A Straight Line Walk Across London

by Paul K Lyons

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Kip Fenn
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74 - Alexandra's Park and Palace - a golden age for cricket and corridors

Alexandra Park is my first wide open green area since Mitcham Common, 13 miles south as a crow might fly along the 300 easting. I'm entering at the low end of the park, which is soggy underfoot. Until recently there was a racecourse running along here, and a grandstand, originally built in the 1860s. I make my way up a scrubby bank. The broad and arcaded Alexandra Palace is spread out along the top of the hill to the northwest. Its eastern tower bolstered and surmounted by the famous transmitter tower. Over to the east I can see two cream and brown gasholders, and the Hornsey water treatment works. There's also a pavilion that serves a cricket ground, and a couple of white sight-screens. Alexandra Palace Cricket Club has played here - at the Racecourse Ground - since 1906. It's a club that boasts a golden age in the 1920s and 1930s thanks largely to two players, Len Newman and Con Davies. They opened the batting as a pair 626 times; moreover, their partnership was never broken by one of them being run out. Between them, they amassed a thousand gross (144,000) runs.

Alexandra Palace itself is several hundred yards to the west of the 300 easting, but I must walk close by it, partly because I can't cross the closed off pitch-and-putt course, and partly because of the route I must take to exit the park. I pass a mature monkey puzzle tree, and a willow which has lost its main trunk, both of which look out of place, before curling round to the entrance of the pitch-and-putt. The gateway is open, but the course is closed. A note, taped over an old noticeboard, states: 'Essential winter maintenance, greens have been seeded - levelled chemicals applied - please keep off - reopened March 2004.' Inside, there are several huts, one of wood, and two of corrugated iron, with 'Hazchem storage' warnings. Behind one of the huts, I find a bench facing south. There's a good view, but north London is rather flat and dreary. I don't think, looking at the poor state of the greens, that the pitch-and-putt has any hope of opening in the next two weeks (it's mid-March now). What the noticeboard does not say, though, is that there is a much bigger project in the offing: a five year plan, funded with Heritage Lottery money, to regenerate the whole park, and an upgrade of the pitch-and-putt course is part of that plan.

I cross the busy Alexandra Palace Way (most cars are travelling at twice the 20mph speed limit) and into a car park. This is as close as I get to the Palace. The first Palace here opened in 1873, but 16 days later was gutted by fire. It was rebuilt to a similar design by one of the original architects, John Johnson, and reopened in 1875. Ally Pally, as it is affectionately known, was a very grand entertainment complex. It contained the Great Hall, which seated 12,000 people in addition to 2,000 in the orchestra stalls, as well as a huge organ, built by Henry Willis, driven by two steam engines and vast bellows. The Palace also contained a 3,500 seat concert room (later turned into a roller-skating rink), a lecture hall, a museum, a library, a banqueting room and a theatre. To begin with, visitors arrived in vast numbers, coming by foot, carriage or by train to the special station built at the venue. By the turn of the century, though, Ally Pally was struggling financially, and, consequently, it ended up in public ownership. During World War One it was used to house Belgian refugees and then German prisoners of war. In 1935, the BBC leased part of the building and built the prominent transmitting tower, which still rises from the east end of the building and can be seen for miles around. In 1936, the world's first public broadcasts of high-definition television were made from here; and, for 20 years, Ally Pally remained the BBC's main transmitting centre for London. Thereafter, the Corporation continued to use the property for news broadcasts.

There is much architectural and cultural history associated with Ally Pally, but I'm going to pass most of it by. Nevertheless, I can't resist quoting a small passage from the memories of Valerie Endall on the Alexandra Palace Television Society website. 'I became, by the greatest good fortune, secretary to Michael Barry a few months before the official re-opening of the BBC Television Service after the 1939-45 war. . . I spent the next five years at Ally Pally working for this man dedicated for the most part to writing and producing plays especially for television. . . I suppose we must have done about eight or nine full-length dramas a year. . . First, the script to be stencilled, which if you were lucky you got all in one go - if not, in dribs and drabs - the script, the base from which all information flowed: the scenery, the costumes, the furniture and props, the captions, and not to be forgotten - the cast. All these lists to be prepared and produced in good time, if possible, to ensure the smooth running of the production on the day. Radio Times programme information with an inflexible deadline caused many a missed-beat while getting the last cast name! The script, which for a 90-minute play ran to as many pages, had to be typed on stencils using only the right hand half of the page for dialogue, and the left-hand for all other scene-setting, camera and visual instructions.

So the first script produced for rehearsal was a very one-sided affair! Having typed the stencils, we then had to produce the copies. Most of the production offices were housed in the northwest corridor of Ally Pally past the scene dock and on the top corridor . . . The corridor on our landing was about 30 yards long and eight feet wide, and at the further end . . . was the Roneo machine (just one), and here we rolled off our ninety stencils - anything up to eighty copies for a big production - and then the long corridor was invaluable, if a bit dirty, for collating the scripts. Many a long evening will have been spent this way, on feet and hands, when the corridor traffic was light!'

Half of Ally Pally (the Great Hall, Banqueting Suite, and former roller rink) was destroyed again by fire in 1980, just six months after Haringey Council had taken over as trustees. It wasn't until 1988 that part of the building again opened to the public. A large part still remains derelict, while arguments over its future development and funding continue. Much of the building, however, is already given over to commercial enterprises. It does a good trade in wedding receptions, for example, (from £46.00 per person for a set three-course menu with drinks and coffee). But, if you want to hire the Londesborough or Palace Rooms (up to 156 and 360 guests respectively) for self-catering, the former costs £2,600 plus and the latter £3,275 plus. Another good Ally Pally business is conferences and exhibitions such as 'The Dinghy Sailing Show', 'ABC Carpets', 'Classic Cars Live!', 'The Big Stamp & Scrapbooking Show', 'Afro Hair & Beauty Show', 'The Fellowship Festival' (i.e. Tolkien nuts), and the 'London Teddy Bear Fair'.

The main entrance, with the Palm Court and glass atrium, is on the west side of the building, but here, on the east side, there is also some grandeur in the buff yellow and red bricks walls, pediments and arches, and the glass-roofed foyer which, since 1990, has provided access to an ice rink in the East Hall.

I can't, though, walk away from Alexandra Palace without a sideways glance at Nikolaus Pevsner again. His books on the buildings of England have become such a standard reference work, that I must quote a short paragraph from the volume on Middlesex published in 1951: 'Alexandra Palace, 1875, by J. Johnson, one of the most extensive and most prominently placed of London buildings; there is not much else to be said about it.'

Moving on, I pass close by the old boating lake, crowded with ducks. There's an island in the middle, choc-a-bloc with dilapidated boats lying on their sides. Surprisingly, this pond contains (or did contain for it badly needs dredging) a wide range of fish: bream, catfish, carp, chub, perch, pike and roach. A season ticket to fish costs £10. A notice on the closed-up hut says: 'An angler is someone who can appreciate the environment and cares about its future.'

 A Straight Line Walk Across London - along the 300 easting

by Paul K Lyons
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