They've been talking about it for years. If and when we win the Olympics, they said, we'll turn the Lower Lea Valley into a landscaped park for the public to enjoy. And yesterday they finally did. Not much of it, and nowhere you can probably easily get to, but the people of East London have now a brand new landscaped recreational space. Good news, it's been worth the wait. [40 photographs]
Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park doesn't look too exciting as you approach. A broad pedestrian thoroughfare, the equivalent of four lanes wide, runs beside some stunted trees and a patch of dry grass. It doesn't look much better when you reach the central intersection, where an even widerbridge strides off towards what looks like a stack of Costa Del Sol holiday flats. Some flags, the odd solar-powered lamp and a security camera globe-on-a-stick do not an attractive location make. Thankfully it gets rather better after that. Or you could have entered via the secret entrance, down the stairs from the pedestrian crossing - look around carefully, you'll find them. This route brings you in beside the river, alongside one of the few bits of wild flower planting to have survived with colour. It'll be quiet and peaceful down here, trust me, plus you'll catch sight of the half telephone boxes lurking in the wetlands - seemingly the sole survivors of last year's many Olympic Park artworks.
It's probably best to start by exploring the western half of the park. This is the simpler section, essentially four lawns sweeping down to the river, and not too much else. This is where folk sat to watch the big screen action during the Games, and they were sitting and sprawling here again yesterday only in much smaller numbers. The Park's first topless sunbathers were stretched out, while another entwined couple were entirely oblivious to their surroundings. On the steeper grass a group of children screeched with delight as they rolled down the slope - simple pleasures, but isn't that always the best way to enjoy parklife? It being Monday afternoon, even the first Monday of the school holidays, people were fairly thin on the ground. Indeed we visitors appeared to be outnumbered by security staff, park guides and litter pickers. Security, in particular, clustered and chatted for lack of any transgressors to chastise, while at least the litter pickers kept busy doing their job. Your local greenspace probably struggles to find the cash to employ a full time parkkeeper, whereas someone's funding Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park's personnel budget way above and beyond the austerity average.
Up the far end, where the hockey pitches used to be, things ain't so nice. What I remember as arena and flowerbeds has been turfed over, presumably to provide appropriate standing-around space for all the festivals the Park's been hosting lately. And there's the pig-ugly Olympic Broadcast Centre, transforming quietly into the iCity development, whose aircraft hangar style will only look nice if the row of trees in front grows thicker and hides it. You can't walk as far north as was possible in 2012, no further than the broad bridge across to the Velodrome. The riverside path stops dead beside a fresh set of steps, any onward progress prevented by a metal barrier and couple of (bored-looking) staff. There are still tents and other detritus to remove from Hopkins' Field, and the trucks are keeping busy. An even greater transformation is taking place on the other side of the bridge, where some of my favourite parkland (round the bandstand) has been destroyed wholesale. Bright orange sand is being sculpted into giant mounds below the Velodrome, not because planners had a landscape deathwish but because the new VeloPark's outdoor cycle circuit is under construction.
The view from the bridge is one of the best in the current Park, looking directly down the Lea towards the Stadium with broad parkland to either side. The banks are lined with reeds and rushes, quite deeply in some places, but there is one spot where you can step out onto a wooden jetty and almost dangle your legs in the water. Don't, by the way, because that's one of the Park rules. Also on the legislative shortlist are a request not to walk more than five dogs at a time, a ban on fires and barbecues, and encouragement to cycle responsibly. I spotted a few cyclists yesterday taking advantage of the Park's streamlinedcontoured paths - one pair had even brought a picnic to enjoy. There's ample cycle parking by the Copper Box, by the way, although some jobsworth has seen fit to ban cycling on the road from the Hackney Wick gate so you'll have to walk your bikes through this bit. 'Mental!' was the verdict of one lady cyclist flagged down by security in the shadow of the Energy Centre, and I have to say I concurred.
The lawns, fields and gardens on the eastern banks are more extensive and more picturesque than those to the west. The Park here is on two levels, with a series of ridges and banks up top and a broader sweep of green down below. The reedy riverside path might look tempting, and I can recommend a visit to the frog ponds to the north, but every path down here is a dead end. It won't be eventually, but currently you'll reach either a barriered bridge or a sealed cul-de-sac and be forced to retrace your steps. Or you could be naughty and stomp up slopes or through flowerbeds, as it seems many festivalgoers have been doing over the last month. We had the same problem during the Olympics, the creation of desire line paths where the public want to walk, not where the planners hoped they would. It doesn't look quite so awful this time round because in 2013 there are no wild flower meadows to destroy - I can't work out if that's deliberate or simply the end result of a scorching July. Certainly the lawns and grasses look like they could do with a damned good watering, and there are disappointingly few colourful flowers dotted between.
Wend your way carefully and you'll find yourself up on the long ridge where the giant Olympic rings were placed last summer. There's no such photo opportunity now, although this is another of the finestpanoramic viewpoints. Just don't look behind you at the mess surrounding the Velodrome, nobody's trying very hard here at the moment. Considerably more impressive is the adventure playground, named Tumbling Bay, strung out along what used to be the edge of the Basketball Arena. If you have kids they'll love playing here in the forest of timber, woodchip and netting, plus an area devoted to water play - hopefully extensive enough to cope with the rush of off-school children headinghere over the next few weeks. This family-friendly zone is also where you'll find the Timber Lodge, home to the North Park's cafe. From theoutside it screams eco-sustainable, while on the inside is a welcoming space for sipping and munching. The facility's run by Unity Kitchen, a 100% social enterprise founded to create jobs for people with disabilities. Big ticks for that, and for the series of community activities they'll be running in the Events Space nextdoor, and for my perfectly decent cuppa.
Two groups of people will be making their way to Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Those of us who got insidelast summer and want to rekindle old memories, and those of you who didn't but want to find out what it looks like. Sorry, but we had it better. We saw the Park buzzing with people, felt an overwhelming sense of occasion and dazzled at so much colour. What's reopened this week is a shadow of the Games experience, but then anything would be, and what's here is still a triumph. This is no tumbleweed ghetto, the terminal result of Sydney's and Athens' Olympic dreams. Instead Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is a coherent landscaped vision that's considerably more attractive than this part of town used to be, and will be a mighty fine location to while away many an afternoon. Plus there's still lots more to come, including the reopening of the South Park next Easter, plus the creation of a fresh Canal Park along the Lea and that large VeloPark I mentioned earlier. You'll be visiting, I presume... although don't all rush, QEOP's delightfully quiet at the moment.