Ally Pally

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Alexandra Palace, London, 1982

I took the photo above, of the remains of Alexandra Palace (colloquially known as “Ally Pally”), while I was a student in London in 1982. I’d seen the Palace from a distance many times before I actually visited it, but eventually I was prompted to go there, partly by a connection to my intended future career.

This immense building in North London is hardly a major tourist attraction, having had a rather unfortunate history and a wide variety of uses since it was built in 1873 (ostensibly as a counterpoint to South London’s Crystal Palace). Nonetheless, the structure remains usable to some extent, and there are currently plans for a major renovation.

The reason that I’d seen Ally Pally so many times before is because it stands prominently on a hilltop, where it can be seen from the East Coast Main (Railway) Line. When traveling between York and London by train, I frequently caught a glimpse of the structure through the carriage window.

I mentioned that the Palace has had a rather chequered past, having burned down on at least two occasions. In fact, there had been a major fire in 1980, just before the visits during which I took these photos. Despite the partial dereliction of the building itself, the grounds are still worth visiting, because of the spectacular views they offer over much of Central London.

The World’s First HDTV Transmitter

Thanks (presumably) to the building’s prominent position, it was chosen in 1935 by the BBC as the site of their first television transmitter. Studios were inserted into the building immediately below the transmitter tower. When the television service first began in 1936, there were alternate transmissions of Logie Baird’s 240-line system and the Marconi-EMI 405-line “High Definition” system.

At the time of my photograph above, the rooms below the transmitter mast were still in use for the broadcasting of Open University programs. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, I was studying Electronic Engineering in London because I wanted to get a job with the BBC (which I eventually did), hence my interest in the history of Ally Pally.

Public Events at the Palace

On another occasion when I visited the Palace in 1982, a public festival was underway, and several historic buses from the London Transport collection were ferrying visitors between the Palace and the nearest railway station.

London Transport RT 1 at Alexandra Palace, 1982

London Transport RT 1 at Alexandra Palace, 1982

One notable vehicle that was operating that day was RT 1 (shown above), which was the prototype of the highly-successful AEC RT class of London buses that preceded the famous Routemaster. RT 1 was built in 1939, and was the forerunner of what eventually were 4674 buses of that class, some of which continued in service until 1979.

RT 1 waiting for Custom, Alexandra Palace, 1982

RT 1 waiting for Custom, Alexandra Palace, 1982

RT 1 is seen again here, hemmed in by cars, and earning its keep by shuttling visitors to the nearest railway station. The TV transmitter and studios are visible in the background.

Rails to the Palace

In earlier days, there had been a much closer railway station. To coincide with the opening of the Palace, a railway branch was built from Highgate to the site, which terminated in a station just north of the palace building. The station building still exists today as a community centre, but should not be confused with the modern Alexandra Palace station on the main line.

The line was built by the Muswell Hill Railway, which was eventually taken over by the Great Northern Railway and finally became part of the London & North Eastern Railway group.

Tubes to the Northern Heights

During the late 1930s, London Transport developed major plans to extend its tube railway services in North London, as the so-called “Northern Heights” extensions  of the Northern Line.

Some portions of these lines were to be entirely new, while others were to be electrified sections of existing steam-operated lines. The Alexandra Palace branch became part of the plan, and work to electrify the line began in 1939.

This excerpt from the published 1937 London Underground diagram shows the planned Northern Line extensions, including the branch from Highgate to Alexandra Palace. The line from Edgware to Elstree was to be entirely new, and I mentioned my visit to the “Arches Field” that formed part of the works for that line in an earlier post.

Excerpt from 1937 London Underground map

Excerpt from 1937 London Underground map

Unfortunately, the start of World War II intervened, bringing to a halt all work on the extensions.

After the war, development priorities in Greater London had changed, and it was eventually decided not to complete some of the extensions. British Railways, which had taken over the LNER’s lines, continued to operate passenger trains from Finsbury Park to Alexandra Palace until 1954, when the service ceased.

Ghost Trains of Highgate

The London Transport station at Highgate has its own unusual history. As shown below, due to the cancellation of the Northern Heights extensions, part of Highgate Station ended up as a “ghost” which is still standing unused today.

Things to Come... But they Never Did. Abandoned Highgate Station, 1982

Things to Come… But they Never Did. Abandoned Highgate Station, 1982

The surface-level station was rebuilt in Art Deco style at the same time as the new tube station was constructed beneath it. The tube station remains in use today, which accounts for the bizarre survival of the disused platforms above it.

