The ridge and the historic oak tree known as The Vicars Oak (located at the present-day crossroads of the A212 Church Road and A214 Westow Hill) were used to mark parish boundaries. This has led to the Crystal Palace area straddling the boundaries of five London Boroughs; Bromley, Croydon, Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham. The area also straddles at least three postcodes (SE19, SE20, SE26). The ancient boundary between Surrey and Kent passes through the area and from 1889 to 1965 the area lay on the south eastern boundary of the County of London. It included parts of Kent and Surrey until 1889 and then parts of Kent, London and Surrey between 1889-1965.
For centuries the area was occupied by the Great North Wood, an extensive area of natural oak forest that formed a wilderness close to the southern edge of the ever-expanding city of London. Local legend has it that Sir Francis Drake's ship, the Golden Hind, had its timbers cut from trees in this area. The forest was a popular area for Londoners' recreation right up to the 19th century, when it began to be built over. It was also a haunt of Gypsies, with many local street names and pubs recording the link. The area still retains vestiges of woodland. The third quarter of the 19th Century brought the Crystal Palace and the railways.
Sydenham Hill is one of the highest locations in London; 109 metres (357 ft) above sea level (spot height on Ordnance Survey Map); and the size of the palace and prominence of the site made it easy to identify from much of London. This leads to the residential area around the building becoming known as Crystal Palace instead of Sydenham Hill. The palace was destroyed by fire on 30 November 1936 and the site of the building and its grounds is now known as Crystal Palace Park and 'once' included an olympic sized swimming pool.
The extensive grounds were used in pre-war days for motorcycle and, after the 1950s, for motorcar racing; this was known as the Crystal Palace circuit. Parts of the track layout remain in 2005 as access roads. The track itself fell into disuse after 1972, although it has been digitally recreated in the Grand Prix Legends racing simulation.
The park also housed one of the pioneer speedway tracks, opening for business in 1928. The Glaziers raced in the Southern and National Leagues up to 1933 when the promotion moved on to a track in New Cross.
The park remains a major London public park. The park was maintained by the LCC and later the GLC, but with the abolition of the GLC in 1986 control of the park was given to the London Borough of Bromley. The park is entirely within the London Borough of Bromley, but its proximity to other boroughs left many Crystal Palace residents of surrounding boroughs feeling disenfranchised. A long-fought-over local issue is whether to build on the open space which was the location of the original Crystal Palace building or to leave it as parkland as the GLC had done. Any development would be within the London Borough of Bromley, but affect residents in neighbouring boroughs and the access to the sports centre. It would also affect the skyline view across the whole of London.
In 2005 the Mayor of London and the London Development Agency (LDA) took control of the National Sports Centre in the park as part of London's bid for the 2012 Olympics. The Centre is now managed by Greenwich Leisure on their behalf. The LDA has the option to take on responsibility for the whole park by 2009.
On 9 September 2007 the park hosted The Tour of Britain's Prologue (opening) stage, in which some of the world's top cyclists performed.
The park is situated along the highest section of the London Clay ridge known at its ends as Sydenham Hill and Beulah Hill or the Claygate Ridge. This ridge offers spectacular views northward to central London, east to the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge and Greenwich, and southward to Croydon and the North Downs. The park has recently become home to many ring-necked parakeets, especially in the trees around the café and play area. Sightings of the birds have become increasingly common in South London but rarely in a location as busy as Crystal Palace Park.
The Pleasure Garden was also filmed in the park.
Transport for London has begun work on the southern extension of the East London Line. To be rebranded as the London Overground East London Railway, this will bring services to the Docklands and Shoreditch through to connect with the North London Line, opening in 2011.