diamond geezer

 Friday, April 04, 2014

With Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park opening tomorrow, invites to preview the park this week have been flying around like confetti. I was never going to take up the offer, it being part of a fully blown media circus, plus on the relevant afternoon I was busy being downtrodden at work. So instead I offered my freebie to a reader, and Ollie O'Brien was quickest off the mark. Ollie's Olympic credentials are impeccable, being one of the quintet who actually named one of the Olympic Park's five residential neighbourhoods, and also the driving force behind QEOP's OpenStreetMap mapping. So Ollie went along on Monday and pretended to be me, or some other base ploy, and got to tag along with the crowd of media people and proper journos. He's now been somewhere that I won't be going for another 24 hours, so rather than hang around I'm pleased to reproduce Ollie's South Park report below.

It's been nearly two years since the Games. The Olympic Park has gradually opened back up in legacy mode, but the central section, near the stadium itself, has remained closed thus far. However the section, known as the South Park, is finally reopening this weekend along with the Orbit sculpture. It's changed quite a bit, and it's been worth the wait. I got a preview tour of the new park on Monday – legendary local blogger Diamond Geezer was kind enough to pass his invitation on and I was only too happy to take it up.

The tour itself was relatively short – after a visit to the breathtaking (and warm) Aquatic Centre, it was a wander up and down the narrow strip of parkland that sits between two water channels, with the stadium across one waterway and the Aquatic Centre beside the other. Two years ago, this was the main thoroughfare between venues in the park, built to move up to 200,000 people. Now, with the future crowd routes likely to be directly between the stadia and park entrances, the space will not see a huge level of "through" traffic and so the opportunity was taken to turn it into a rather unique park – part designer children's playground, part traditional promenade.

Some of the highlights:
  • One of the five bridges that connects the park to the "Stadium" island has disappeared, and its abutment on the park has turned into a bright orange climbing wall.
  • The playground area is quite organic in feel, with strange bumps in the ground, a set of bubbles to climb to get up to the slide, and some carefully hewn rocks beside a sandpit. A fountain trickles water down one of the rocks into the sandpit – it somewhat bizarrely reminded me of a miniature version of the Princess Diana fountain in Hyde Park.
  • The playground spills over into the promenade in places, rather than being in a single place, so removing the traditional fenced off "zonal" feel of regular parks.
  • There is a small wooden outdoor stage and auditorium near the playground.
  • The area that was known as the Spotty Bridge has opened up – the bridge having metamorphosed into three narrow metallic bridges arranged in an "N" shape. In the resulting void, sets of steps lead down to the lower towpath level and, surprisingly, pine trees have been planted around the area. The strong and pleasant pine smell was not one that I have experienced in London before!
  • There is another fountain feature nearer to the Orbit and Aquatic Centre. It wasn't working on the day of our visit, but it promises to rival the Russell Square or More London "flat ground" fountains, in terms of interactivity, on a hot day.

The Carpenter's Road lock, which connects the canal and river channels together, has not been restored, which is a shame, but the Canal & River Trust who own the waterway still have plans to do so, and the passage of boats through the channel, surrounded by the three metallic bridges and the wooden seating panels, will be quite a spectacle when it all comes together.

So, although a smaller park than I was envisaging, it's quite different to a traditional Victorian space such as the nearby Victoria Park, and certainly more interesting than a big slab of grass (you can visit Hackney Marshes for that) or a giant paved space for outdoor concerts that I had feared. It's clear that the park designers have been enthusiastic about the project and have worked to make it distinctly modern and quite different. Best of all, it will be open 24 hours a day. The area will be gently lit at night – not too brightly as the Lea is London's "bat motorway" apparently, but enough for it to be a welcoming space at all hours.

I was pleased, when I got home, to discover I had unwittingly taken three photos that were more-or-less the view that I had taken two years ago, shortly before the opening ceremony for London 2012:
  • View from Carpenter's Road Lock – 2012 vs 2014.
  • The turquoise bridge – 2012 vs 2014.
  • View of the stadium from the South Park – 2012 vs 2014.
Full set of Ollie's photographs of the South Park preview here.

Part two of Ollie's report, where he heads up the legacy-mode Orbit (and approves), is here.

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