At the time of my visit to the “ghost” station, it was little known, and was extremely overgrown as shown in my picture, but it has now become quite famous as a “Hidden London” site.

Last Train to British Museum

British Museum Station, London, 1982

British Museum Station, London, 1982

The photograph above, of what seems to be a fairly unremarkable structure, shows the surface building of the London Underground tube station called British Museum. When I took the photo in 1982, I’d already missed the last train to that station… by about 50 years.

At that time, there were threats to close various London tube stations, either because they were little used, or because they were thought to require substantial maintenance work that could not be justified economically. I’d missed British Museum’s closure, though, by virtue of not having being born at the time.

As it turned out, some of the stations that were still open in the 1980s were indeed closed later, but others remain open to this day.

In my photo above, you can see the glazed terracotta faience covering the ground floor exterior walls of the building, which was a characteristic of Central London Railway stations. Originally, the station building consisted only of that one storey, but later an office building was added above it.

British Museum Station was on the Central London Railway (later the Central Line), and was opened along with the line in 1902. The line crossed the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway (later the Piccadilly Line) near Holborn, but there was no underground connection between the two stations, which was very inconvenient for passengers.

It soon became obvious that a common station was desirable, and authorization to build a new station, on the Central Line, was granted before the First World War, but work was delayed by the war. Eventually the new station was completed, and connected to the existing Piccadilly Line station. British Museum station was then permanently closed in 1933.

While riding the Piccadilly Line during the 1980s, I remember being able to see the remains of British Museum station through the gloom, as my train approached Holborn. The station’s platforms had been removed, but the white glazed tiles of the station walls were still barely visible, underneath decades of grime.

I’m glad that I took that photo of the surface building in 1982, because, in 1989, everything that remained on the surface was demolished, and there’s now no evidence whatsoever that there was a station there, as is apparent in the current Google Streetview of this location.

Department S

Department S Logo

Department S Logo

Strangely, I had a hint of the existence of the long-closed station long before I had even visited London, because it was mentioned (albeit not shown) in a 1968 episode of the ITC thriller series Department S.

In the episode titled “Last Train to Redbridge”, agent Stewart Sullivan is quizzing Jason King about a mysterious location, to which King was abducted and taken in a drugged state. Piecing together his incomplete memories, King makes sense of the details.

Jason King: An Underground Railway Station…

Stewart Sullivan: Old, disused. That would tie in with the murders. Are there any stations like that?

Jason King: Let’s see. On the Central London Line: two. British Museum, which was closed when they opened Holborn, and when they opened St. Pauls, they closed … Post Office

The dialog is partially factual. The description of British Museum and Holborn is accurate, but there is no closed station called Post Office, because the original Post Office station still exists, having been renamed St. Pauls in 1937.

There is also a station called Redbridge on the Central Line, although it’s not a terminus, so trains don’t generally show it as their final destination. Presumably the title image of the Department S episode shows the actual Redbridge Station nameboard.

Department S: Episode Title

Department S: Episode Title

The Department S scenes showing the fictitious Post Office station seem to have been filmed in a real Underground station, as in the scene below. The surroundings just seem too detailed to be a studio set.

Department S: "Post Office" Station

Department S: “Post Office” Station

The station used seems to have been Aldwych, which was still open at that time (albeit only during “peak” hours), but closed later on. I also visited Aldwych in 1982.

Aldwych Station

I mentioned above the Great Northern, Piccadilly & Brompton Railway, which eventually became the Piccadilly Line. This line was formed from the merger of two earlier schemes, one of which was the Great Northern and Strand Railway.

The southern terminus of the GN&SR was a station called “Strand”, which, due to the merger of the two schemes, was eventually built on a branch from the “main line”.

Aldwych Station, 1982

Aldwych Station, 1982

This tatty-looking area is the end of the track at Aldwych Station, as it looked in 1982. The tiling of the walls here was never completed, during the entire life of the station. Given that all trains terminated here, then reversed direction, only the westerly platform was in use, and the track to the other platform had been lifted as long ago as 1917.

During my 1982 visit, I noticed that, on one of the glazed tile walls of the station, the original name was still partially visible, as shown in the rather blurry photo below.

Aldwych Station: Original Name

Aldwych Station: Original Name

Aldwych was closed to the public in 1994, when the sole lift (elevator) at the station required renewal. The site is now used only for private filming purposes. London Transport even keeps a complete tube train on the branch, for use in filming.