Visit Alexandra Palace - London's Victorian 'People's Palace'

by KathleenDuffy

In July 2013, Alexandra Palace celebrated its 150th anniversary. The people of London paid homage to the spirit of this Victorian 'People's Palace'. It's a 'must-see' destination.

On 21st July 2013 Alexandra Palace in Muswell Hill, North London celebrated the opening of this much-loved feature perched high on a hill and with spectacular views over London.

A favourite venue choice of film-makers and television crews, it's a fabulous spot for a great family day out. But there's more to it than meets the eye.

The Palace has been through the mill with fires, wars and threats of total closure. But it has always sprung back, phoenix-like, from the ashes (literally in some cases!).

If you are visiting London or are in the North London area, Alexandra Palace is well worth a visit.

Alexandra Palace - North London's Playground

A place of enjoyment for London's working people.
Alexandra Palace, London
Alexandra Palace, London

Alexandra Palace was built as a place where the working classes of London could find respite from the daily grind of life in the harsh world of Victorian London.

The Crystal PalaceAfter its opening on 24th May 1873 Alexandra Palace, or 'Ally Pally',  proved incredibly popular. (It was named after the bride of Prince Edward, Alexandra of Denmark.)

 

In the first two weeks alone 120,000 people visited the site. They knew that the original idea for this People’s Palace had been influenced by the much-loved Crystal Palace (see left), the edifice created by Joseph Paxton for the Great Exhibition of 1851.

 

London Skyline from Alexandra Palace
London Skyline from Alexandra Palace

The structure gazes sphinx-like over London from its hilltop at Muswell Hill.

You reach the top either by transport or walking - and you'll  be delighted not only by the magnificent building itself, but by the spectacular views of London that greet you from the summit.

So Much To Do At Ally Pally

Hard to know where to start...

A day out at Alexandra Palace will leave you spoilt for choice.  Let's have a look at some of the facilities on offer.

Ally Pally from the Air
Ally Pally from the Air

A Nature Ramble - Alexandra Park

Below Alexandra Palace's hilltop home there's a very peaceful area, Alexandra Park,  where people walk their dogs, go running and generally just enjoy the tranquility.   if you decide to take the footpath along the bottom of that same hill, you'll be in a nature reserve.  So - go on  a nature walk. You can download a map from the official website.

Begin at the west end  (which was once the old railway line ) and stroll along the area that used to be a Victorian racetrack.  This is also a popular birdwatching site, so bring your binoculars.

The Park holds regular butterfly and insect nature days so check out the website to find out more.

The whole of Alexandra Park is designated an Ecologically Valuable Site of Borough Importance, and the Conservation Area has been ranked Grade 1.

Golf - Pitch and Putt

Walk up the steep hill leading to Alexandra Palace and you will notice on your left a pitch and putt golf course which is great fun!  Kids love it - and you don't have to buy a round of drinks in the club house if you get a hole in one...a couple of ice creams should do the trick!

Ice Skating

Visit the ice rink at Alexandra Palace where you take part in the following events, according to the official website:

  • Public skating sessions every day
  • Ice Nation – disco on ice
  • Figure skating classes (group & private)
  • Ice hockey training
  • Toddlers on ice and adult coffee morning drop in sessions
  • School holiday (5 day) fast track courses for 5-15 year olds
  • Charity and school group discounts
  • Birthday parties & private hire options

 

Boating

There's a lovely boating lake at Alexandra Palace where you can hire pedalos - those boats you work with your legs - or a rowing boat. You'll see different species of water fowl too.

Boating Lake at Alexandra PalaceFancy a bit of fishing?  If you get a licence from the Post Office you can also fish in the lake.

If you  stroll round the shoreline of the lake you will find pathways originally constructed by some of the 2,200 prisoners of war interned at Alexandra Palace in 1916. Before that, the Palace was a refuge for hundreds of Belgian refugees, who returned again during the Second World War.

After all that rowing and pedalling, you'll be ready to go into the Lakeside Cafe for a snack.

