One of the more spectacular Olympic sports is the canoe slalom. Lots of splashy white water, several flashing oars, and some very wet athletes careering downhill to a frothy finish. Again, fairly easy to organise if you have a mountain to hand, but rather harder when the land's flat. So, this time, destination Hertfordshire.
The plan was always to hold the slalom events somewhere in the Lea Valley. A short trip upriver from the Olympic Village, and a course that would provide a long-term sporting legacy for local residents. So a former industrial site was identified Broxbourne station and the river, and plans made for a Games-standard whitewater course. That was the plan. But the Spitalbrook site turned up to be more deeply contaminated than anyone had guessed, and would have cost millions to clear up. So an alternative location was sought, as a matter of urgency, but still in the Broxbourne area because they'd hate to let the local council down. Which is how a whopping great building site ended up on a greenfield site halfway between Waltham Cross and Waltham Abbey.
There are several ways to get to the new Lee Valley White Water Centre. The official recommended route is via Cheshunt station, not because it's the closest but because it has the most frequent rail service. It's ideally located for the river, is Cheshunt station, if not for the surrounding town. It's also perfect for the Lee Valley Youth Hostel, amongst whose smart fresh chalets an information point has been set up for those wishing to find out more about the new venue. They're very keen to get visitors, by the looks of it, because the existence of this information centre is advertised on signposts and posterboards in the middle of nowhere up to a mile away. But it's not really worth a half hour detour to reach. A small unstaffed room off the main hostel reception, with a few big photos on the wall and a whitewater video and a web terminal that doesn't work. Oh, and plenty of information, which manages to make the new course sound fairly exciting. But not very nearby.
The most direct route is via TheobaldsGrove station. You've probably never been, but this was the nearest station to my gran's house while I was growing up, so I know it all too well. Then down Trinity Lane, past the parish church where my parents got married, and across the unmanned level crossing onto Cheshunt Marsh. It's more than pleasant here, within the boundaries of the Lee Valley Park. Rolling water meadows edged by flowery undergrowth, and a speckling of streams and lakes threading through verdant woodland. All except for one patch of land to the south, where a sprawling building site has been rudely plonked. The Olympic planners have attempted to destroy only mown grassland and a car park, but this corner of the marsh has been irrevocably changed. Down that blocked footpath, behind that temporary fence, the whitewater slalom course is taking shape.
The best views of the new centre are from the edge of the Lee Navigation. Cross over the footbridge (from Essex into Herts) and you can look down on the emergent course from a hump in the path. Last summer nothing was here but a huge pile of earth [photo], but 12 months later there's almost enough infrastructure here to paddle down [photo]. At its heart is a timber-framed building shaped like a hardback book, with a sweeping wooden terrace stretching out above the starting pool for the Olympic course. The water level only drops five metres from start to finish, but the gradient's steep enough to provide a rocky ride for the professional canoeists. The pumps were switched on for the first time last week to check that the course doesn't leak, and the good news is that everything appeared to splish and splosh appropriately [video]. I visited a few days too early to see any of that, so had to make do with a vague glimpse of the pre-filled lower pool surrounded by snapping diggers [photo]. It's possible to get a better view of the central facilities building from further along the towpath, hovering above ground level like a floating encyclopaedia. But the path's too low down, and the main course too far away, to get a decent glimpse of any Olympic water whatsoever. Never fear, potential 2012 spectators, because a special earthy lump is being piled up for thousands of you to sit on, and there'll be a much better view from up there.
One final way to reach the Centre is along Eleanor Cross Road from Waltham Cross station. Unfortunately this only works at the moment if you're an Olympic contractor. This is the official entrance, the one with smart graphic pictograms hanging from the gates, and the one that everyone will be using in 2012. And in 2011, because the unique thing about this particular Olympic venue is that it'll be open to the public one year early. If you fancy trying your hand at the scary slalom, or more likely a bit of rafting down the separate intermediate circuit, turn up here from spring 2011 onwards and get your feet wet. Certainly Broxbourne Council are more than delighted with their new world class watersports venue, and are crowing about its existence on banners hung all along the adjacent roadway. Local landlubbers may not be quite so pleased at swapping grassland for white water, but officials hope that tens of thousands will take full advantage once the slalom gates open.