As most of you may know, old Oliver is part and parcel with the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Not only do I proudly man the desk for a Kensington hotel, I was also born and raised in this area and pride myself in knowing most of its hidden spots and out-of-the-way attractions.
And as a proud Kensingtonian, I could not, of course, be oblivious to the Royal Albert Hall. In a borough famous for its tourist attractions (with the museums immediately coming to mind), this event venue still manages to stand out, not only for its distinctive appearance but also – mainly – for its status as London’s foremost concert hall.
And yet, having had this particular building in close periphery my entire life (I currently cycle past it every morning on the way to my Kensington hotel), I had never stopped to give a thought to its history. That thought struck me the other day, precisely as I whisked by it on my bicycle, and the minute I had some free time I devoted myself to correcting that particular mistake. Needless to say, I was not disappointed with what I found.
As the name may have indicated, the Royal Albert Hall was named after Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, who had the venue built in the 1860s with profits from a World’s Fair held twenty years before. The name of the building, originally called the Central Hall of Arts and Sciences, was changed by Her Majesty to honour her late husband.
Over the following century, the Hall was the site of all sorts of excitement. In the 1930s, a rally celebrating the British Empire was held there, and in the 1940s it suffered minor damage as the result of a bombing during the Blitz. Authorities in charge were also continuously trying to improve the venue’s main problem – its acoustics – but it wasn’t until the late 1960s that they solved this by installing the distinctive fibreglass ‘mushrooms’ any visitor to the Hall will have seen above his or her head.
In fact, ‘renovation’ is a word that has always been associated with the Royal Albert Hall. According to my research, the venue went through more renovation work than every Kensington hotel I know combined. The latest of these projects has been ongoing, in different stages, since 1996, and it seems there is not one part of the Hall that has not been improved upon. Depending on your view, this can be a good or a bad thing; to me, as neither a purist or nor a traditionalist, any change that can make the experience of seeing and hearing a concert better at the Hall is welcome.
Also welcome was my little spot of research, which I consider to have been a lunch break well spent. I now know far more about that building I pass each morning on my way to my Kensington hotel and am all the better for it.