NOT-LONDON 2012 Exploring Olympic venues outside the capital 3) Dorney Lake
Not all of London 2012 will take place in London. The football's heading all across the UK, for example, but I'm going to ignore that. Instead I'm heading off to the four other non-London venues which have been selected to host a medal-winning opportunity in two years' time. One's a heck of a long way away from the Olympic Village, while the other three are in the inner Home Counties. First up, close by, the rowing/canoeing/kayaking.
Not every Olympic venue is a drain on the public purse. This is perhaps just as well when the requirement is a category A rowing lake. To host an international level event requires a two-kilometre-long stretch of still water, broad enough for eight lanes of oarsmanship, plus a separate lake running parallel to allow competitors to return to the start. Fortunately for London 2012, one such facility had been constructed just outside the capital a few years before our Olympic bid was successful. A school pool, no less. Well, OK, it's Eton College's rowing lake. But hurrah to them, because otherwise goodness knows where the world's finest rowers would be competing.
About halfway between Windsor and Maidenhead, that's where you'll find Dorney Lake. There weren't many spots along the Thames where a 2km boating lake could have been shoehorned [aerialphoto]. Any longer and it would have joined up with the river, or else wiped out someone's garden. But that wouldn't have been a problem because Eton College own pretty much everything around here, which is probably why they can afford their own multi-million pound artificial lagoon (plus a fleet of minibuses to ferry all the scholars over). And if you've not got your own wheels (or a Thames cruiser) to get you here, it's a very long walk from anywhere.
It's a damned impressive lake, though. Arrow-straight, and vanishing off into the distance as if somebody stretched an open-air swimming pool far further than they should have. At the starting end, a series of pontoons stretch out into the water like fingers [photo]. Facing each, strung out in a long line along the foreshore, stand two parallel rows of giant yellow and black shields. They look like the decoration for a very one-sided medieval jousting tournament, whereas in fact they're to give the cox something to line up with as they shoot off down the course. Pull hard, and the far distant clubhouse is less than ten minutes away.
Dorney Lake's grounds are open to the public on all but the busiestracedays, so this is an ideal spot for a walk or a ride. Cyclists are welcomed, so long as they keep out of the way of coaches with megaphones speeding along the perimeter on a bike. Even very tiny cyclists were in evidence when I visited, including some of Berkshire's youngest trying to learn how to ride one of the things in the first place. It's also a popular spot for jogging, and dog-walking, and even bird-watching if there's no regatta on the water. Swans and geese have taken to the artificial lake like ducks to water, as have the ducks, obviously. Throw in a meadowful of sheep along one side, and a recently-established arboretum on the other, and this is an attractive destination even for non-sports fans.
Strings of small white buoys mark out the eight parallel lanes, with the occasional big orange floater at strategic points along the way. A series of giant numbers count down the distance to go at 250 metre intervals, far further apart than you'd imagine they ought to be [photo]. There are squat podiums at similar intervals, some topped by a portakabin, others awaiting the BBC TV cameras which will broadcast these waters to the world in two summers time. These lie along the thin strip between the main lake and its parallel return channel [photo], which in 2012 will help to keep officials and screaming coaches out of the way of the spectating public. For now, however, it's a public walk/jog/bike-way lined by colourful marshy flowers busy colonising the water's edge.
Past 1750m, the loudspeakers begin. They were switched off during my visit because there was nothing to commentate on, no regattas or even heavy training, just a couple of quad sculls rowing weakly up-lake. Then at 2000m a final row of buoys, overlooked by the Finish Tower [photo], from whose roof terrace Pimms can be supped and photo-finishes can be judged. That was empty too, maybe because it's August and the College has packed up and gone home for the summer. The enormous clubhouse appeared to be open [photo], but I saw no evidence that visiting families and budding amateurs were being particularly welcomed to try out anything watersporty. Enjoy the perimeter, seemed to be Eton's message, but the water is ours. Elitist maybe, but it's commendable that the college are willing to share their outdoor pool with the world for a couple of fortnights, even if it brings no long-lasting public legacy. And should you fancy wandering somewhere that'll one day be on a billion TV screens, the perimeter's definitely pleasant enough.