diamond geezer

 Sunday, April 06, 2014

Day one at fully-open Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park

Altogether there are 100 photographs of day one in the South Park

9am: There's only one hour to go before the southern half of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park opens to the public. The Greenway is very quiet, it being early Saturday morning, with just me and a distant jogger on the sewertop overlooking the Olympic Stadium. I hear a buzzing noise above me, which grows gently louder. Looking up I see what could be a giant insect, but is more likely a security drone flying about ten metres off the ground. Its camera is looking down, remotely surveying the area for felons and potential wrongdoers, of which there are none. I wave. The buzzing fades, then two minutes later rises again as the drone returns. And this time I shudder, because this signals the dystopian future that science fiction promised, the surveillance society materialised, our security overlords watching over us. Five years ago a couple of guards were employed to sit up here and watch us in case we vaulted the fence and endangered the Games - today the authorities merely monitor us from a distance. The manager of the View Tube cafe cycles by, on what is going to be a big day. Over the last fortnight a ramp has been built down to the park below, currently sealed of by a set of temporary barriers, but they'll be shifted within the hour. The new link means that coffee-drinking clientèle can finally reach the View Tube from the main body of QEOP, rather than the cafe having to rely on the Greenway's lesser footfall. There'll be no rush, because the walking route's long and rather out of the way, but dining numbers at the outside tables most definitely pick up later. I spend the rest of the day listening out for the buzz, but it does not reoccur.

10am: A crowd has gathered on the bridge outside the Aquatics Centre. It's not as big a crowd as I was expecting, but then the official opening time hasn't been particularly well advertised. Most are clutching small maps that the volunteers on the link from Westfield have been dishing out, a guide to "London's New Park", the southern half of which becomes public property just as soon as security moves out of the way and lets us pass. It won't be quite yet. A convoy of schoolchildren is making its way over from the stadium side, so that they can form a procession and walk back the other way then the time comes. All are bedecked in curvy paper crowns and carrying banners on poles, coloured a different shade of 2012 per school, and decorated with geometric shapes in silver. The Barbican's youth drumming section are also here, because nothing creates a sense of occasion like umpteen teenagers beating out a mighty rhythm. The lead official asks the crowd to listen to some instructions, something about staying back, but times it for a plane flying over so nobody's sure. A somewhat muted countdown takes place and the procession begins, marching then shuffling slowly forwards. A welcome committee of staff and volunteers eye us up and smile as we reach the other side of the bridge. The South Park's ours now, all of it, as we spill inside and occupy the space. I remember when it was all merely railway sidings, but fortune and vision has transformed it into a permanent recreational legacy.

10.30am: We've worked out, some of us, that something will be happening on the Orbit. Following the procession led us here, whereas others made a dash for the playground or explored the lower walkways. All the schoolchildren have been lined up in a curve facing the Orbit, marshalled by their teachers who appear to be dressed like some kind of wizard. About half of the rest of the crowd look like they work here in some capacity - several are clutching walkie talkies - because nothing must be permitted to go wrong. Whatever, nobody announces anything or says anything official, instead a single drummer begins to beat and we look to the skies. Three tiny figures are dangling from the red ring around the top of the Orbit, two of whom start to descend (the other is presumably there for health and safety reasons). It's talented stuff, no doubt, but too small to be a true spectacle, and the children's attention wanders somewhat. Even the chucking of glittery foil from the top of the tower fails to impress because the silvery cloud dissipates long before reaching the ground. The unfurling of long ribbons enlivens things a bit, but it'll take a zoom lens to take a photo worthy of tomorrow's papers. After five or so minutes our acrobats reach the ground, to some applause, and that's sort of it. No ribbon was cut, no Queen or Mayor turned up, instead the officials breathe a contented sigh of relief and the rest of us deduce it's time to explore.

11.00am: A stage has been set up beside Carpenters Lock. I say stage, I mean a barriered-off area plus a tent for storing gear, facing a set of steps that doubles up as seating. I'm desperately impressed that Carpenters Lock survives, that and the low-curved iron bridge spanning the City Mill River close by. Most of the lock machinery has been removed, however, so there'll be no boats making their way through here for the foreseeable future. During the Games this whole area was covered over by the Spotty Bridge, but that's now been removed to leave an indentation, almost an amphitheatre, planted out with pine trees. Those who went on the preview visits earlier in the week expressed surprise at the strong pine smell they experienced, but no such aroma is in evidence today, so maybe that was merely disinfectant. A gospel choir have set up by the water's edge, the Urban Development Vocal Collective as they repeatedly tell us, and they launch into stirring soulful singing. Further spectators are enjoying the performance from above, looking down from the Z-shaped bridges that span the void. Their undersides are mirrored - to a greater extent than was visible during the Games - which makes for the most wonderful photographic opportunities. But there's no crossing at ground level, like there was in 2012, so ramps and steps are needed to make further progress north.

