Alexandra Palace: Place-Hacking An Abandoned Victorian Theatre

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One afternoon last year I was sat in a beer garden somewhere near Oval in south London, chatting to a friend-of-a-friend, when Alexandra Palace came up in conversion. I mentioned that I’d been there not so long before – that I’d stood on the roof of the palace between its ornate glass domes, looking down over the lights of north London.

“Blasphemy, that is!” he scowled, slamming down his pint. “You can’t just go and break into the hallowed home of snooker.”

I didn’t break in, I explained – I climbed through an open window. He remained unimpressed, however; explaining in quasi-religious terms how I had desecrated the temple of his faith.

Alexandra Palace 17-DR

It was the first time I had heard Alexandra Palace described as the ‘home of snooker’ (or, indeed, a temple). The venue has only hosted the Masters snooker tournament since 2012… but since its construction in the late 19th century, the palace has been home to a great many things. Alexandra Palace has hosted beer festivals, awards ceremonies, darts championships, even rock concerts by the likes of Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and The Grateful Dead; before that, for a long time it was considered the home of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

Despite its fame however, there are some parts of the palace that remain strictly off-limits; and even amongst its most loyal patrons, many have no idea that the eastern wing of Alexandra Palace contains an abandoned Victorian-era theatre.

Alexandra Palace 3-DR

A Brief History of Ally Pally

Alexandra Palace stands at the northern end of London – between Wood Green and Muswell Hill – looking out across gardens, parkland, and beyond that the distant spires of the city centre. The plan was to build a mirror of south London’s Crystal Palace, a public centre for learning and entertainment, originally with the intended title of ‘The Palace of the People.’

It started in 1860 with the establishment of the Great Northern Palace Company – but the name of the project was later changed in recognition of the Princess of Wales, Alexandra of Denmark, who in 1863 was married to Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Edward.

Construction began in earnest in 1865, overseen by the same team responsible for London’s Royal Albert Hall, and the palace was opened in 1873. It survived for 16 days… before a fire broke out, killing three members of staff and destroying everything but the outer walls. The Victorians were not to be dissuaded so easily however, and after a rapid reconstruction project Alexandra Palace was reopened in May 1875 – by now featuring a concert hall, lecture hall and banqueting hall; a theatre, library and museum space.

Alexandra Palace 1-DR

By the 1930s the palace began expanding into television, and in 1936 the BBC moved in to establish the world’s first high-definition public television service. It was around this time that singer and actress Gracie Fields supposedly referred to the palace as ‘Ally Pally’; and the name stuck. A large television antenna was erected on the roof of the palace, serving as the main transmitter for London right up until 1956 – with only a brief hiatus during WWII, when the antenna was employed instead to scramble the navigation systems of incoming German bombers.

Alexandra Palace 2-DROver time, ownership of the People’s Palace was gradually passed in the direction of the people themselves. From private hands it was transferred to the Greater London Council in 1967, and from there to the local Haringey Council in 1980. Another fire, that same year, caused massive damage to the western portion of the building – but the palace was largely refurbished and by 1990 had come to feature an ice rink in addition to its other entertainment suites.

The original theatre inside Alexandra Palace meanwhile, built for a capacity of 3,000 spectators, was barely touched after the 1930s – when the BBC leased the eastern portion of the palace and began using it for prop storage. A few hundred people crowded inside the semi-derelict space for a series of performances back in 2004, the first shows it had seen in 70 years, but despite talks to restore the theatre to regular use the site still sits disused and largely abandoned: a Victorian relic tucked away behind one of London’s most famous entertainment complexes.

The Abandoned Theatre

When I visited the derelict theatre at Alexandra Palace, it was at the invitation of Bradley L. Garrett.

I first came across the work of Dr Garrett, a California-born researcher and explorer, back in 2012; he had made international news by sneaking past guards to photograph the view from the top of London’s then-unfinished Shard skyscraper, the tallest building in Western Europe. His PhD – an ethnographic study into the practice of urban exploration – later evolved into the book Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City; a politically-charged volume chronicling Bradley’s involvement with the London infiltration crews and leading into their subsequent trial and prosecution at the hands of the British Transport Police. 

