There were once a lot of rather special places within the boundaries of the Olympic Park. Reedy pools, leafy retreats, waterside towpaths, hidden gardens, secret backwaters... all scattered across a harsh unforgiving industrial landscape. And now there's a building site in their place. Something world-class is emerging, and a biodiverse legacy should ultimately be delivered, but I still miss the opportunity to visit a favourite local environment with a genuine natural spark.
City Mill River At the tip of Blaker Road, immediately before the elevated sewerpipe, lurked one of my favourite secret places before the Olympics came along. Up the short staircase to the left, then down to a small secluded concrete ledge on the banks of the City Mill River. You couldn't block out the traffic noise from Stratford High Street, but in midsummer you could crouch down unseen and watch the dragonflies skimming and skating across the surface of the weed-topped water. Today, although not quite within the perimeter of the 2012 security zone, the path to that hovering hideaway is blocked by an unsightly hillock of abandoned tyres.
City Mill River ii Through the dank tunnel from my last location, walkers emerged into an artificial hollow sandwiched between a sewer and a railway. Here a silent triangular pool poked out from the neighbouring river, filled with reeds and tall grasses and nesting waterfowl. Unkempt trees and bushes draped over the footpath, bursting into bloom each year with understated grace. It was however important to look down, not up, otherwise you'd see the legs of a giant pylon atop the adjacent slope, and catch sight of passengers in passing trains wondering what the hell you were doing down there. Today those grassy slopes have been flattened and every scrap of vegetation cleared, while the pylon has been dismantled and its electricity channeled underground.
Manor Garden Allotments On a thin ridge beside the River Lea, accessible only across an often-locked footbridge, lay the vegetable gardens of Hackney Wick. These treasured allotments were a fertile strip of urban cultivation where local residents grew runner beans and cabbages and prize-winning roses. Most plots boasted a tumbledown shed or a splintered lean-to, perhaps with a rusty watering can for good measure beside a row of sprouting brassicas. This horticultural hideaway supported a thriving community of seasonal diggers for over a century, until the Olympic diggers arrived to claim the vegetable patch as their own. Today the allotments are nothing but flattened soil, devoid of any plantlife whatsoever, while the former residents attempt to make a new start on a sodden ill-drained replacement site upriver.
Waterworks River For a few weeks before the Olympic Park was sealed off, an unlocked gate allowed temporary access to a lost mile of forgotten meandering footpath. Two summers of vegetation had been allowed to run rampant, creating a just-accessible thicket of shoulder-high grasses and brambles along the waterside. A secret narrow urban jungle had been opened up, for the benefit of myself and any other inquisitive able-bodied explorer wearing sufficient protective clothing. Here dog roses and convolvulus grew unhindered, here magpies and moorhens ruled their roost, here ladybirds clustered on untrampled nettles. Today the riverbank has been cleared and carved and widened, and is once again inaccessible except to an army of construction workers.
Bully Point Nature Reserve The tiny Channelsea River once flowed along a hard-to-find fringe of the Eastway cycle circuit. Its miniature valley was a leafy haven for a wide variety of wildlife, from butterflies and buzzing insects to the occasional reported kingfisher. Every summer the trees and bushes exploded in a riot of green, and only stray cyclists or in-the-know local residents ever disturbed the peace. Today the nature reserve is no more, one of the first casualties of the Olympic bulldozers, and just a stone's throw from the tunnel mouth into which Eurostar trains plunge on their seven minute journey from Stratford to St Pancras. Post-2012 parkland proposals for this spot suggest that all may not be lost, although it'll be some years before any artificial landscape regains the unplanned charm of the original.