The Olympic Park was sealed off from the outside world almost two years ago, and now nobody gets in. Not unless they work on the site, that is, or are a visiting dignitary. But on Thursday evening, after construction work had finished for the day, the barrier at the northern end of the park was raised and the bloggers tour bus snuck inside for a scout-round. This is the main entrance point for trucks and lorries delivering building materials, so there'll be a heck of a lot of those this summer as the peak of the 2012 construction timetable is reached. I do hope they hurry up and get the Prescott Channel dredged down south, otherwise the promise of eco-friendly delivery by barge is going to miss the tide.
You only get a true picture of the scale of Olympic construction if you've been here previously. Most of the northern chunk of the park was once covered by vegetation, be it the rolling slopes of the Eastwaycyclecircuit, the riverside plateau of ArenaFields or the fertile ridge of the Manor Garden allotments. All had been utterly and entirely swept away, with the former carpet of green long-vanished beneath a landscape of brown. There were earthworks everywhere, including some fairly substantial hillocks that will one day become contoured parkland, but for now really rather desolate.
A network of temporary roadways and pedestrian routes weaved their way through this vast undulating building site. Every now and again there was a row of diggers or a fenced-off worksite or a lonely bus shelter or clump of roadsigns, but most of the space was still yet-to-be-built-on soil. Our tour guide pointed out the Velodrome compound where construction had already begun, then apologised that the gates were closed so that absolutely nothing was visible from outside. Drive round here in a few months time and you might see something poking above the fence, but for now it's like nipping around the backlot on a feature length episode of Bob The Builder.
We paused for a while on a particularly open corner to scan the eastern horizon, where a series of tall concrete lift shafts marked the accessible heart of the Olympic Village. The planners have been very good at replacing like with like. Just as the Velodrome is being built over a former cycle track, so the Olympic Village is being erected on top of a former communal housingestate - tower block for tower block. The new Stratford International station (over there, that distant glass box) covers part of an old railway goods yard, and will whisk in Javelinned spectators from St Pancras at 140mph. And heavens if that wasn't a brand new Westfieldshoppingcentre rising faster than everything else, because the deadline for shopping always arrives first.
The bus retraced its steps through a strip of vanishedvegetables and across the River Lea via a temporary bridge. A telltale pavement revealed that we were now driving along what remained of Waterden Road - formerly the site of three busgarages but now boasting nothing more than the "Handball Arena" bus stop. A brief row of verdant sycamores had somehow survived obliteration, so not (quite) every tree you see here in 2012 will be a transplanted sapling. To our right work had begun on the architecturally bankrupt International Broadcast and Media Centre. It'll be so big, our guide informed us, that you could fit five Jumbo Jets inside. One only hopes that no evil foreign power ever attempts to put this particular statistic to the test.
Over the railway and into ex-Carpenter's Road, and I couldn't help but try to visualise what used to be here in place of what was springing up. A car spares backyard here, a low-rise dairy there, and... ooh, blimey, exactly the same Victorian factory block as I remember from two years ago. The former textile mill at Kings Yard is apparently the only building on the Olympic Park site to be retained, and will later become a Visitor Centre in the shadow of the hi-tec Energy Centre nextdoor. Your grandchildren may one day pop along to show their kids what 2012 was all about.
Our guide got especially excited by some green soil-washing machines to our left, describing them as one of her favourite things in the entire park. I wondered whether this was to encourage us to take lots of photographs of them (so, thatworked), and maybe a subliminal hint to describe them in our post-tour write-up as evidence of London 2012's innate environmental committedness (so, that worked too). To my mind the soil-washers served only to symbolise the Lower Lea Valley as a contaminated industrial playground, now requiring large amounts of public money for urgent deep-level cleansing. But, speaking as a local resident, I'm more than delighted by that.
Next stop the Olympic Stadium. But that'll be tomorrow.