[Climbing the Shard: Photo by Bradley L. Garrett, 2012.]
Bradley L. Garrett, 2012, climbing the Shard in London.By the time I met Bradley in person his US passport had been confiscated, effectively rendering him a prisoner in the British Isles. He’d suffered a battering ram to his front door, when the police ransacked his home in search of evidence. He’d been removed from an aeroplane in handcuffs, and received a court order banning him from communicating with many of his friends. Bradley’s work presented a challenge to the spatial hierarchy of the city, its title alone inviting readers to test the boundaries of the built environments that surrounded them. In return, the authorities were throwing the book at him: eager, it seemed, to set an example that might dissuade others from daring to venture in his footsteps.

Had the actions detailed in Explore Everything been motivated by sheer daredevilry, it might have ended there; but when the exploration becomes political in nature, and driven as it was here by an academic inquiry into the invisible politics governing urban space, then such draconian retaliation from authority is like a red rag to a bull.

I met with Bradley during one of my visits to the British capital, but we weren’t heading for the sky; nor were we planning to ‘run the tracks,’ and infiltrate the sprawling warren of underground rail tunnels beneath the city (the line of enquiry by which he had previously invoked the full wrath of London’s transport authorities). Our mission was more symbolic than it was daring – an attempt at gaining entry to the forbidden regions of what had once been named the ‘Palace of the People.’

As it turned out though, gaining access to this lost treasure of Victorian London was easier than I might ever have imagined. The theatre was undergoing renovation work at the time; large segments of the palace’s eastern wing caged in scaffold, or scattered with gloves, tools and cigarette cartons. Amidst this chaos, surprisingly little had been done to secure the site overnight – little enough, at least, for our purposes.

Passing through a heavy wooden door, we stepped immediately into darkness. There were boards beneath our feet, wooden pillars around us, while the contradictory scents of musty mould and fresh, damp sawdust battled for dominance in the unlit space. Though the far walls remained invisible to us at first, there was a sense of being inside a large and open space.

Alexandra Palace 4-DR

We flicked on torches, and Bradley began searching the walls for a light switch. They came on at a press, and the darkness drained to reveal an opulent hall decked out in pinks and yellows, white plaster facades and Grecian statuettes. In that first rush of light the details were obscured – and before my eyes could fully attune to the textures around us, I was blind to the dereliction, blind to the rampant decay, so that for just a moment the theatre appeared whole and fresh and new and I experienced this place as it might have appeared more than a century ago.

Alexandra Palace 9-DRThe light, however, brought with it ruination… and as I stood on the stage, shielding my eyes and blinking into the auditorium, I watched a hundred years of decay roll by in just a handful of seconds. The paint faded, plaster chipped and flaking. While the boards beneath our feet were well maintained, the walls and beams about us were badly aged, weathered, or sagging as if from exhaustion.

I found myself drawn towards the centre of the space – taking the steps down from the stage towards the middle of the hall, where I turned about in slow circles to admire the space. Once upon a time, it must have been magnificent.

From the stage itself, hidden in a corner out of sight, a rustic wooden ladder rose up to higher levels. It was here, during the theatre’s heyday, that the real magic had happened. This stage had been designed to cater to the Victorian passion for melodrama – through the use of fly wheels, pulleys, trapdoors and other arcane machinery, performers were able to appear and disappear, or seemingly levitate into the air.

Much of this equipment was removed in the 1920s, in the wake of WWI, when the theatre was renovated in line with increasingly classical values in theatre; but fragments still remained, ropes, wheels and esoteric mechanisms affixed to the wooden beams.

Alexandra Palace 6-DR

Climbing as high as the ladder would take me, I crawled carefully out into the rigging, onto wooden platforms suspended high above the stage amidst a tangle of ropes and wheels. It was easy to lose sense of time, in a place like this – literally, of course, but also in the metaphorical sense that these beams showed next to no sign of modernisation, while the thick dust that coated them might very well have been sat here gathering since the theatre last saw regular use in the 1930s.

I glanced cautiously over the edge, down to the distant boards of the stage. It would have been a hell of a way to fall – but as it turned out, we’d end up climbing a good deal higher still that night.

