diamond geezer

 Friday, July 28, 2017

It's five years since London's Olympic Opening Ceremony, the surreal all-inclusive spectacle which made Britain proud. I hope you watched the whole thing again last night. I certainly did.

The following morning the Games proper began, and the Olympic Park opened its gates to the event-going public. My family and I had tickets to the basketball preliminaries, so we got into the Park early and spent the day there, exploring the restructured Stratford Marshes along the way. Five years later I though I'd go back and retrace our steps, as an excuse to see how the whole place has changed.

9.14am: Good Morning. Welcome to London 2012. Games Maker Wendy has just taken our family photo in front of the Orbit. Thanks Wendy!

We headed into the park from Westfield, through lightly used security tents, because the organisers had deliberately kept spectator numbers low on the first day. You can't walk in the same way any more, they've built whopping great office blocks in their place, but eventually the barriers will clear to open up The International Quarter. In 2012 a scrolling magenta arch welcomed visitors to the park, positioned on the bridge immediately before the poked-out nose of the Aquatics Centre. How great it is to have this now as our local public pool, although the upper entrance and viewing terrace are locked (and essentially wasted) the majority of the time.

I wonder what the Games Makers thought as the first rush of spectators swarmed across the bridge, and whether the flood of requests for photos was what they expected when they signed up. There are plenty of volunteers wandering about again this summer because the stadium's in World Athletics mode, though not quite the jubilant throng of hand-waving cheer-raising grinners we had five years ago. Ascending the Orbit was a lot harder back then, with tickets to head up top pre-booked and all sold out. These days you can turn up and have the viewing platform of this white elephant almost to yourself. Even the slide that was supposed to rejuvenate the attraction hasn't made this a must see, hence the Orbit is in debt to the tune of £12.2m with interest growing by £700k a year.

9.42am: The world's largest McDonalds has a very restricted breakfast menu, but the cheapest food in the park. It is not yet busy.

It doesn't take much to create the world's largest McDonalds, just a few timber struts on a temporary skeleton, plus the world's slowest lift to provide step-free access to the upper storey. We must have been some of the very first customers, speeding through the cavernous enclosure where later there'd be mega-queues. I skipped the offer of a McBreakfast, nabbing an unwanted hash brown off my nephew, and we sat up top overlooking the centre of the park. Then we nipped into the London 2012 Megastore which was also nigh empty, where we could have taken our pick of the high quality souvenirs on sale, and later in the day wished we had.

The site of that McDonalds has been empty ever since the Games, a patch of grass alongside the central bridge where a ramp leads down to Carpenters Road. The site of the megastore is empty too, but now sealed off behind a hoarding, where before too long the neighbourhood of Sweetwater will rise. Development may have been brought forward thanks to London's abject housing shortage, but even five years later this corner of the park is as undeveloped as it has been since the Bow Industrial Park was demolished. As for modern catering options hereabouts, the nearest outlet is a small cabin, shuttered on weekdays, which serves a burger for £5.50 and a 'Juicy Water' for £2.60. Having that McDonalds back might even be an improvement.

10.36am: Sitting where the allotments used to be, beside a giant screen in the river Lea, watching the swimming taking place half a mile away.
11.24am: The waterside meadows are gorgeous, with acres of wild flowers dotted with butterflies, dragonflies and bumble bees.

Landscape-wise, the northern half of the Olympic Park is the pretty bit, as we first discovered five years ago. All those well-trimmed lawns sloping down to the Lea, on one of which I found the remains of a firework from the previous evening's finale. But where my family saw only scenic riverside, I remembered an extensive trading estate scattered to the four winds, and the former Manor Gardens Allotments, their productive soil scraped away to create an extensive drainage bowl. We plonked ourselves down on the grass to watch the big screen plonked in the middle of the river, which showed a selection of the sporting action taking place elsewhere occasionally interrupted by promotional inserts for British Airways. It could all have been very much worse.

The big screen's gone, but the landscaped lawns were built to last. You can still sit on the slatted wooden decking and look out over the wetlands, or jog your way along the riverbank, or take your photo on the high ridge beneath the five coloured rings. Compared to the windblown desolation of some Olympic parks, this is a well-used paradise. The wildflower mix isn't as dazzling as it was back in 2012, but visit now and you can still tell that the plants the gardeners tend were designed to peak in late July and August. Remember, though, that the flat stretch of lawn between here and Here East is destined to be covered with flats, because that was the ultimate point of this whole affair, not the medals or the reedbeds.

2.26pm: I have never before stood for the national anthem of Angola.
4.36pm: Captain America and Spiderman got tickets, and have turned up to cheer on the USA women's basketball team.

Five years ago, it was all about sport. You pre-paid an excessive amount of money for the privilege of gaining admittance to the Olympic Park and watching athletes from countries that probably weren't Great Britain competing in sports you'd normally never watch, while some over-hyped announcer tried to whip you up into a sense of over-excitement for the benefit of audiences watching for free all around the world. That's how we ended up on a back seat inside a temporary ribbed shell watching Angola shoot hoops against Turkey, and being entertained between the quarters by blaring music and a streetdance collective.

Today the Basketball Arena has disappeared, as it was always meant to, and been replaced by housing. The prime flats in the Chobham Manor development are those looking out towards the park across the adventure playground, whereas almost every other resident merely gets to stare at the flats opposite. The court itself has been replaced by Keirin Road, thus far uniquely blessed with actual terraced townhouses, just so the East Village can say it's got some. The first inhabitants generally don't have net curtains on their living room windows, presumably because they don't expect many people to go walking past, and petty domestic tableaux play out where lanky shooters once bounced for baskets.

8.41pm: Park visitors are generally ignoring the scenic waterside pathways in favour of the broad commercial ratruns. Their mistake.
9.42pm: After dark the Olympic Park lights up. Unfortunately, most people have long gone home. There are lots of staff with nothing meaningful to do.

A lot of Olympic visitors came for their event, maybe bought a Coke and a programme, then left the Park. More fool them. A lot of the rest focused their attention on the refreshment opportunities and the sponsors' pavilions, perhaps taking the opportunity to try out this newfangled concept called 'contactless' for the very first time. More fun, for sure, was to explore the parkland's quirkier nooks and crannies, stumbling upon words in water droplets, community bandstands and sliced phoneboxes. We also really enjoyed hanging around until almost chucking-out time, watching the big screen and admiring the illuminations, aware that millions of Britons would have paid a fortune for the privilege of being inside the security perimeter where we were.

The park's greatest success is that people still come, and in pretty impressive numbers. Being just across the bridge from Westfield helps, but so does the variety of family-friendly resources provided, including those squirty fountains children love to play in, the bouncy playground, and more recently the claret and blue hub of the West Ham Store. Some of the sporting facilities could thrive more, but the planners who mapped out this new neighbourhood ten years ago generally got things right. See how things feel in five more years, once the remainder of the empty spaces have become flats or overbearing towers and the estate agents have tightened their control. But some of us will always remember how it used to be, before the bulldozers came, and what it was like to walk on those fresh lawns the day the Sport kicked off.

» 40 photos from Day 1 in the Olympic Park, Saturday 28th July 2012
» ...and 70 photos from Day 2

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