diamond geezer

 Sunday, March 02, 2014

Yesterday Stratford got itself a new swimming pool. Not just any old pool, but an ex Olympic venue, as the Aquatics Centre opened its doors to the public. You can take a swim for only £4.50, or you can come down and spectate for free. It is, I think, a triumph, and the people of Stratford are very much the winner.

My Aquatics Centre gallery
There are 25 photographs altogether

It's now eighteen months since the pool was last used for international competition. Since then the two giant wings of extra seating have been removed, restoring the building's intended swooping silhouette. The space created has been filled in with glass, creating two enormous windows that let daylight flood inside. The building certainly looks a lot more impressive than it did during the Games (although perhaps with the exception of the not-quite verdant grass draped across the nose at the southern end). The barriers are down, new roads are open, and all you need to do is turn up and enjoy.

There are, at present, two different ways to reach the Aquatics Centre. You can walk in from Westfield, past their pretend pub and across the road, through the area where the army operated security checks during the 2012 Games. This will be the main route across the Lea to the Olympic Stadium, but for now that's sealed off and all you can do is stare across at parkland-to-come. Or alternatively you can walk in from Montfichet Road, where another time-bloated set of traffic lights is now in operation (and where some planning idiot plonked one of the traffic lights in the middle of a cycle path). This is also the way in for cars - there's plenty of space to park - and two bus shelters await the diversion of the D8 and 339. From this end you can walk up two curving staircases on either side of the main building to reach the main spectator entrance. Or head straight along the riverbank, past the giant crayons, if you're hoping to make use of the facilities.

Staff were on hand yesterday to try to keep mere spectators out of the main swimmers entrance, but I still managed to get in by approaching via the car park, not the main walkway. Inside the doors is a small shop selling goggles and other swimming accoutrements, plus a registration desk where tickets are confirmed. A decent sized cafe has also been squeezed in, ideal for adding back the calories you may have expended while splashing about in the water. Various payment options are available, including discounts for annual membership, with all sessions bookable online in advance (or turn up on the day assuming they're not sold out). To gain admission to the main Olympic Pool "you must be able to swim 100 metres of a recognised stroke", but I don't think anyone checks that for real. As a casual visitor there was no way I was getting past the main desk, but I could see a central glass-walled corridor leading off between the main pool and the subterranean Training Pool, presumably to the changing rooms.

Instead I headed up the outside stairs to become a Day One spectator. I wasn't expecting access to be this easy and this comprehensive, but whoa, everything was extremely welcoming. Entrance is via a glass lobby, where yesterday (and presumably again today) several staff were on hand to say hello and invite visitors to sign up. No pressure. And then through the big doors into the main pool area... and wow. For a start it's warm inside, as indeed it was during the Games, but the temperature gradient is much more noticeable in March. And then of course it's huge. The wave-like ceiling is a long way up, and the light streaming in adds an even greater sense of space and height. Stand on the balcony, from which Clare Balding delivered her 2012 continuity, and stare. That's an Olympic-sized swimming pool down there, ten lanes wide, and most definitely not your average municipal baths.

Yesterday morning was an 'ordinary' public session, with some lanes designated 'pace lanes' and others for up-and-down anti-clockwise swimming. Whilst many took their first exercise session seriously, others sat on the edge dripping, or stood around simply working out what to do next. At least three lifeguards surveyed the scene from the side, while a camera crew wandered round taking first day footage. It was just about possible to look back underneath where we'd come in to see the Training Pool, I think full of families and small children and something inflatably yellow. And then there was the separate diving pool, alas with no Tom Daley in evidence on this occasion, but being well used by a group of even younger up-and-comers. Some bounced in from the lower boards, while others plummeted from ten metres high, kersplosh.

I could have nipped up to the back for a hot drink - there's a small cafe concession for spectators beneath the glass wall offering coffee for £2.25, tea for £2 and fruit for 75p. Instead I settled in one of the adjacent white seats, those charged a VIP premium during the Games, and watched the action unfold. The view was so much better than I'd endured on the umpteenth row of those precipitous grandstands, and OK so there were no medal-winning races taking place below, but there was probably something better. The residents of East London were finally getting sporting payback for billions spent and a decade of inconvenience, and keeping themselves fit into the bargain. And for double the jackpot there are now only four weeks until the Velodrome reopens as part of the Lee Valley VeloPark. They promised us legacy when the Olympics were won, and this month, praise be, they've properly delivered.

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