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336-338 Muswell Hill Broadway, London N10 1DJ (corner of Duke's Avenue)
 

Alexandra Palace and Park

                     A History of Muswell Hill would be incomplete, without including the story of Alexandra Palace and the Park.

The expansive green acreage of Alexandra Park and the Palace itself, provides recreational enjoyment for local residents of all ages and the Palace - at the very top of the hill - is home to the original BBC television studio and the T.V. mast ( an image recognized in many parts of the world. )

Within the confines of the Park and the Palace, is a boating pond and a children’s playground, an ice skating rink - with a number of junior and senior ice hockey teams in year round residence - a community centre with a nursery school, a theatre - currently being restored to its original Edwardian splendour - and a pub with a large outdoor patio - offering panoramic views extending across the open greenery and hills of Alexandra Park towards Canary Wharf and the City of London.

The Park lies on the North East side of Muswell Hill and effectively separates it from Wood Green with 200 acres of green open space, as when the park was first conceived, Muswell Hill, Wood Green and nearby Hornsey were all small Middlesex villages.  
Alexandra Palace dates back to 1858 - when Owen Jones, an architect involved with the 1851 Great Exhibition in Hyde Park and its transfer to Sydenham as the Crystal Palace, proposed that a similar building should be provided for North London - and he designed a glass structure for a site near Muswell Hill, then occupied by farmland, and called it a “Palace of the People”. Unfortunately not enough money was forthcoming to see it built.

But the idea was taken up by others, so the 450 acre farmland was purchased and part of it opened in 1863 as Alexandra Park. It was named after the young Danish princess who in that year, married the heir to the throne, the future Edward VII. The Palace was then constructed on the highest point, extensively using building materials previously used for an 1862 exhibition building in South Kensington.

Building was undertaken in the mid -1860’s and the Palace opened in 1873, but 16 days later it was burnt down. It was rapidly rebuilt to designs by the architect James Johnson and opened in May 1875. This second building has, in essence, remained ever since, although restored and altered after the fire in 1980.

Alexandra Palace sketched in 1875 just before its official opening - still surviving, despite the 1980 fire -
this building replaced an earlier palace which was opened in 1873, but burnt down soon afterwards.
(Photo from the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News courtesy of Roy Tremlett.)
 
Alexandra Palace and Park were planned to provide entertainment and instruction for large numbers of people. The great hall was designed to accommodate over 12,000 people and contained a grand Willis organ, the largest in Europe. Musical events, shows, exhibitions, circuses, political meetings and many other activities have taken place in the great hall and the original theatre within the Palace is currently being restored.

The park has similarly been used for all kinds of sporting activities, competitions, rallies and entertainments, such as ballooning and parachuting. Various structures in the grounds have included a Swiss chalet, a Japanese village, a massive switchback, a lake village, a circus rotunda and a banqueting hall, although these have now all gone.

Opened in the Park, in 1868, before the Palace was finished, was a racecourse, in the flatter Southern end - nicknamed “The Frying Pan” due to its shape - which continued to operate until 1970. The paddock area subsequently became a car park and the grandstand was demolished.

The park has many attractions for local residents. In its wide open spaces children play and ride their bikes, dogs can be exercised and a wide variety of bird life, flora and fauna enjoyed. There are unusual animals in the special enclosure by the Alexandra Park Road entrance and The Palace ice rink is popular with all age groups.

From 1873, access to the Palace was via a branch railway line from Highgate station, allowing travel from Kings Cross directly to the building. Muswell Hill station was built on this branch line, via a huge viaduct constructed across St James’s Lane, and this line continued operating until the 1950’s. Since then the railway route has been made into “The Parkland Walk”, a unique linear path much favoured by nature lovers, which, with breaks, can be followed from Muswell Hill all the way to Finsbury Park.

The long working hours in Victorian times made attendances at the Palace too low to make it profitable, as the building is nearly eight acres in size and requires considerable expenditure on heating, staffing and maintenance. As London’s suburbs extended Northwards, so local people became fearful that the Park would be sold for housing and therefore, valuable green open space lost. Because of this, local councillors got together and purchased both the Palace and the Park, so that from 1901 onwards, they have been in public ownership.

