From Victorian England through the world wars and beyond, beloved venue Alexandra Palace has had an exciting history—and it’s far from over.
When Access sits down to talk to Lucy Fenner, commercial director at Alexandra Palace, one word continually crops up in the conversation: Community.
“It’s known as the People’s Palace,” she says. “We put on events for free, which can be difficult and challenging, because we want to ensure that everyone can be part of what we’re trying to achieve here.
“With everything we build now, we’re very conscious of making it accessible for people with disabilities. It’s something that we care about. It’s so important that everyone has access to this space.”
Sitting at the top of a hill in Alexandra Park in North London, the Palace, affectionately known as Ally Pally, is an iconic Grade II-listed building with an unrivalled view of the capital’s skyline.
The venue is endowed with a rich history stretching all the way back to its opening in 1873 on Queen Victoria’s 54th birthday. It was used as temporary accommodation for refugees during both world wars, played host to the BBC for almost 50 years and witnessed the launch of colour television in the UK.
The building has also played host to several world-famous musicians, including Queen, The Stone Roses and Blur, and award ceremonies such as the BRITs and the MTV European Music Awards.
Despite this, when Fenner first joined the venue 10 years ago, its long-term future was in doubt.
“There was a bit of a lull in terms of events,” she recalls. “There were lots of reasons behind that; I guess it was down to management. They weren’t sure what the future of the Palace was, and were potentially going to sell it.”
In the years since, Fenner and her colleagues have driven the venue into a new era, first outlining exactly what they wanted it to become.
“I was responsible for putting together the music strategy,” she explains. “The idea was to build back those relationships with the promoters and to package up the Palace and bring it all together.
“It wasn’t just about booking bands that we liked, it was also about improving the customer experience. People want to come for a night out; they don’t just want to come for that nine o’clock moment when the artist comes onstage. It’s about the whole experience.”
A major part of this transformation was the creation of what Fenner calls the ‘festival village’ at the venue. Customers arriving to go to gigs or other events first pass through a palm court and into a 3,000-capacity room with street food, bars and performing artists.
The ice rink, skate park, boating lake and other attractions help to bring visitors to the site throughout the day and throughout the year. This, says Fenner, is a deliberate strategy to establish the venue as a place where visitors can spend the day.
“People can come and enjoy the views while having a cold beer, and it’s really fun. When you sit in our beer garden you can see the Shard, you can see the London skyline. It’s the best view of London in London.”
The capacity of the venue’s biggest event space, the Great Hall, has also increased from 8,250sqm to 10,250sqm.
“That was a huge milestone,” says Fenner. “The first gig that we did with that increased capacity was Jay Z. It was a massive statement. The vibe in the arena and the atmosphere is pretty excellent. As an audience member you don’t feel miles away; you can move, you can dance and you’re not restricted in the space.”
The venue has attracted a number of high pro le events in recent years, recently hosting 66,000 fans for the William Hill World Darts Championship, followed by the Dafabet Masters snooker tournament and a goodbye tour from the Maccabees in June.
Another standout moment for the venue was securing Florence + the Machine for four nights in 2015, fending off competition from the capital’s larger venues.
“When you get something like that you think, ‘God, that high pro le artist chose us over somewhere like e O2’,” says Fenner. “That, for me, is very satisfying.
“We can see from the data we’re starting to capture that a lot of the people who come here aren’t coming just to see artists, they’re coming because they love Ally Pally. It’s not just about the music, and that’s really important to me.”
“What Ally Pally does slightly differently from other venues is that we create, promote and deliver our own events,” says Fenner. “It’s not just a receiving house, and we don’t just put on promoters’ events.
“That’s why so many people that work here love it so much. We offer diversity to our customers but we also allow our own teams to get creative.”
The venue kickstarts each year with a German beer festival called Springfest, which was the brainchild of a member of the Ally Pally events team, and holds a spectacular reworks festival on Bonfire Night every November.
“That’s our flagship event,” enthuses Fenner. “We’ve grown the event from 20,000 to 100,000 people over two days. It used to be a free event but it stopped because we didn’t have the funding to put it on. en it was brought back as a ticketed event and it’s now one of the biggest festivals in London, and it’s all in-house.
“The amount of people that event touches is incredible: families, little kids and adults. It’s a bit frustrating because it’s not something I ever get to enjoy because I’m always here working on it!”
Change on the horizon
Exciting changes are afoot at the venue, Fenner tells Access.
“We’ve embarked on a huge project,” she explains. “We’re renovating our old Victorian theatre, which has sat for years untouched. The BBC used it as a props store.”
The theatre, which is expected to open in 2018, will be a flexible, 1,300-capacity event space that the general public will be able to access through a newly restored East Court.
“The east side of our building has been quite derelict,” says Fenner. “The theatre has been closed and Ally Pally has never had the investment. All the money we make, every single penny, goes into restoring this very old, Grade II-listed building that needs a lot of love.
“Because we are able now to host these fantastic events we’re able to generate some income to put back into the building. We’re able to open up new parts, and gain support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It lets us open up those areas that we thought were maybe going to sit untouched forever.”
The £28m restoration of the east side of the building was boosted by a £18.8m grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in 2015, along with funding from Haringey Council totalling £6.8m.
When the grant was announced, Louise Stewart, chief executive of Alexandra Park and Palace, commented: “Almost half of Alexandra Palace is still inaccessible to the public. is project will help put that right. When we’re finished, the Palace’s eclectic history will finally come alive. It will be about Britain’s innovators and pioneers, about cinema, comedy, opera, plays—a true family day out—as well as the music, award-winning parkland, views and ice skating we’re famous for today.”
Looking further into the future of the venue, Fenner is excited and optimistic about the possibilities.
“The long-term plan is to open up all the derelict spaces, so that every part of the building is accessible,” she says. “It is such an amazing and beautiful building.
“I think the people here really make it special for me. That’s why I’ve stayed so long and why I love it so much. Ally Pally gets under your skin; it’s definitely got under mine.”
This feature originally appeared in the February issue of Access All Areas, out now.