12.30pm: It's taken a while, but the temporary metal barriers at most of the entrances into the park have now been removed. Not all of them - it looks like the way in from the Greenway round the back of the stadium isn't going to be opening today. But very few people are walking that way anyway, because it doesn't look like there's anything up there other than a couple of temporary toilet trailers, preferring to stick to the main north/south spine route instead. Their loss, they're missing out on visiting the Great British Garden, a beautiful oasis by the City Mill River, and the one spot in the park where flowers are truly ablaze. I speak with the gardener - she's obviously very proud, and tells me about the wildlife she's seen and the range of blooms planned for later in the summer. Today however she appears to be on litter collecting duty, not that there's much to collect because the masses are elsewhere. Those exploring the new park have wandered fairly swiftly through the central section, the area near where the giant McDonalds was during the Games, because quite frankly it is rather dull. A couple of wheelchair sports activities have been laid on for opening day, but even a bike circuit and basketball court can't hide the aching tarmac emptiness. Instead people hurry on to the northern end of the park, discovering the wetlands and lawns and the Timber Lodge for the first time, even though it's been open to those in the know for the last eight months.

4pm: The sky's clouded over and there's now a chill nip to the wind. But that's not put off the large crowds that have colonised the Pleasure Gardens in the centre of the South Park, which is proving a particularly popular draw. An extensive adventure playground has been constructed, with slides and poles and rocks and things, plus for opening weekend a number of additional activities have come to fill the gaps. There are queues to enter the Storytelling Yurt, a small crowd watching an impromptu performance from the Bollywood Brass Band, and a dozen satisfied toddlers bashing stuff in the Music Maze. There's also a helter skelter, orange-striped and impossible to miss, but as the only attraction with an admission charge it's not so popular. Aren't the kiosks doing well? I had wondered if having three along a relatively short stretch of the central promenade was too many, but on a busy day like this they're clearly needed, and folk are queueing for two quid coffees and six quid burgers. One especially exciting diversion is the climbing wall, a permanent bright orange structure where Games Bridge C once stood, which is open for those wishing to practise their traversing or bouldering skills (under strict supervision). But the biggest hit with everyone, especially the kids, are the fountains opposite the way in from Westfield. We've got used to programmed fountains, but these are cutting edge, with a weaving snake of 100 gushers awaiting tiny feet to jump and leap. They drop, they splutter and they fire, either sequentially or in groups, much to the delight of some by-now very wet children.

8.30pm: They promised a 24 hour park, and they've been true to their word. There are no gates to shut at night so the South Park remains open to all now the sun has set. The crowds pouring out of the Copper Box after a game don't seem interested - they stick to the direct route back to Westfield and Stratford station. But a few of us divert across the tarmac void into the parkland, which has been illuminated just enough to feel almost safe. Security staff are on patrol, some merely guarding the opening weekend equipment, others looking like they might be part of a more permanent team. I head for the remoteness of the Great British Gardens, wondering if I'll meet the fox the gardener mentioned, whereas instead I get to rock on the swing completely and utterly alone. The stadium's not lit at present, while lengthy upgrade work continues, but the Orbit towers over all glowing a deep bright red. Along the central promenade the hanging orbs reveal themselves as sources of light casting speckled shadows along the path, green at one end blending to blue at the other, a most attractive sight. The playground equipment and benches have been taken over by small group of teenagers - this is their time now that the hordes of families have packed up and left. But once again the main draw is the snaking fountain, still splurting away and with each jet now individually coloured like a bag of boiled sweets. A few brave souls jump through the water ballet, while a couple of serious photographers have lined up their lens to record the sheer beauty of this after-dark spectacle. I depart past the Podium, whose cafe is finally closing down for the night, and stride across the deserted south lawn towards far distant Pudding Mill Lane station. They really have given back the Olympic Park to residents, should we choose to take them up on the offer. And you know what, I suspect my local park is now better than your local park, and that makes me rather pleased.


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