diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 22, 2007

London Journeys: Last mile of the marathon

The final mile of the annual London Marathon is a visual treat for any athlete. Along the Embankment opposite the Eye, past the Palace of Westminster across Parliament Square, then round St James's Park to end in the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace. Inspirational.

But in six years' time, when the Olympics come to the capital, the summer marathon route will be very different. Athletes will still pass Westminster and Buck House, just rather earlier in their journey. The Olympic marathon has to end up at the main stadium, and if that means the 2012 race terminates in a rundown East London backwater then so be it.

The world's finest marathon runners will begin their final approach to the new Olympic stadium atop the Bow Flyover. From here, if they're not too busy panting, they'll have a grandstand view of the amazing multi-million pound transformation which has been wrought across the Lower Lea Valley. Ahead will be a short jog through the new Olympic Park past crowds of waving spectators, and maybe everlasting glory. But the view looks nothing like this yet.

Try to follow the final mile of the 2012 marathon today and you may be less than impressed. Stratford High Street is not yet a gleaming cosmopolitan boulevard. Its southern flank is lined by a motley collection of rundown industrial units and half-forgotten shops. Opposite, on the Olympic side of the street, the boarded-up factories are being slowly replaced by new riverside apartment blocks where incomers can 'Live the Lock Lifestyle'. A glut of 'For Sale' boards and a Porsche showroom hint that the area has already started heading upmarket, albeit painfully slowly.

The marathon route veers off from the main road atop the Northern Outfall Sewer. This Victorian engineering marvel supports a long-distance footpath called the Greenway (although, given the stream of slurry running beneath, 'Brownway' would perhaps be more appropriate). In 2012 this spot will mark the southern entrance to the Olympic Park, thronged with spectators lining up to be securely frisked. For now, however, it's just a smelly sewer-top path beneath two pylons, frequented by dogwalkers and the occasional underage moped rider.

Brambles and buddleia encroach upon the path as it slips through overgrown wasteland between the braided Bow Back Rivers. Soon the tracks of the Great Eastern block the way, barring access to a thin strip of railway sidings beyond. Until a new land bridge can be built across the railway (due 2011), the only way to trace the future marathon northward is to retrace your steps and follow an even quieter lower footpath beside the City Mill River.

Here, in reed-filled pools of vibrant green, moorhens glide and dip in search of abundant food. Here, in dark shadows beneath the railway arches, clouds of dragonflies dart across silent waters. Here, in thick undergrowth adjoining the riverside path, a community of small mammals live out their lives unseen beneath the rustling foliage. And here, in just a few months time, Olympic bulldozers will arrive on site to erase the lot.

Across the water, a large area of existing light industry also faces imminent demolition. Future marathon runners will cross the river through the middle of what is currently a long wooden warehouse guarded by a lone yappy dog. They'll enter the stadium to the cheers of tens of thousands of spectators sitting on top of a dismantled fish-filleting factory. They'll run the last few hundred yards round the track through the site of a former waste management facility. And they'll cross the finishing line beside the ex-forecourt of a Mercedes-Benz service centre. It's hardly the Mall, but it'll have to do.

Time is running out if you want to follow the last mile of the marathon for yourself. In July a big security fence will be erected around the perimeter of the future Olympic site and all public access will be closed off. Do try to visit this wild and unique landscape before then, if you possibly can, before the whole area is cleansed and sanitised in readiness for a billion-strong global TV audience. The Lower Lea Valley will look mighty impressive on your plasma screen in 2012, that's for sure, but some might argue it looks far lovelier today.

Originally featured in Time Out Magazine London [13 December 2006]

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