At the other end of the Old River Lea, at the very heart of the Olympic Park site, stands Carpenters Lock. 'Crumbles' might be a better word than 'stands', to be honest. There have been no boats through this dilapidated structure for years, and the access footpath was fenced off a few years ago to deter all but the most determined photographer. No point in any last minute restoration. Olympic architects have other plans for this spot, with the central Olympic spine path due to plough across the river right here. Which is a shame, because there's a perfectly decent footbridge close by already. It's a gently humpingblue-greenbridge with latticed sides, used by long-dead horses to tow barges downstream towards the Thames. Shame that it's a little on the narrow side, and would almost certainly collapse under the weight of spectator footflow when the basketball arena is up and running. But don't worry. This iconic bridge appears to be marked as a thin stripe on legacy plans for the Olympic Park, so I have every hope that it'll survive the oncoming bulldozer onslaught intact. I look forward to standing here again.
It's been eight years, two months and three weeks.
And at long last the old iron footbridge has reopened.
The bridge's location has been its medium-term misfortune but its long-term salvation. Linking stadium to park, it couldn't be opened during the Games themselves because one side was ticketed and the other was full public access. And yes, it's also ridiculously thin and could never have coped with spectator footfall anyway. As Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park has opened up, and that's eighteen months now, it's remained blocked by barriers because Stadium Island isn't yet publicly accessible. But finally this week (probably in relation to Rugby World Cup action) the barriers on the bridge have come down, and look like staying away into the foreseeable future.
It is a lovely old bridge, all grooved and cobbly. The uneven surface was all the the better for keeping a proper foothold in days gone by, but makes for a right bumpy journey on a bike, and probably isn't ideal with a pushchair either. The width also makes it difficult to cross, not quite one person at a time, but you'll think twice about stepping up at the same time as someone else. What's particularly nice is the opportunity to stand low above the water and look down the channel (here a choice of three), and perhaps get rather closer to some of the birds swimming underneath. Plus of course it allows access onto the tip of Stadium Island for the first time in, well yes, eight years, two months and three weeks.
When West Ham move into the 2012 bowl the area surrounding the stadium will be opened to public, extending QEOP onto the western side of the City Mill River. The slopes are already landscaped, with a series of long shallow ramped paths leading down through a forest of trees to reach the towpath. There's planning permission on an upper walkway for West Ham's iconic Champions Statue to be relocated - that's the bronze of Bobby Moore and other 1966 World Cup heroes, rent asunder from the Barking Road and resettled in E20. I don't know how that's going to go down in Upton Park. More popular, I suspect, will be the long-awaited appearance of the Olympic Bell, as rung by Bradley Wiggins at the start of the 2012 Opening Ceremony. It "may occasionally be rung to celebrate special occasions, but will not be in general use", so don't get any ideas about coming along for a bong.
Up top may remain inaccessible, but the footbridge does finally link to (and unlock) the towpath along the Old River Lea. This was always a favourite walk of mine pre-2007, weaving through a woody corridor beneath the Marshgate Lane Trading Estate. Quite a few of those trees have been allowed to survive, as have a couple of bulb-headed iron mooring posts. Where the Pudding Mill River once broke away downstream now only a brief stubby inlet remains, its resident moorhens unaware of how much more water they could have lorded over a decade ago. But the stadium now looms large on the opposite bank, its corporate hospitality backstage area now fully revealed, significantly diminishing any former feelings of isolation.
The towpath along the Old River Lea is a potentially dangerous spot, so inflated orange rings have been hung from posts spaced out along its length. And each has been labelled "LIFEBOUY" in large black letters, because spelling isn't a speciality hereabouts, and quality management doubly so. Huge black gates, and two beady security cameras, lurk beneath one of the spectator access bridges. Not far after there's ramped access to the Park's outer Loop Road, access to which opened up last month, finally completing a pedestrian link to the top of the Greenway. And yay, it's also now possible to walk all the way through to Old Ford Lock, ducking beneath twin pipes to rejoin the Lea towpath proper. That walk I used to enjoy until 2007 is properly open again, and about time too. [6 photos]