When the Olympic Park was at the design stage, planners recognised that it needed a Big Thing to draw the crowds after the Games were over. In 2009 it was decided that the Big Thing should be an "Olympic Tower", so a design competition was hurriedly organised and a shortlist of possible projects drawn up. In 2010 the winner was announced, a lofty coiled sculpture in Anish Kapoor's trademark red, selected not just for its supposed relevance to Olympic themes but also because it could be completed in the time available. Metal magnate Lakshmi Mittal provided the steel, and not quite all of the money to build it, so a grateful Mayor duly named the completed tower after him. It's the ArcelorMittal Orbit, to some a key legacy asset, to others a ghastly intrusion on the East London skyline with a stupid name. Alas it's not been the tourist draw Boris and Tessa hoped, at least not since the Games were over, the park itself proving sufficient to reel people in. I have, of course, been up several times.
I've never seen a rush at the Orbit's ticket office. They've closed the souvenir shop too, which now forms a storage area for the adjacent East Twenty bar/cafe/restaurant. The trick is to book online before you come, because you'll be stung for £3 extra if you stump up cash in person. I bought my ticket at home an hour before arriving, once I knew the weather was perfect, but they've grown wise to that trick and now you have to book by midnight the day before. Importantly your ticket is also an annual pass, or at least it is once you've gone through some administrative palaver at the ticket office, and this turn-up-and-go flexibility means the £11.95 might just be damned good value for money.
The staff did seem terribly excited that I'd come back to use my ticket again. You must pop in whenever, they said, in a tone of voice that suggest any boost to visitor numbers were welcome. But they were also friendly, helpful and polite, which are all the qualities you want at a public attraction, as they led me over to the bottom of the shaft. We let you ride the lift by yourself now, they said, which sounds like a recent cost-cutting measure because I've always had someone along to press the button before. And so I got to rise eighty metres solo, looking out through tiny portholes (at not much of a view), all the way up to the top observation deck (where the view is considerably better).
The top deck has three parts - a central viewing gallery and two exterior wings. If you've a head for heights, or can put out of your mind that you're standing on a bolted-on platform, the exterior wings offer the best view. That's also so long as your camera lens is small enough to poke through the lattice of holes - my compact was fine, but your giant lens might fail. The west wing is the only place to look down inside the stadium, or at least it was before the new roof went on, but now even from this height the entire interior field of play is obscured. It's also the best place to soak in the viewup the park, tracing the intricate patchwork of vegetation and development along the Lea - an amazingrepresentation of the wholesale transformation of the area over the last ten years.
Once you've soaked in the view the upper floor has one more attraction, a big mirror. Anish Kapoor likes big mirrors, and this one spins you round, or blows you up, or squishes you round, depending on where you stand. It's most likely to be of interest if you're the sort of person who takes selfies, or under ten, or both. I can vouch for this because, just as I'd been enjoying having the gallery pretty much to myself, the lift delivered 60 pupils from a secondary school in Staffordshire. They were on a three day QEOP trip to take part in several Olympic sports, the Orbit being their end-of-the-day treat, and swirled round the top deck taking photos mostly of themselves. Thankfully they were all pretty well behaved, but I felt squeezed out and descended to the level below.
The downstairs view would be better if someone cleaned the windows. Obviously that's quite tricky this high up, but whereas the top deck's had been relatively clean the lower floor's were post-precipitation splotchy. Indeed if it's views you want then upstairs' are better, so don't rush down too soon. The added extra here is a shop, or more realistically a few display cases containing all the Orbit-branded postcards, t-shirts and tea towels anyone could ever need, and more.
And then you can make a start on the descent, either copping out via the lift or taking the external spiral staircase 455 steps down. I'm not always good with heights but I seem to have no problem with walking through a coiled suspended tube umpteen metres up, perhaps because a protective mesh blocks the view a little too much. One particularly nice touch is a soundscape project that broadcasts recordings made locally every quarter revolution, including at West Ham's current stadium, in Columbia Road Market, and during the Games themselves. It takes a while to reach the ground, which is no bad thing, and then a turnstile expels you back to real life.
The Orbit lacks a proper wow factor that would make it a must-see for millions of visitors to the capital, and is currently languishing at number 501 in TripAdvisor's list of London attractions. It fails to offer a 360° panorama because the liftshaft gets in the way, and the views would be better without its red steel skeleton getting in the way. But it is fascinating to be able to enjoy a lofty viewing platform above the Olympic site, and I'm surprised by how unfrequented the Orbit has become. Whatever, I'm intending to visit at least four times during the lifetime of my twelve month annual pass, which at less than £3 an ascent will be worth every penny.