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Hallowed hall of fame

A triumph of Victorian vision and engineering, the Royal Albert Hall remains one of Britain’s busiest and best-loved venues. Norman Wright takes a tour.

Pictures: Clive Nicholls

It's Eric Clapton’s favourite place to perform, the Queen actually owns the 20 seats in the Royal Box, and you’re just as likely to see John McEnroe playing tennis or 2000 people at a black-tie awards dinner as a rock concert, a symphony, opera or ballet.

The Royal Albert Hall has seen virtually everything in its 142 years – from the poignancy as thousands of poppies rain down on the bowed heads at the annual Festival of Remembrance to the wild euphoria of Land of Hope and Glory at the Last Night of the Proms.

No wonder there’s such a wide variety on show; it’s one of the busiest venues in the country, staging 350 events a year – a triumph of logistics as crews race to take  down sets after a concert while the next night’s roadies wait to get to work.

Attending a show there is an atmospheric experience, but taking a tour of the Royal Albert Hall gives a fascinating insight into how one of the best venues in the world stays at the top and also into the vision and genius of the Victorians.

The vision was largely supplied by Prince Albert. Along with Sir Henry Cole, he masterminded the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London. Held in the magnificent Crystal Palace designed by Sir Joseph Paxton in Hyde Park, almost opposite where the hall now stands, it set the standard in heritage – one that Seb Coe and the London Olympics organisers could have only dreamed about.

With six million visitors during the summer and autumn of 1851, the exhibition not only captured the imagination of Britain and the world but made a profit of £186,436 – £12m today.

To capitalise on this enthusiasm, as the Crystal Palace was dismantled and moved to South London, it was decided to invest the profits into a permanent site to promote the arts, sciences and world achievements. Today the vision is still complete, with not only the hall but also the Royal Colleges of Art, Music and Organists as well as the Royal Geographical Society, Imperial College and the three great museums, the Natural History, Science, and Victoria and Albert.

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Have you been to the Royal Albert Hall? What did you do while you were there? 

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