Luckily the 200 public acres of the Park have remained totally untouched by developers. One of the most attractive areas, “The Grove”, gives pedestrian access onto Muswell Hill itself. In the summer, open air concerts take place, usually at weekends. There is also an extensively stocked garden centre, which opened in 1986 when the Palace and the Park were restored.

Over 400 acres had originally been acquired by the Palace company and only about 200 acres laid out as an ornamental park. The rest was intended for residential development, but fortunately in 1893, approximately 100 acres of this land, North of the Palace, was purchased by Muswell Hill Golf Club, one of the first two golf clubs in the London area. The club rented the old farmhouse and remained in it until 1932, when they opened their new clubhouse on the links. This purchase has meant that further green open space has survived and Muswell Hill has a prestigious 100-year-old Golf Club!

As we have now seen, the majority of Muswell Hill was built up from 1896 onwards. Dukes Avenue was laid out by Edmondson, leading towards the Palace, and in the 1900’s land on the North side of the Palace became “The Avenue”.

The avenues known as “The Lake Roads”, situated just off Alexandra Park Road, were built at this time. Windermere, Grasmere and Thirlmere roads were laid out between 1903 and 1908 and are substantial Edwardian family houses, although some have since been converted into flats. Interestingly, the land these roads were built on, was once part of Muswell Hill Golf Course, which up to 1899, stretched between St Andrews Church and Grosvenor Road.

The most notable use of Alexandra Palace has made it world famous. In November 1936 the BBC, which had erected a television mast, inaugurated from here the world’s first regular television service.

From these beginnings spread a form of mass entertainment, which has totally changed the world, and our knowledge of it. After the Second World War transmissions were resumed and many famous people came to the Palace studio to broadcast. A shot of Alexandra Palace television mast opened the newsreel, which was the forerunner of today’s live broadcasts.

As television expanded, the BBC built larger studios at White City, and after pioneering the Open University broadcasts, Alexandra Palace dropped out of television use, apart from retaining the mast which continues to give Muswell Hill residents a superb TV reception.

The two historic studios where the rival systems of John Baird and Marconi-EMI were tried out and the first broadcasts made, remain to this day.

There are a lot of people who would like to see these empty studios adapted for an historic televisions museum, and many local residents and performers in the arts are working towards this achievement.

The Palace and the Park were used in the First World War for housing both Belgian refugees and prisoners of war.

In the Second World War a flying bomb was dropped in The Avenue, damaging the Palace roof, so that the famous Willis organ was put into store. It is only now, slowly being restored and reinstated.

In 1966 control was taken over by the newly created Greater London Council. Demolition of the Palace was one option considered, but this did not take place, largely due to local opposition.

In January 1980, control passed to Haringey Borough Council within whose boundaries it lay, and soon after, in July 1980, the building was devastated by fire. After a public enquiry the building was restored and redeveloped as an exhibition centre, opening in 1988.

A temporary Alexandra Pavilion had been used in the intervening period to stage events and in July 1990 a new ice rink was opened in the East of the Palace.

The capital cost of rebuilding the Palace and developing the Park exceeded the money available and the question of settling the dept is under discussion.

Plans are being considered for leasing the building to a private company, which could inject further capital and develop new activities and entertainments.

A visit to the Palace is a “must” for visitors, as from the South terrace is a panoramic view, encompassing the iconic “high rise” buildings within the City of London, flanked by the Kent and Surrey hills, and the Essex landscape.

The eye of Owen Jones had selected this site in 1858, and by his wisdom we can still today, see why he considered it such a perfect spot for the Palace.

Muswell Hill residents tend, according to many, to have a history of good health and older Muswell Hillians swear that “walking up the Hill ”, is a perfect exercise for the heart, as well as the lungs.

 



The famous stained glass window of Alexandra Palace
( Photo courtesy of Oliver Haydon-Knowell )

 

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