I went to the Olympics yesterday. Unfortunately the Olympics didn't come to me.
Soon after London's Olympic bid was won, when plans and schedules were being drawn, the marathon course was pledged to Tower Hamlets. We'd get the last few miles, after three loops of the City, on a long arm out to Stratford and the Stadium. All the way along the A11 from Aldgate to Bow, a road rechristened High Street 2012 in anticipation of greatness. Better still, the world's finest distance runners would be jogging past my front door - how bloody exciting was that? Who'd not be out on the streets to cheer them on?
Bow Road, one o'clock. If the Olympic Women's Marathon is due in E3 imminently, you'd never guess. The number of pedestrians milling on the pavement is unusually low. Traffic's light, much lighter than you'd normally expect. We're less than a mile from the Olympic Stadium, but the impact of the Games is merely a ripple this far out. This being London it's initially hard to tell whether an international event is taking place up the road, or if it's just the locals out shopping. But look carefully and there are a few clues. A Japanese trio walk towards the Bow Roundabout, Co-op carrier bags in hand. Volunteers in beige trousers brush past, lanyards flapping. Ugly grey Samsung phone ads hang from every lamppost. A blonde walks up from the Park, Union Jack wrapped around her middle. Something's up, something's definitely going on.
You might expect crowd barriers to have been erected, but there are none. It's all to easy to cross the road from one side to the other, but take care not to step in the giant puddle outside the Nat West. It was chucking it down earlier, indeed the spectators in the City got utterly drenched, but the sun's now come out and Bow Road's gleaming. English Heritage are to thank for much of the clean-up. They pumped over a million pounds into the restoration of various frontages along the marathon route, include one long parade here in Bow. The beehive above the Nisa supermarket has scrubbed up well, and the Georgian house by the bus stop has been rescued from near-dereliction. All this so that High Street 2012 looks good on the telly as the cameras whizz by. Not long now.
An Olympic BMW glides by. It might be the advance guard as the women approach, but following behind is the National Express coach to Lowestoft, so probably not. Down at Bow Church DLR, a cluster of staff in pink tabards are guiding folk into or away from the station. One's still wearing his poncho in case the downpours start again, the others are braver souls. A Kazakhstan athlete in blue/white-branded tracksuit enjoys a sneaky cigarette by the litter bin. Trains are running every five minutes, which is unheard of on a Sunday, but we locals have this excellent service to look forward to for at least the next month. There's still no pre-race of influx of spectators, but maybe it'll come.
Bow Road's businesses and organisations have swung into action to tempt passers-by inside. An opportunistic mobile phone stall has popped up outside the Noor barber shop, selling electronic trinkets and gizmos. The congregation at Our Lady and St Catherine of Siena have opened up their hall and garden for drinks and food, plus live BBC coverage of the Games, although it's not clear that anyone's taken them up on the offer. Bow Baptist Church have been out on the street this week giving away free water, but they're inside holding their weekly service at the moment so passing thirsts go unquenched.
They're having trouble with the shutters at the Kebabish Takeaway. They've jammed, by the looks if it, so a man's been brought in to do some urgent welding before lunchtime trade can begin. Up a side alley, almost completely hidden from view, a very different form of food outlet is open for business. The Bow Arts Trust recently opened a new eaterie - the Carmelite Cafe - where a barista named Beanbeard waits to serve swish espresso and cake. Only the chalkboards on the pavement give hint to his existence, with the upbeat pleading messages changing daily. It feels strange that coffee culture has finally hit my corner of town, but it may have hit too early. The evidence so far is that Bow's not ready for espresso and Victoria sponge, and the lack of marathon spectators isn't helping.
The leading pack of ladies must be only a couple of miles from the finish by now. But there's almost nobody here. A police officer wanders by, staring at the ground. Four mates deposit their cycle hire bikes opposite the laundrette, then wander off into the estate. A lost-looking couple sit alone on the benches outside the Bow Bells pub, around the corner from a fading banner for the Torch Relay. That passed this way a fortnight ago and the pavements were rammed with people assembled to watch the flame go by. Evidence enough that the Tower Hamlets community is right behind the Games, and that a marathon through these streets will be wildly, rapturously supported.
It's a quarter past one. The designated time, long set in stone, has finally arrived. The weather could have been grim but the sun is shining and conditions are perfect. The road clears completely, in a way it never does on any normal Sunday, as if marshalled by an invisible outrider. Surely the timing truck and TV cameras can't be far behind. Surely this must be the athletes approaching. Surely the East End's not been trumped in favour of somewhere deemed more worthy of the international spotlight. I wait at the kerbside as the clock ticks round.