There's one new Olympic venue that's providing a legacy even before the Games have started. Three years ago it was an overspill car park just off the road to Waltham Abbey. Two years ago it was a sprawling pile of earth dotted with red-and-white striped cylinders. Last summer it was structurally complete, though still surrounded by a building site. And yesterday it threw its doors open to the public for the first time. On many levels, damned impressive.
This rapidly-constructed marvel is the Lee Valley White Water Centre, which in fifteen months time will host the 2012 Olympic canoe and kayak slaloms. But it would be a complete waste to build a swirly water course for only five days of international competition, so they haven't. It's been designed to give serious paddlers somewhere to train, and also as somewhere that members of the public can come, hire a raft and get wet.
Yesterday's weather was so glorious that we earlybird visitors were in for a treat. Local families from Waltham Cross and Waltham Abbey wandered in through the previously-locked gates, not quite believing they were going to be allowed quite so close to the new downhill course. But yes, once you're in you've pretty much got the run of the place, with the exception of the central area where the canoeists get changed. We packed out the main facility building, the one that looks like a giant timber-clad hardback book. We stood around the edge of the concrete channel, some waiting for wetsuited loved-ones to pass by. And we crowded the narrowfootbridge to get the best view of those passing underneath. Smiles, sunshine, and 300 metres of frothy splosh.
At first the course looked somewhat tame, a bit like the Diana Memorial Fountain but on a larger scale. A small child could wade through these shallows with ease - where was the danger? But then a siren sounded, and the five pumps at the top of the course powered up, and water started to surge downhill. Now there was an Olympic-sized torrent, gushing between artificial barriers and spilling over unseen ledges. That was more like it, and more worthy of the whopping £49 pricetag each seat aboard a raft demands.
Three teams of helmeted paddlers were getting ready on the lower lake, learning fast that if they all did what they were told, the raft would manoeuvre itself in the correct direction. They spent about half an hour pootling about on flat water, while the crowds milling around the course wondered if they'd ever see any action. But then it was time, and the three rafts moved to ascend the conveyor belt ramp which joins the lower and upper pools. Up and over, like a fairground ride, with the participants now geared up for their first circuit. Ready team? Paddles up!
The spectators may not be quite so numerous later in the year, but every step of yesterday's descent was under close scrutiny from the banks. Most of the time the rafters made it past each obstacle without incident, but every now and then one (or more) was catapulted out and a gasp (or a cheer) went up. Not a problem - if ejected you simply lift your legs and let the water carry you into an eddy, where one of the helpful support staff can attempt to tug you out so you can clamber back onto the raft.
Other than that, it was drops, turns and splashbacks all the way down. At one central pool the instructors extended the experience by getting their rafters to perform the equivalent of three-point turns, nipping across the torrent into the quieter shallows alongside, then rotating to dip the boat's prow into the cascade. And once back at the lower lake it was up the conveyor belt and round again, and round again, and round again, until time finally ran out. There's no set number of circuits here, so yesterday's rafters managed a full hour on the white water before finally returning to the land.
Around 3pm the staff winched a series of slalom poles out across the course, ready for the appearance of some more serious canoeists. They whipped through the water between the hanging obstacles, appropriately up or downstream according to whether the gates were red or green. And they made the circuit look easy, surely too simple for international competition in fifteen months time? But no worries, the plastic blocks can and will be rearranged to create a variety of different courses as need demands, as will no doubt occur when the Centre shuts down for a pre-Olympic overhaul in the autumn. I couldn't quite picture where the 2012 grandstands will go, nor how good their view will be, but this is definitely a venue to consider adding to your ticketing shopping list.
Prior to the big competition, there's much to recommend a visit. Of course the owners hope you'll book a proper ride down the rapids, either aboard a team-building raft or in your own canoe. There's a smaller course for less-skilled canoeists, something to practice on before switching to Olympic standard, although its channel was mostly devoid of water yesterday. For landlubbers, the visitor centre was definitely the place to be in Friday's sun, with the sustainable sofas on the upper-storey decking packed out. The cafe was selling decently-priced Olympic-themed burgers (the Rio, the London, the Atlanta... you get the idea) and chips, which were going down a treat.
All in all, I got the feeling that the good people of Hertfordshire couldn't quite believe their luck that this world-class facility has landed on their doorstep. Many of those who thought they'd only come along for a peek ended up taking home a leaflet with the express intention of saving up for a proper return visit. I'm a water-borne wuss and wouldn't dream of risking my uncoordinated body in the water. But if you have a more adventurous character, oh yes, you so would.