diamond geezer

 Monday, July 29, 2013

  One year on
  Park entrances

After a month of special ticketed events, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park finally opens to the public at 2pm today. Not much of it, only an approximate square in the northern half of the London 2012 site, but that'll have to do for now. And there's only one way in. The entrance is in the southwest corner of the enclosure, where event visitors have been filing in for the last month, in the middle of the Park close to the Copper Box. It's not an especially convenient spot. You can't drive here, although you could take the bus, the 588 stops immediately outside. More likely you'll walk the last bit, and then there are two sensible approaches, one from Westfield and one from Hackney Wick. Most people, alas, will choose wrongly.

Stratford → QEOP (1¼km)
This is the obvious way in, not least because so many railway lines converge on Stratford. It's also been the only way in for the last month, for those intent on seeing Springsteen, Jay Z or Tiƫsto. And yet, as you'll remember from the Games, if you went, it is a bloody long way from Stratford station to the northern end of the Park. Nothing's changed, it still is. Black signs will direct you out to the northern side of Stratford station, not necessarily via the quickest route because they're optimised for Park events, not Monday afternoons. Then you get to climb to the upper level and plod through the shopping centre, via brand-stores and restaurants, just as the mall's owners desire. Eventually you'll be deposited on Westfield Avenue, which is the road adjacent to where the London 2012 security tents used to be. But don't expect the pink-shirted volunteers to be out for your walk to the Park, at non-event time you're on your own.

If you're not a fan of walking, try to get to Stratford International (ideally the DLR, rather than arriving by expensive High Speed train alongside). That'll cut half a kilometre off your trek, plus you'll be able to take a look at the Athletes Village on your way. Since 2012 stacks of dormitory flats have been paired up and kitchens added, ready for sale imminently on the open market. They'll not win any prizes for architectural beauty, indeed nothing in this corner of E20 will, because the emphasis is on functional floggability, not style. There's currently a feeling of dusty openness, which may be because it hasn't rained much recently, or may be because the waste ground north of International Way isn't yet flats. Head west past the no-buses-yet bus station, watch out for the disappearing pavement by the fast-rising student accommodation block, and join the main thoroughfare across the Park.

They've only just started letting pedestrians across the next bridge, the one that cuts across the heart of the Park. But opening this up is a massive and very welcome change in terms of local accessibility. Previously those on foot attempting to reach Hackney Wick from Westfield faced a three mile detour to the north or a two and a half mile detour to the south. Now there's a direct cut-through less than three-quarters of a mile long, and a gaping void in the Lower Lea Valley has been healed. Look out for broad sweeping views as you cross the bridge (but only to the south because the vista on the northern side is blocked off). Below is a triangle of entirely undeveloped land surrounded by railways, beyond which (quite some way away) the Olympic Stadium rises. A new loop road, not yet unlocked, heads off on stilts above a gloopy pond. And there's the River Lea, its towpath accessible during the Games but not yet reopened. To reach the patch of QEOP that's open veer right past the Copper Box and there's the portal in the security fence. It's at least fifteen minutes of walking from Stratford, I'd reckon, but then you can plonk down on the Olympic lawns with a smile.

Hackney Wick → QEOP (¾km)
If Westfield is the corporate gateway to the Park, Hackney Wick is quite the opposite. Its unique mix of leftover industry and emergent creativity has survived the coming of the Games solely because the dividing line was drawn along the Lea, and this side of the river was spared. Instead various artistic collectives thrive here in the low rent warehouses, while the sweet smell of Mr Bagel's pumps out across the streets. In one discarded yard a pop-up skateboard park has been established, in another a mini-theatre presents pre-Fringe comedy. You can tell the artists rule round here because the wall along the end of White Post Lane was painted with bright heritage murals last summer and no graffiti artist has yet dared, or succeeded, in scrawling over it. Hackney Wick has an impressive sense of community and joie de vivre, with none of E20's bland manufactured sheen.

To lead the way from the Overground into Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, for locals and wider visitors alike, various bits of brightly-coloured signage have been added along the approach road. All the lampposts have been wound round with pink sticky tape to mark the route, with cheeky signs partway up saying "Almost there". Further signs have been painted on walls to draw passers-by's attention to the many delights in the area, from a waterside micro-brewery pizzeria to the salmon smokery on Fish Island. More playfully a series of blue plaques entitled 'Wick Wonders' has recently been erected featuring nuggets of industrial heritage, not just for important sites like the Clarnico sweet factory but also celebrating the development here in Hackney Wick of the world's first perforated toilet paper. Originally little more than some back streets to hurry through, now there's much more of a reason to hang around.

But for how long? Now that White Post Lane has finally reopened and a connection to the Park has been established, the risk is that Stratford City's commercialism rushes through and shamelessly gentrifies the Wick. Developers are eyeing up prime sites beside the station, indeed the boarded-up Lord Napier pub is already pencilled in for some characterless residential highrise. Yet again the tale is of the artistic community moving into an unloved corner of the capital and making it hip, only for speculators to pile in afterwards and accelerate the transformation. As part of the fightback I picked up a copy of 'The Wick' newspaper over the weekend, from a pile left on the pavement outside the skatepark. It's a quite brilliant production, this third annual edition, with a 24 page broadsheet banging the drum for a less commercial future and a 24 page pictorial supplement shining a light on the past. Throw in a full colour map entitled Lea Valley Drift and this package is a must-own, if you can find one.

White Post Lane is the only way in for now, but there'll be others to north and south come next year. Once over the Lea and through the pedestrian gate, the route to QEOP enters a development wasteland. All trace of the warehouses, dairies and workshops present in 2007 has gone, and only the pattern of the roads remains as a reminder of times past. It took a while for me to register that the bland slope ascending past the Energy Centre had once been the southern end of Waterden Road, but the presence of an old railway bridge partway up jogged my memory. And then you're outside the Copper Box, at least five minutes quicker than the equivalent yomp from Stratford, and via a much more interesting neighbourhood too. For 100% proof come back over the third weekend in August for the Hackney Wicked Festival, which is an artistic treasure trove par excellence. But for now, get yourself down here after two o'clock this afternoon and step into East London's newest free public park.

» There are now 48 photos in my Olympics+1 gallery. The new ones are in the bottom half of the gallery (assuming that new-Flickr, designed by cretins, allows you to open the full page before your computer seizes up).

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