Monday, 24 March 2014

The Un-Peaceful Life of Ally Pally

I wrote a little while ago about the Rex Whistler murals at Tate Britain. Today, I discovered some more murals. Well, not exactly "discovered" since I had been looking at them every year for ages!  But yesterday I REALLY looked at them.  

They are in the unlikely surroundings of Alexandra Palace, the gigantic and entirely unique building that sits atop a hill in North London. 

This is a photo of how it looked as I walked down the hill yesterday.  Sort of ruined. I think it IS semi ruined. "Ally Pally" as it is known, was originally built in 1873 as a  "People's Palace," to be used for all kinds of fun events.  In those days, it looked like this.....   

Nice, eh? But not for long. Ally Pally hasn't been what you'd call a lucky or calm building.   In fact it somehow reminds me of some large, eccentric aunt who is always getting into scrapes.   It burned down less than three weeks after it was built, had another major fire in 1980, shortly after it was refurbished, and in the meantime suffered various misfortunes, like being used as an internment camp and getting bombed in the war. It also became the home of the fledgling BBC television service (news was broadcast from there right up to the 1960s.) and somewhere along the way it acquired a nice ice rink. However, its magnificent theatre and Willis organ fell into disrepair - the story of the organ's ups and downs is here

The Palace is basically big and Victorian - look at those huge doors, below - and it has been painted up in magnificent Victorian style.  Needless to say, the job is far from finished. 

Anyway, let's continue with the brief history.  After the 1980 fire it was refurbished again.  There was huge trouble about that, and the restoration was eventually deemed unlawful. But hey, they'd already done it. So it stayed. And it's still there, a fine post modern revamp - now a bit shabby - including lots of fabulous and very under appreciated murals. 

So yesterday,  T and I took young S to the model railway exhibition, where we go most years.  And, like we usually do, we went downstairs to the restaurant for some pie and chips.  We sat down at the table and for the first time I looked properly at the wonderful murals on the walls.  They are Italian and fantastical in style, of classical buildings populated mostly by huge birds, larger than the picture below suggests.    (The people eating pie and chips in the foreground in the shot below are NOT part of the painting.) 

I've tried to get rid of the yellow tint, but that was the artificial light. As with other dining room murals, it's not easy to get photos - but I will do my best.  These murals are really wide,  and well lit, and are, I think, wonderfully dreamlike.

like a glimpse into another world. You might notice the packets of salt, pepper, mayonnaise, etc. in the foreground of the picture below.     I suppose we should be glad they haven't had the money to put in a sleek new cafe with all the latest stuff, otherwise they'd have covered over the mural years ago, I guess.  Would you like to live in that half-hidden red-roofed house overlooking the lake, with its arches and temple in the garden?  I would.

On another bit of mural, an easel contains the name of the artist on a scroll - Christopher R. Boulter.  He was a master of the Art Worker's Guild, not not a well known muralist, although I think he could have been.

The staff at Ally Pally always seem nice and hardworking, and people do love the building, so it is as well cared for as can be.  But the years have taken their toll. The specially woven carpets are worn, and some of the murals have rough patches. Look at the damage here.

After admiring the restaurant murals, I then sent T and S up to the model trains and started exploring further behind the scenes. I realised that this massively expensive 1980s refit had resulted in a fantastic post-modernist interior, entirely unique and full of craftsmanship.   These huge murals (by a different artist) were half way up  one of the staircases

These large paintings show golden scenes of strange places

This was one of many alcoves in the bar, each one with a different, strange monument painted within. And look at those delightful post modern curved seats. 

A very long, wide corridor leading into the main hall is lined with murals set within its yellow brick arches. Here's just one, showing Ally Pally's television past.  These are by Gary Drostle (website here).

 As well as the murals, the public areas outside the halls are fitted out with columns, pyramids and geometric, vaguely art-deco shapes, mostly in shades of brown. The floors are marble, there is shiny brass everywhere, all absolutely the latest thing in the late 80s, (I liked these quirky columns  framing the elevators below)

This 1988 restoration is big, bold and insanely expensive  and even included a palm court with sphinxes, a delightful place to hang out

and a there is gigantic rose window in the main hall, of geometric glass. 