 

Front Row Seats

The Alexandra Palace theatre used to have two balconies. The first of these was removed in the early 20th century, as a fire precaution: the space undergoing a process of modernisation as it began to be used for film screenings. The remaining balcony, however, dominated the space inside that ornate hall – and both of us were pretty eager to get up there.

Alexandra Palace 11-DR

We tried checking around the back end of the theatre, amongst the cashiers’ desks and store rooms, looking for another way up. The stairs had been blocked off, though; and another doorway was lit around the frame with light that shone through from the room beyond, accompanied by the occasional murmur of voices. We didn’t dare touch that one, for fear of (in the worst case) accidentally walking out on stage in the middle of a snooker tournament.

Eventually, we had exhausted all avenues – and the only option left to us was climbing.

I stood there looking up at the balcony for a while. I ran my eyes along the scaffold that rose on either side, considered the plaster railing which might – just – have supported the weight of someone climbing across it. It didn’t look good. Bradley, meanwhile, had disappeared through the small wooden door set low into the front of the stage.

“Can you give me a hand with this?” he suddenly called back, from the relative darkness of the under-stage area.

Alexandra Palace 5-DR

Alexandra Palace 10-DRFollowing the voice back down the steps, I found him amongst a forest of old wooden beams and dusty mechanisms, wrestling with the end of a 20-foot antique ladder. The ladder seemed to be winning. It had been lain in the shadows, tucked away in the recesses beneath the stage – and, from the look of it, ought to be just about long enough to reach up to the balcony.

Getting the ladder out of there, however, was going to be tricky. The space beneath the stage was divided by wooden pillars, so that extricating the ladder became something of a puzzle – we took an end each, slowing heaving it forward and back; out around an obstacle, then reversing again to turn it, and line up for the next gap. Finally, at the end of our slow and clumsy twelve-point-turn, we had it out… up the stairs, through the hatch, and across the auditorium towards our goal.

With another great effort we managed to prop the ladder upright, the warped wood shuddering to a rest against the aged facade of the balcony high above. Bradley invited me to go first; after you, I insisted.

Somehow, perhaps – almost – surprisingly, the timber held. It wobbled and bent as Brad climbed it, but the wood was supple, strong, and he made it to the balcony without incident. My turn: I followed him up, the climbing easy enough until reaching the very brink of the balcony, where the ladder fell slightly short and it became necessary to step up and over from the very topmost rung.

Alexandra Palace 7-DR

I was relieved to finish the climb, and, stepping over into the tiered seating of the theatre’s grand balcony, resolved not to think about the scramble back down (at least, until I had to).

Up here, it soon became apparent why the theatre had remained out of use so long. The shelved wooden pews that formed the balcony space were completely rotted through in places – a thin veneer of sheet metal covered some of the missing steps. In others, gaps yawned open beneath our feet like dusty, splintered mouths.

The view, however, was enough to justify everything we’d just been through. The theatre simply made more sense from up here, an elevated view from which the wooden floors, the plaster walls and the elegantly coloured ceilings all narrowed into one, their perspectives converging – quite rightly – on the stage.

Alexandra Palace 8-DR

I was still enjoying that view, when I realised that Bradley was – yet again – off in search of access to higher levels. It seemed as though he’d found them, too: a corridor ran along the back of the balcony stalls, and here, pinned against the wall in a recess, ran another ladder. This one was made of metal, and it disappeared upwards through a hatch into what appeared to be another floor, high above us.

And so we climbed, again, and from there we ascended further still; until at last we came out into the rafters of the theatre. A series of planks had been lain here, a path fashioned from clean, modern wood that looped in and around the old beams, providing access to the roof.

I walked the circumference of the gantry – on either side, just below my feet, the ceiling of the theatre spread out in a surface of tired-looking panels and boards. It looked no different to the lower floors, the balcony levels, with not the slightest hint of what was on the other side. Up here, I had to keep reminding myself that one step off the path could mean falling through the rotten wood and plummeting to the theatre floor so very far below; and what a spectacle that would have been, something to rival even the imaginations of those Victorian prop magicians.

Alexandra Palace 12-DR

Climbing back down from the rafters, back to balcony level, we took a walk through a series of first floor rooms which extended out behind the theatre. They were empty, mostly, save for more of those telltale signs of building work – newspapers, hard hats, sandwich wrappers – but reaching the furthest chamber we stumbled across an interesting discovery.

