The Arcelor Mittal Orbit is the most obvious outward sign of the Olympic Park. You can see its red coils from miles away, an instant landmark for London 2012. But when you're actually in the park, strangely enough, it doesn't dominate the way you'd expect. There's so much else to see, also on a larger than life scale, that the tower somehow fades into the background. But more importantly, I suspect, the Orbit is an irrelevance for the great majority of visitors because they can't go up it.
Only people with tickets to an Olympic Park event were given the opportunity to buy a ticket for the Orbit. It was treated like any other Games session, in that tickets had to be bought in advance online, but one year later than everything else. Unless you were watching the London 2012 website back in May you probably missed the sales window, so your chance to buy one of the limited number of £15 tickets was lost. And numbers really were limited, only a few hundred an hour, despite the attraction having been designed to withstand more than that. When I reached the foot ofthe tower on opening weekend I was surprised by the total absence of queue. A number of people approached asking if tickets were available, then looked rather miffed when told not. Only a select few of us were able to pass onward into the queueing slalom beneath the bell-end, where no queueing was required, and I walked straight ahead into the lift.
It's quite a lift. Not huge, but fast, whisking visitors up almost twice the height of Nelson's coumn in 30 seconds. A small porthole allows you to look out on the way up, but the view's more of red steelwork rushing by than any wider panorama. The Games Makers acting as lift attendants have one of the best volunteering roles of all, shuttling up and down umpteen times a day, which has to beat most other crowd direction stuff.
At the top you're directed out onto a metal walkway and woo, there's the view. The entire Olympic Park stretches out ahead of you, through a wide metal mesh, right the way down to the hockey grandstands in the distance. Tiny figures scuttle along the central piazzas, and the scale of the whole redevelopment enterprise is evident. The Copper Box is bigger than it looks from the ground, and the Media Centre behind clearly vast. Hackney Marshes stand out very clearly as a green expanse, with the flatlands of Walthamstow beyond. Bad news if you live in Leyton or Redbridge, that direction's pretty much obscured, here and on the rest of your journey round the observation deck. The immediate foreground is blocked too, hidden behind red bars and the tower's exterior walkway, but never mind, it's the stadium you really want to see.
Ah, the stadium's slightly obscured too. It's really close, so close that you can indeed look down inside, but no matter where you stand there's always one of the Orbit's upper red struts crossing the field of vision. What's most clearly seen is the western grandstand, from the media commentary seats round to the bog standard seating. Time your visit right and you get to see cheering crowds rather than empty plastic, plus any action on the corner of the athletics track nearest the 100m mark. I was up there days before the Athletics began, so I saw a blank grey mess where the Opening Ceremony had been, plus the cauldron before it was shunted into a dark corner. I understand the flame's no longer visible from the top of the Orbit, indeed entirely invisible from anywhere in the Park except inside the Stadium, which is the only thing about the cauldron I don't adore.
The outside curve's brief, and then you're back inside the main upper observation deck. Through the glass you get a view approximately round from northwest to southeast, which includes the skyscraper clusters of the Cityand Docklands. The Dome stands out very clearly, the cablecar and ExCel too if you look carefully, and further beyond to the leafy summit of Shooter's Hill. Because it had been raining the glass on one flank was speckled with water droplets, which wrecked photography somewhat, but the appearance ofa rainbow somewhere in the direction of Woolwich more than made up for it. Closer to, the Olympic warm-up track made an appearance, with little trains and buses passing by. It's a better view than I was expecting, but that's probably because I have a local interest in all the stuff that's nearby. The tallest buildings, from this perspective, are local tower blocks in Stratford and Bow, which suddenly look much lovelier viewed from above. And that's the Bow Flyover, and if I squint, yes absolutely, that's my house!
As well as the exterior delights, Anish Kapoor has added a couple of his trademark mirrors for guests to stare into. Each is long, and doubly curved, for the full "I'm at a fairground" experience. There being so few visitors up here, it was possible to enjoy the experience without the reflections of others getting in the way. That'll never last. And there's a square void in the middle, not for stepping onto but for looking down. That's the food courtat Orbit Circus, with a beautiful geometric pattern of tables and umbrellas laid out below. Before you head down a level there's another exterior walkway, this time with better views in the Stratforddirection. Rest assured it's not scary outside. As someone whose head for heights occasionally deserts him, I never once felt uncomfortable uphere.
A second observation deck shows you all the same sites as above, but from fractionallyfurther down. That seems a slightly wasted opportunity, but I guess what most visitors want to see are Central London and Canary Wharf so here's a second chance to see them again. There was plenty of space at the window, probably no more then twenty of us on this level staring down. I was pleased because by this point the sun had finally come out, so I got to see across Bowand beyond with better illumination. The weather adds an unpredictable random element to your Orbit visit, so get low cloud or fog and that's your £15 mostly wasted. If you're lucky to get sun then now's the time to soak up the panorama for the final time - there's a choice ahead.
Will you go down in the lift, or will you take the stairs? There are 431 steps, if that helps to make up your mind. And be warned, the metal staircase is attached to the exterior of the sculpture rather than being an integral part. I was wondering whether I'd cope, but I was absolutely fine. The stairs are enclosed in a gentle mesh tunnel, which means no chance of photographing anything, but means you'll feel entirely safe all the way down. It is a long way though, with each circuit bringing the roof of the stadium closer, then the Aquatic Centre nearer, and finally the ground rushing up. I sped down mostly unhindered, but you could get caught behind a slow group, possibly a family with children, and then the descent could take some time.
I thought it was ace, but then I'm a local resident and the surrounding area is my community. The fact that the Olympics is going on below also made the whole thing rather special, unlike riding the cablecar with its high sweep over industrial riverside. I'm not sure the ascent is genuinely worth £15 - even the architect himself thinks that's a bit steep. And sorry, but unless you're coming to the Games then your chances of following in my footsteps any time soon are nil.
Because visitor numbers have been heavily restricted, all the Olympic Orbit slots sold out months ago. I understand that LOCOG have very recently agreed to increase the tower's visitor capacity, which means a small number of tickets are available from a box office inside the Park at the foot of the tower each day, but you'll need to be there early in the day to get one. Meanwhile a number of Orbit tickets are available during the Paralympics, if you're coming to that, so check the London 2012 website for availability. Be prepared to pay yet another £6 service charge, and be aware that by the start of September any slot after 8pm will be post-sunset.
Miss the Games and the upper reaches of the Orbit will likely remain out of bounds for 18 months. That's because after the Paralympics the Olympic Park becomes an un-building site, and the area around the Orbit's not due to reopen until Easter 2014. I do wonder whether anyone'll be quite so keen to come back then when the view's merely of East London. After the Orbit emerges from hibernation, will it be a tourist magnet or an irrelevance? A lot of Stratford's legacy potential is riding on the former.