Friday, 17 December 2010

Alexandra Palace: The palace of the north

In the 19th century, when it was cool to advertise all the questionable evils we were inflicting upon our colonies, Crystal Palace was built in south London to house The Great Exhibition - a collection of colonial artefacts, culture, and, alarmingly, the odd live subject.  The original building that housed the exhibition, an undoubtably stunning greenhouse of enormous proportions, moved out of Hyde Park to the area which soon became known as Crystal Palace.  A wee while later the building and its contents burnt down.  Worried that North London might feel left out, The Great Northern Palace Company set about creating a northern equivalent.  They shouldn't have bothered.  

Alexandra Palace stands high above Wood Green, looking down over Crouch End, and to the entire city beyond.  It is an odd Frankenstein of a building, with new additions bolted on to the old structure here and there.  Metal struts are grafted onto ancient stonework, and the monstrous antenna which broadcast some of the nation's earliest television signals is spliced onto the end of the building as if a space shuttle has had to make an emergency crash landing through the roof.
On a drizzly Saturday, metal crash-barriers from a gig the night before marked my approach to the palace.  A torn ticket for "Vampire Weekend plus special guests" poked up through the semi-frozen grass.  Up close the building felt like an old gothic railway station, with its cracked boards and high stone arches. Yet, on a Saturday afternoon, it lacked any of the energy and activity usually associated with a station.

The lugubrious bar, painted a virulent bright blue, could hardly have been said to be doing a roaring trade.  Through the faintly steamy windows a grim-faced barmaid rearranged glasses and glowered across the bar.  Disappointingly all of the sets of double doors into the main hall were chained shut with enormous padlocks.  Huge palm trees were visible through the glass windows in the doors, but the portico was as far as we were destined to make it.  Somewhat ironically, vast signs above extended warm welcomes to "The Peoples' Palace"; we were clearly not the right sort of people.  I was reliably informed that all that lay round the corner I had not yet explored were "a rather grim boating lake and a children's playground", so I gave those a miss.

The one thing which, on a day clearer than the one I chose for a visit, may redeem this strange and enormous folly is the stunning view it presents across London.  Even on the dreariest of afternoons the grey vista is still quite a sight to behold.  The nub of Canary Wharf blinked resolutely through the foggy rainclouds.  London lay down below the hill on which I stood, curled up like a cat in a basket.  I began my descent down the hill, mentally redesigning Alexandra Palace, and imagining it into the fabulous venue it could be...if only someone would invest the time and plentiful cash.

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