Deer Enclosure:

Don't forget to visit the Deer Enclosure just at the back of the main building.  These beautiful creatures are very well cared for and the public is requested not to feed them.  They are very tame and will come right up to the fence for a chat.

Skate Park:

For skateboarding enthusiasts,  Ally Pally's skateboarding park is open every day, closing at dusk, and is free to use. Bring your own equipment.

Soft Play Centre - Little Dinosaurs

Here's where mums and dads can take their little ones to play safely whilst they have a chat with their friends.  It's both indoors and outdoors, so whatever the weather and time of year you can always meet up and give the kids a break too.

Seasonal Fun Fairs

Ally Pally plays host to a number of great fun fairs, usually in the half term holidays.  Along with all the other activities to enjoy, if there is a fun fair going on when you visit this is definitely the icing on the cake.

Farmers' Market

This is a very popular farmers' market which is held every Sunday. Check the website for times and which site the market is on, because sometimes if there is an event on at the Palace the market is held at a different venue.  It plays host to approximately 50 producers providing a massive range of fresh produce and gorgeous food to eat on the go.

***********************

That's just some of the permanent events going on at Alexandra Palace.  But what about the secret life of Ally Pally - wouldn't it be great to find out more?

An 'Open Day' At Alexandra Palace

Why not come along and see what it's like behind the scenes?
Front Entrance to Alexandra Palace
Front Entrance to Alexandra Palace
K Duffy

Would you like to see behind the scenes of this fascinating Victorian structure and find out more about its history?   You can, if you come along  on an  'Open Day'  held in September each year. This is a great opportunity to take a guided tour of parts of the building normally closed to the general public.

Early Television Studios

For example at the East Tower of the Palace there is a huge television mast which marks the spot of the old early  television studios.  On  'open days' It is possible to visit these studios. It was  from here in 1936 that the BBC transmitted the first high-definition public tv service. The television mast is the same one, with small  modifications, that used to herald the BBC news on our black and white  televisions. (I remember that!)  On the tour you will see the old studios with their equipment and watch footage from BBC archives of their time when they transmitted from Alexandra Palace.

Blue Plaque at Alexandra Palace
Blue Plaque at Alexandra Palace
K Duffy
BBC Television Mast, Alexandra Palace
BBC Television Mast, Alexandra Palace
K Duffy

Beautiful Victorian Theatre

You'll also get a chance to stand on the stage of a wonderful Victorian theatre which is at present  hidden away in the vastness of Ally Pally.  It's a  run-down, beautifully shabby space with plans to keep it in its original 'as found' state but make it safe for regular public use.

 It was opened in 1875 and could seat 2,500 people.  The stage has counterweight flying facilities and the management believe this could be one of the earliest examples of this kind of mechanisation in an English theatre. 

Ceiling of Victorian Theatre, Ally Pally
Ceiling of Victorian Theatre, Ally Pally
K. Duffy
Original Victorian Theatre exit, Ally Pally
Original Victorian Theatre exit, Ally...
K. Duffy
Auditorium of Victorian theatre, Ally Pally
Auditorium of Victorian theatre, Ally Pally
K Duffy

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Murals Not Normally Seen by the General Public

When I last did a tour of Alexandra Palace a couple of years ago, we were shown rooms not normally open to the general public which held some interesting murals.  These rooms are beautiful and I believe they are generally reserved for corporate or private functions.  You can find out more on the website.

The mural on the left below is of brave Dolly Shepherd (1887-1983), who worked at Ally Pally as a waitress and later became famous for doing an aerial act on a trapeze whilst suspended in the air from a balloon.  Dolly was quite a gal!

Victorian Mural at Alexandra Palace
Victorian Mural at Alexandra Palace
K Duffy
Mural, Alexandra Palace
Mural, Alexandra Palace
K Duffy
Mural of Tram arriving at Ally Pally
Mural of Tram arriving at Ally Pally
K Duffy

This is a glimpse of some of the places within Alexandra Palace that you could see on the Open House tour.

