden muscular blur of ravenous reptilian fury. A hopeless cry for help, thrashing limbs, splashing water and a dark shadow disappearing beneath the spreading ripples.
Alas poor snapper, we knew him well: just a single shoe left stranded in the antediluvian mud.
Hmm. Fantasising Jurassic homicides in Crystal Palace Park. I might need to adjust my early morning intake of caffeine. But I liked the idea of the dinosaurs biting back, putting up a fight.
It made the island seem less like the forgotten retirement home it had been moment earlier.
Retracing my steps, I noticed a wreath of twigs adorning the snout of one of the Megalosaurus. Evidence of nesting in the great stone jaws – a new accommodation of past and present life.
The island and its present day inhabitants seemed determined to reclaim their Victorian stone cousins. A new ecology was evolving. A new battle for supremacy.
I looked closer at the hide of the Hylaeosaurus. A stone maze of interlocking plates now being invaded by bright-coloured lichen. Life was sprouting all over the creatures. But for the dinosaurs, it was anti-life; it brought further damage deterioration, decay – stone-death. A double extinction.
As we eventually left the island, I realised the tragedy of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs is that we could still lose them: and what our little expedition had made clear was the fact that the threat they face is a daily one.
Nothing as dramatic as species-obliteration by meteorite or volcanic upheaval. Not even some biological blight.
No this time the threat these dinosaurs face is a lot more insidious.
The never-ending assault of the Seven Deadly Agents of Deterioration.
And that, dear reader, is an entirely different tale.
(To be continued).