The windows here faced out onto a first floor roof; a low, tiled awning that ran along the side of the building, overshadowed by the bulk of the palace to our west. My eyes traced a route. The window to the ledge beneath; the ledge to the tiled awning of the roof; the roof to the nearby scaffold, that climbed up to meet the level above; up the scaffold, and across to the bulging blue glass of the palace rooftops.

We tried the window, and found it was unlocked.

 

Looking Down on London

Stepping out onto a lower rooftop on the eastern side of Alexandra Palace, the chill air hit me in a sudden blast. It had gotten dark since we came in – I checked my clock – a good three hours earlier.

Alexandra Palace 13-DR

It was strange to think we’d spent so long inside the palace undisturbed. From here we could see lights in other parts of the building; there were people around, staff, perhaps even security. Yet for almost three hours, we’d been left to climb around in the disused theatre, up ladders and stage rigging, with not a care in the world. I’ve had so many similar experiences in completely abandoned buildings – far from any prying eye – that it had been easy to forget we were currently exploring a so-called ‘live’ site.

This rooftop, however, felt very different all of a sudden. We could see the palace grounds, the car park – and so it stood to reason that anybody out there might see us right back. Climbing across the slippery tiles I kept my head ducked down; making it fast toward the scaffold, that ascended two floors up from this roof to the next.

We climbed to the top, crossing the rail onto the next level… and then paused, turning back to take in the view.

Alexandra Palace 14-DR

I want to call it ‘magnificent’ – I want to, but I can’t. At this stage in the narrative it would feel logical to describe the breathtaking view from the palace rooftop, the reward at journey’s end; I tried my best to admire London from above, but I simply got no sense of it from here. It was everywhere. Nowhere. It was a nondescript smudge of hazy yellow lights, that spread as far and as wide as the mind could comprehend, all the while seeping into the sky, mixing and mingling upwards to kill the stars and stir the clouds into fluorescent soup.

Above us rose the television mast – one of the oldest in the world, more than 200 feet of ladders running up the inside of its towering cage. It was a tempting proposition… but we’d already pushed our luck, and we still hoped to get out undetected. Besides, I’d heard more than a few horror stories about the health effects of over-exposure to live TV transmitters.

We decided against the antenna climb. It was best left to the professionals: Doctor Who; my mate Fishbrain; people like that.

Brad, meanwhile, was still chatting away about the politics of space. “The revolution,” he was saying, “will be vertical”; or words to that effect.

He told me that during his court case, the prosecution had brought his research into question, implicitly, by pointedly referring to him as the lowly Mister Garrett. It was abundantly clear though, for anyone with half a brain and five minutes to listen, that Bradley was the real deal. He more than lived and breathed his subject; he was the very embodiment of it.

Alexandra Palace 15-DR

Someone like Freud might have framed this desire to climb as a proto-masculine drive to conquer and subdue the built environment – but it went beyond that. The climbing, not the conquering, was the thing here… and as our rooftop conversation evolved from scaffolds to security cameras, from drones to jet propulsion and the politics of private space travel, it occurred to me that Bradley L. Garrett was not an ‘urban explorer’ so much as an explorer documenting an increasingly urban world. The press, the court, had tried to define him by his actions; but his deeds to date fell a long way short of his ambition.

This was big talk, though – and the night was getting late. We still had the long climb down to think about, and besides: I had a feeling this wouldn’t be the last adventure we’d share.

And as for the theatre, the Palace of the People? We left it just the way we’d found it – doors and windows closed, ladder stowed carefully back into the dusty corner it had come from. The builders, arriving back to work just a few hours after we left, would have found no trace of us; nothing to hint at the secret performance inside the old theatre that night.

As we walked away from Alexandra Palace, I wondered if our illicit tour could have been defined as a political action; the peaceful occupation of a space once built, ostensibly, for the people. It was tempting, of course, to frame our actions within such revolutionary rhetoric… but in the end, perhaps it was an overstretch. After all: sometimes an abandoned theatre is just an abandoned theatre.

Alexandra Palace 16-DR

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