In fact, it's all quite FANTASTIC!   

Ally Pally has never been a moneyspinner. One of its biggest problems is transport links.  There is car parking but most of it is a long way away and down a steep hill.  There's one useless bus called the "W3" which I've never heard of and goodness knows where it goes. The tube station's miles away.  Originally, the Palace had its own railway station, and even its own railway line - the Muswell Hill & Palace Railway. Both are now long closed, though the station remains, hidden behind a fence.

 And many years ago, during one of the regular "Oh, what shall we do with this building?" panics about Ally Pally, I visited the station with the Victorian Society, and it still had some of the ancient railway and holiday poster ads up on its walls.  A "Marie Celeste"  moment.   

The financial mess was so great that Ally Pally was almost sold off to commercial developers a few years ago, but people do love it, despite its problems.  So, after a public fight and fund to save it, it got given a load of lottery money instead, and now the plan is to finish off repairing the organ, and restore the stunning Victorian theatre and the historic television studios. 

I have looked in the plans to see if they want to restore the unique post-modern interior and its murals, but I can't find out anything. But there are so few lavish 1980s interiors left that I feel they are worth fighting for. I'm going to write to them, and I'll let you know what they say. I'll also go on one of the regular tours of the palace which have now begun.  I wonder if they include the station.

Outside, there are huge grounds sloping down to Highgate and you can walk around the terrace, lean on the  Victorian railings and admire the view of the City in the distance  Yes, Ally Pally really is a good place to be.

PS. The babies are doing well. Somehow reminds me of when my daughters used to play with their dolls

 And what about this, spotted in South London?  It's really called "Allen Gardens" but with a few scribbles of a pen,  it becomes something much more interesting! 


  1. So pretty and so interesting. Thanks for sharing.

  2. What an interesting building despite its rocky history. I do hope the restoration goes ahead and that all the wonderful murals are saved. How amazing it must be to walk around inside and look at everything. Maybe access can be improved if enough people start going there.


  3. What a fantastic and fantastical place!

  4. It does look like a hidden treasure! Let's hope any plans include ways to transport people there.

  5. In spite of its checkered history this is still a fascinating building. Thanks for sharing it.

  6. What a beautiful and interesting place, Jenny. What is so wonderful about is that after all the disasters that have befallen it, people keep rebuilding it. It may never be the same, but it still holds many of its visual treasures.

  7. Oh My Goodness.
    What an interesting place with so much history and misfortune. The murals are lovely.

    cheers, parsnip

  8. My goodness! I learn so much here. It's a wonder a television program hasn't hired it as a set/location for its show--y'know, to use the interiors and exteriors.

  9. Quite lovely really--it's a shame it's difficult to access and has had upkeep problems and other challenges. Great job giving us a virtual tour though. Love its nickname!

  10. This place seems so interesting, rich, beautiful! I'll try to go there next time I'll be in London!
    I like the last sign, "Alien Garden " sounds funny!
    The twins are sooooo cute ! Surely hard work to take care of them both, but what lovely moments!

  11. This is a post full of so much treasure - I do hope that they restore the building and keep the wonderful murals.
    I went there years ago to an antique fair, but had forgotten just how elaborate it was inside, a great post.
    I bet those babies are hard work.

  12. What an interesting place, Jenny, and thank you for showing it. The murals are fabulous, and the fact some are from different eras than others makes it even more of a quirky treasure. Poor transport links have caused the decline of many a good venue; I hope they can find a way to make it more accessible. Love the name Ally-Pally. Double happiness in those two dear little babes - Bless!

  13. How absolutely wonderful! And we, today, think (operative word "think") we're so clever. Nobody creates such beauty these days.

    I love seeing photos of the twins...the sweetest little darlings. I exclude them from my comment above - they are beautiful creations of these days...if you know what I mean. :)

  14. Ally Pally looks amazing. Is there any part of it that they could turn into holiday homes (Landmark Trust style) to raise a bit of money towards its upkeep?

