It's four years since the Olympic Park was sealed off to outsiders. Four years since the perimeter fence went up and the rebuilding within began. It's not fully ready yet, and doesn't need to be for another year, but blimey what a transformation. I've been up on the Greenway overlooking the stadium to see what's new, as of summer 2011. And it's simultaneously great and not so promising.
I'm still impressed that it's possible for the public to walk unhindered along the Greenway through the Olympic Park. But something's afoot. A new security barrier is being constructed, not right up at the Hackney Wick end but close, precisely at the point where the sewertop path heads across the River Lea. Two tall yellow gateways have appeared - thick metal frames designed to restrict and control pedestrian flow. Each is supported by two chunky black lozenges, solid enough to prevent anything unwanted from driving through. Only half of the path is covered so far, but further black lozenges are stashed on the grass alongside for later use. One of these is attached to a hinged yellow barrier that'll one day be swung across by some security official to block passage, just like you'll find in town protecting the Palace of Westminster. A still-wrapped sign reads "Cyclists Dismount", and another warns of "Active Pedestrian Management Scheme In Place". We're only guests here, remember that.
This is "Hostile Vehicle Mitigation", or HVM, and has been provided and installed by a Surrey security company. The Greenway now has its own "bi-Steel anti-attack vehicle barrier system" "fully tested in accordance with PAS 68:2010" "providing robust protection against vehicle borne explosive attack". There are some pretty flowers alongside, for contrast, plus some wag has installed the whole thing next to an old wartime pillbox. This defence overload feels ridiculously unnecessary, especially when the first Olympic event is still over a year away. But I guess there's an Olympic Risk Register somewhere requiring mitigation, coupled with official paranoia that some terrorist might drive a bomb-packed lorry along the Greenway tomorrow generating a major radioactive fallout incident. Can't be too careful, I guess, although as yet there's no protection against either remote-controlled exploding narrowboats or kamikaze elephants parachuted in by helicopter.
Cross the river and the Greenway is its usual scenic self, so long as you concentrate on the wild flower carpet and not the canyon of metal fences to either side. The Olympic Stadium's been finished for some time, but one major recent change lies opposite. Where there used to be a cement works, that's disappeared, and the ground completely levelled in readiness for the Olympic warm-up track. The Park isn't ready yet, not by a long chalk, but this is one of the simpler construction projects. On a nearby lamppost, in tiny laminated print, the Olympic Delivery Authority have pinned up a planning notice they hope nobody'll read. At eleven different park venues, a Variation of Condition, "to reduce the on-site renewable energy generation requirements from 20% of annual carbon emissions" to "at least 9%". Greenest Games ever, still, honest.
The View Tube's looking better than it was in the spring. Someone's fenced off what used to be over-trodden mud at the top of the ramp and attempted to create a garden. Flowers and low shrubs have burst forth along the railings opposite, except for one threadbare patch which has been abandoned to the trampling feet of thousands of visitors. There are plenty of visitors too - the Container Cafe is regularly busier than Starbucks in central Stratford. And somebody's finally had the commercial nous to open up an Olympic souvenir shop inside the row of lime-green lock-ups alongside. Pin badges for £6, Mandeville notebooks for five, and a variety of giftware they'll only flog you if you're proud enough to use Visa. Business is not brisk.
The best view of the surrounding area is still from the View Tube's upper deck. The Orbit's grown further, its red steel coils now taller than the stadium nextdoor, plus two even loftier cranes ready to lift pre-assembled jigsaw pieces into the sky [photo]. At its base, where there used to be railway sidings, now there are trees. They're all shipped in from elsewhere, and the current effect is more windswept Milton Keynes plaza than rural paradise, but it's a start. The land between the Greenway and the Stadium is scrubbed clean ready to become a Service Area in 2012 (and maybe your home a decade later) [photo]. And there behind the water-winged Aquatic Centre, there's Westfield City, its retail magnet still two months short of switching on. The entire panorama promises irreversible change, but nobody's quite ready to give us access just yet.