Another connection into the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park opened this week, this time linking E3 to E20. It's a new footbridge across the Lea, or rather it's an existing footbridge that was built shortly before the Olympics but which has only now been linked to an elevated bank on the opposite side. It crosses to the south of White Post Lane and to the north of Old Ford Lock, beside the Omega Works, not far from the end of the Hertford Union Canal. More specifically it links Fish Island to Sweetwater, if you can cope with those as names of places rather than twee hydrological terms. And it's about time. [no. 16 on this map]
Fish Island's been in need of a connection into the Olympic Park for a while. There is a new path beside the old Big Breakfast House leading into the back end of the park, but it's not exactly direct and doesn't yet touch down anywhere especially useful. The new footbridge whams in at the end of Monier Road, alongside one of the hipster cafes this corner of Fish Island is renowned for. The entry point is marked by a tall red brick chimney with the name MK Carlton painted on the side. The name refers to the MK Carlton Shoe Company who used to have their factory here, but the chimney was originally built for the Gas Light and Coke Company in 1893. Bits of the remainder of the building and the front wall survived until fairly recently, but they've now been demolished to provide access to the bridge and only the refreshed chimney remains.
The bridge's designers have got around the problem of step-free access by providing a zigzag path up the side of the main staircase. I guess if you have a wheelchair or pram then you're used to taking the long way round, but cyclists may not be impressed by having to change direction five times on the way up. Once at bridge level there's a fine view across to the Olympic Stadium, now undergoing transformation into the YourBrandHere Stadium when West Ham finally move in. The Park's Energy Centre is also highly visible in the opposite direction, and probably several hipster souls sat at tables beside the Lea sipping coffees. But on the immediate QEOP side, apart from some building works, bugger all.
What's coming here, starting later in 2014, is the Canal Park. This is planned as an "active waterfront", five to twenty metres wide, along the whole of the eastern bank of the Lea from Old Ford to the A12. A varied set of landscapes and plants is promised, including woodlands, meadows, coppices, reed beds and green walls, plus a lot of benches for sitting on and some play areas for good measure. There is a reason for all this riverside planting, rather than the more usual legacy response of sticking up huge blocks of flats, and that's what's under the ground. Two 42-inch Thames Water mains run the length of the Canal Park and create a significant no build zone above them, even restricting the types of tree that can be planted. Here by the Monier Road Bridge black poplars, wildflower slopes and daisy lawns are planned, and it should all look jolly pretty. It just doesn't yet.
The footbridge lands above the cobbled towpath with a linking ramp down, if that's the way you want to go. But straight ahead is one of the most bland expanses of tarmac imaginable, because not all of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is very nice. The tarmac spreads out far wider than seems necessary at the riverward end, then slowly narrows with lime-yellow barriers along each side, with a run of streetlamps (21st century style) down the middle. One of the History Trees that guards each main entrance to the park stands waiting, but other than that, this is pretty miserable stuff. What's more it doesn't get any better on reaching the existing heart of QEOP, namely Mandeville Place. They've given it a nice name, but the reality is yet more tarmac sloping down from the park's central spine, making for a desolate mostly-wasted space.
And the reason the new link runs between fenced-off zones of nothingness is that these areas are scheduled to become the E20 district of Sweetwater. Around 600 new homes are planned, most of these in the sky, plus a new school, library and health centre. An all-through Free School is planned, not because Tower Hamlets council wants one but because here in QEOP the Mayoralty has sway. Development of Sweetwater has been brought forward by a number of years in return for a reduction in the proportion of affordable housing, which sounds like a woefully bad deal to me unless you happen to be one of the construction companies. Building work'll probably kick off in earnest next year, before which all we've got is a convenient cut-through from Fish Island to Westfield via the new footbridge, and only E3 locals are likely to notice.