  15. Well now, what a history Ally Pally has. Talk about ups and downs. To see all those murals and everything in it is quite something. A real mix of ... well, everything! No wonder you were fascinated with it.
    Loved the photos of the twins - so cute and darling. We were fortunate enough to have a visit from the new parents in our family and lots of cuddles with their sweet babe. So warms the heart doesn't it.
    Cheerio now :D)

  16. I'm glad so many people have commented that they find it interesting. It really is an amazing place. And thank you for your sweet comments about the babies, Patricia and Malyss!
    AJ - what a brilliant idea! I wonder if anyone has thought of this. It was done at Snape Maltings and has made quite a difference.
    Lee, I do know ! :)
    Jocelyn, it would be fabulous as a set. It is owned by the local council which isn't known for its creative initiatives but I'd be surprised if it wasn't on location scouts' radar. Not that I can recall seeing it in any movies, mind you

  17. I believe the W3 travels between White Hart Lane and Alexandra Palace. I remember going (I thought by train) to the palace when BBC were there, although I can't recall why. I guess I must have been there for a reason! All I can remember is that it was a weekend trip organised by the firm I worked for.

  18. You make me want to hop on a train and come straight down to London. What treasure you find, and how well you convey it

  19. A separate comment about those beautiful babies. How lovely that they have their own attendants, and what concentration in the photograph. It speaks of pride and exhaustion.

  20. Thank you for sharing. You and your pictures bring such a smile to my face.
    My best friend is from England and she keeps begging me to go visit with her. I want to so bad but with one in college and another going away this August, it won't happen until we are free of the bills. My bestie's son is going to an American college and she will soon understand how broke you are. I promised her once we are done paying for the kids we will head off.

  21. What a wonderful place - I remember my mother talking about Ally Pally, but she knew it in the 1930s, when it would have looked so very different. It's now on my list of places to visit, when I can get away.

  22. Never heard of this place - fascinating.

  23. Another great tour!
    I always admired the Ally Pally while the train made its way north. It looks great up on the hill.
    It is a shame it never worked properly but will cost billions to renovate.
    Vaguely mind the news coming from there and the aerial sign that went with it.

  24. You find the most interesting places to show us! I do hope they keep the building up and in good repair. So many times something is thought to be "too expensive" at first, and then it turns into a big attraction for locals and tourists.

    Lovely photo of the twins!

  25. First of all, the twins -- when I see them with "grown ups" I realize how very tiny they are! And so dear!

    Your day out sounds like tons of fun. I have just written Ally Pally in my England Someday book. Oh, it's so lovely -- most definitely worth saving and preserving. I hope nothing nasty happens to it Somehow it has managed all these years. Do keep us posted on anything you hear about it.

    How I love to follow on your excursions!

  26. I really like the Alexandra Palace, especially the views from the top down to the city.

  27. What a wonderful and well illustrated description.

    I always knew that Alexandria Palace was the home of the Beeb, but I had imagined (as a long-distant Scot) that it was just another area of London. I would be too embarrassed to describe my mental image of Swiss Cottage (involved cheese) and what I thought of Elephant and Castle really belongs with Hieronymus Bosch.

  28. What fanciful and moody murals. A mish-mosh of different styles throughout. Definitely unique and I'm glad the people fought to keep it. :)

  29. In spite of having lived in north London for decades I’ve never been to Ally Pally.
    After this post that has to change. What an amazing place. I think Beloved actually did something there for the BBC.

  30. Wonderful post and photos. So lovely, I enjoyed it so much!

  31. What a gorgeous place and beautiful murals! Victorian styles always captivate my heart. You do not have to worry of getting rid of yellow tint about the fifth. I was impressed by the power of the beauty.

    I returned home from Tokyo this week. I am going to post some photos of Tokyo. I hope they will be helpful for you, though I think you have already got many information about Tokyo from your friends.
    Have a good week!

  32. I was going to comment on the interesting murals, but my brain was hijacked by the adorable babies.

  33. Hi Jenny,

    Always a visual and written word delight on your wonderful blog. I'm captivated with Victorian styles. Alexandra Palace and its history. Your photos capture an ambience that draws the viewer in. I really must get down to London. My adoring fans insist on it :)

    Thank you for this, Jenny.