If you want to book up a space on the September Open House Tour, check the website and choose your time slot.  It's a fascinating glimpse into the secret life of this stunning building.

Dolly Shepherd's Life Story

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When the 'Chute Went Up

Alexandra Palace Destroyed by Fire

Ally Pally Destroyed by Fire in 1873
Ally Pally Destroyed by Fire in 1873

The present-day Palace is not the original building. On 9th July 1873, just sixteen days after opening, like the Crystal Palace before it, Alexandra Palace was consumed by fire.

The second Palace opened two years later in 1875. A crowd of 21,000 people came to the opening. Recreational facilities included painting and sculpture displays, a museum, lecture hall, library, banqueting room and theatre.

The central feature was the Great Hall, capable of seating 12,000 people. The gigantic Willis Organ, driven by two steam engines thundered out anthems.

Yet in 1980 fire struck again and the Great Hall was completely engulfed. This was becoming a habit! 

Nevertheless, true to form, the Great Hall has been completely restored to its former glory and the Willis Organ is once more in full working glory (though not driven by steam engines!).

The Great Hall - Beautifully Restored

Willis Organ in the Great Hall,  Alexandra Palace
Willis Organ in the Great Hall, Alexandra Palace
K Duffy

The Great Hall is a really beautiful venue.  Its  massive unpillared space, steel and glass latticed roof and stunning stained-glass rose window (shown below) makes it an ideal exhibition and concert space.


Rose Window, Ally PallyThe restored Willis Organ once again takes centre stage.  There are regular  recitals of the Willis Organ too!

But the Great Hall is also home to a variety of events including rock concerts (I just got my ticket for Madness), the Masters Snooker Championships, Knitting and Stitching shows, Antiques shows, Travel shows, Model Railway exhibitions, Motorbike shows  - and many more exciting events.  

Ally Pally - Brilliant Entertainment Venue

The Regeneration of Alexandra Palace

The future looks bright!
Palm Court Ally Pally
Palm Court Ally Pally

Over the next few years  Alexandra Palace is going to get a massive facelift.  The Victorian theatre will be made completely safe for visitors.  It will eventually host theatrical performances and educational events for schools and the community in general.

A 150-bedroomed hotel will be built in what is at present a derelict space and the Palm Court with its glass roof will still be open to the public, together with cafes and a restaurant.

 Street Party at Alexandra Palace

 

 

You can find out about the full regeneration of Alexandra Palace here.

Time to Relax at Alexandra Palace

 

Feeling peckish? Bring a picnic or have refreshments at the aptly named Phoenix Bar.

From the Phoenix Bar terraces,  reflect on a day of varied activity.

It’s a bit like a typically English day out at the seaside, but without the sea. Instead, the vast ocean of London ebbs and flows below. To the right, on the horizon, the towers of Canary Wharf glint like distant ships, birds glide and dip over islands of trees, waves of suburban houses and industrial estates, whilst to the left a massive gas cylinder looms up like an end-of-pier pavilion.

Festive Flags at Alexandra Palace
Festive Flags at Alexandra Palace
K Duffy

Alexandra Palace is a fine example of that distinctive Victorian individualism and confidence.  It's had tough times.  Bureaucrats have been reluctant to help it survive whilst property developers have cast a greedy eye on it over the years.

But Alexandra Palace,  our Ally Pally - really is on the way to seizing back its pride of place in the affections of all Londoners.

You should go there!  After all, it is the People's Palace!

Sources:

  • Alexandra Palace website.
  • Palace on the Hill: A History of Alexandra Palace and  Park (Hornsey Historical Society, 2005)
  • Notes taken on Tour of Ally Pally

Further Information

Transport systems to Alexandra Palace are very good - including rail, bus and tube services. When there are big events on in the Great Hall special free bus transport is provided from Wood Green tube station a few stops down the road.  Car parking at Ally Pally is free.

Find our more from Alexandra Palace's Official Website here.

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Updated: 01/24/2014, KathleenDuffy
 
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