    Gary :)

  34. Thank you for the comments. I'll look forward to your pictures Tomoko, they're always really beautiful.

    Oh, what was Beloved's job, Friko?
    TSB, shepherd's bush is the one that I always try to imagine !
    Yes, Jeanie, I keep my fingers crossed for Ally Pally too, it is vulnerable. The transport is the biggest problem, and a useful bus would help. Valerie, you have said it all about the bus....Alexandra Palace to Tottenham will only carry locals about their business. It needs a link with central London so people can come from all over the city. Thank you for your two nice comments, Judith, and yes, Lee, the twins are definitely today's people, I sometimes wonder what kind of a world they will grow up into. I believe the world is getting better all the time, so assuming the crazies don't do anything too crazy, they'll probably have a good time!

  35. I never saw all those murals at Ally Pally when I lived in London. They're quite remarkable and I hope they can be fully restored. Good that the whole building is being restored and wasn't just sold off to the highest bidder. I remember the useless transport links. I used to walk up there from Finsbury Park or Islington and enjoy the view across London.

  36. What an interesting history it has and I love the murals.

  37. Those murals really are something. I hope they do keep them. The people eating fish and chips in front of the first mural really add something to the picture. I'm glad the building will be restored. If it was here it would have been pulled down long ago for an apartment block.

  38. I love the murals, always wanted to have one in my house. Thanks for all the wonderful information, quite interesting...Thanks for the visit to my blog. Indeed the weather was beautiful, between 25 and 30 degrees Celsius in March, one cannot complain at all. Sandals and shorts all week....Enjoy your Sunday!

  39. Hello Jenny,

    The murals are truly intriguing and delightfully executed. So much detail and not a little humour laced in the images for good measure! It is to our shame that we must confess to never having seen these murals in situ and are now most excited to visit and see them up close. We often toy with having some troupe l'oeil effects in our apartment and this has given us much food for thought.

  40. A truly wonderful tour of a fun place. Thanks for taking the time to share it with us. Shame it isn't closer to public transport.

  41. ally pally looks like a neat place - even if it seems to be a bit cursed. nice murals, though!

  42. Hey!
    Do you know if your book about the Victorians will come out any time soon! Be sure to let us know, especially me! :-)

  43. It's so long since I visited Ally Pally I hardly remember it. You've convinced me I should go back. Those murals are amazing - and, actually, I like the idea that the folk with the pie 'n' chips were part of one of them. As for 'Alien Park' - sometimes, you just have forgive vandals I guess!

  44. I'm Glad to hear that this Magnificent Ruin is Beloved enough that it has been funded for Restoration and some semblance of Preservation. One thing I always liked about living in Europe was the diligence to preserve so much of the History and Buildings from the Past. Here in America, especially here in the Southwest, so much of the History has been Lost in the name of Progress... such a Shame that a better Balance hasn't been sought so that Future Generations can Enjoy some of each... the Old and the New. Blessings from the Arizona Desert... Dawn... The Bohemian

  45. The murals are terrific. My wife and I take theme vacations, and in 2002, our theme was old buildings in Central and Northern England. It was a great walk through history.

  46. I am absolutely astonished Jenny. Obviously being of an age when Alexandra Palace was a name everyone knew through the BBC Television Service I was aware of its being. However I have never known a single thing more and I'm astounded by and ashamed of my ignorance. I am also grateful for your post and my enlightenment.

  47. Thank you for this fantastic tour of "Ally Pally"! The murals really are dream-like, I could get lost in those and wish to be able to step right into them.
    I do hope restoring them will be part of the plan.

  48. That mural is amazing! Wish I had that kind of talent.

  49. Hello, blog hopping and found your beautiful blog.

    Nice post.

    Please visit mine too and feel free to add comments.


  50. I've lost count of how many times I've been near ALly Pally, even oarked there and yet I have never gone in. You just gave me an idea! :-) Thanks for yoru post, it was beautiful.

    Greetings from London.


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