There are now only five days until the southern half of Queen ElizabethOlympic Park opens to the public. We've been kept out for almost seven years, bar two fortnights in 2012, but this weekend we can all get back in and reclaim the whole place for ourselves. The main plaza around the Orbit and stadium remain sealed off while workmen work bloody hard to get it ready for Saturday. But a lot of the perimeter is already accessible, including one mile-long road I'm not sure I should have been allowed to walk down yet. Cue five dozen photos.
You can already get full access to the Aquatics Centre and surrounding new roads. Wander across from Westfield and you can look down over Carpenters Road, and the Overground, and an immense patch of empty space where the Water Polo Arena once stood and which will one day be flats. But the intriguing bit is the view across the water to the lawns of the South Park, where thousands of people milled and thronged during the Games. I remember it for the food courts and programme sellers, the wild flower meadows and the world gardens. Nothing like that is currently visible. Instead the slopes that lead down to the Waterworks River are covered with grass rather than flowerbeds, plus some earthy stripes where nothing especially interesting is growing yet. There were, indeed are, a lot of daffodils planted along the way, but they've already bloomed and faded, and their stalks make no visual impact whatsoever. I assume the park's gardeners planned a fine display in the first week of April, and daffodils normally last that long, but 2014's premature spring has alas left the launch-time lawns bereft.
The Orbit looms down over all, above a new multi-purpose building called the Podium. This contains the ticket office, if you've failed to book in advance, as well as a cafe, crèche and Hospitality Suite. Food will be provided by the EastTwenty Bar & Kitchen, which sounds like it'll be one step up from the refreshment options at the Timber Lodge, but still only somewhere for "coffee, cakes and pastries, light lunches and snacks". Elsewhere the management team want the southern half of the park to be capable of being used for big events, hence it's mostly open space, mostly tarmac or grass. Much of that grass is freshly laid turf, and was being watered and striped over the weekend by operatives in little yellow machines. Two men with lawnmowers were alternating across the riverside lawns so they look pristine when crowds arrive. Among several mature trees along the promenade, two willows are already in leaf, and they look rather splendid. But there's nothing immediately obvious that'll make you go "woo, this is special" when you pop along next weekend, not unless the gardeners get busy with their trowels, or there's something further in that I couldn't see.
You can already enjoy a stroll along the Waterworks River on the Aquatics Centre side. The river is full of brightly coloured crayons, these part of the art left over from the games, and doubling up as mooring posts (because everything's practical round here). Sealed off at present is a lower boardwalk where boats or floating attractions could tie up, or you could come and throw bread to the ducks, except there aren't any. Another bridge crosses to the south, strong enough for traffic, but not yet open. And beyond that is a raised promenade with a bench at the end, which has already been colonised by cuddling teens, although maybe the spring weather brought them forth. This leads to an iron bridge, which I'm delighted to see is the exact same bridge which used to lead across to the railway sidings in 2007, only painted a brighter shade of purply blue. What's less good is that the only approach from Warton Road is round the wrong side of the roundabout and up an earthy bank via a temporary staircase, as if access for local people were a mere afterthought.
And then comes the elevated Loop Road. This was the service road for the Games, curving for about a mile round the back of the Olympic Stadium and never really meant for general traffic. It begins where Carpenters Road passes below the mainline railway, the old road still very much sealed off because as yet zero improvement works appear to have happened since 2007. But there is a link road via the Aquatics Centre - the connection currently coned off to traffic - plus a footpath link to Montfichet Road above. Is the Loop Road yet officially open to pedestrians? Who knows. But I saw the pavement barriers had been deliberately taken away, so thought what the hell, let's go for a walk.
The Loop Road was veryveryquiet. Occasionally a builders van or truck went by, but generally nothing, and nobody resembling security rode past and complained. So I followed the virgin pavements up from ground level to elevated viaduct to see where they'd lead, and what I'd be able to see. The connectivity around here is perverse. Both Montfichet Road and the Loop Road run parallel, and both on viaducts, but while one is rising the other is coming down. This means there's absolutely no connection between the two, despite at one point their pavements almost touching, which means an awkward detour for traffic. Pedestrians are blocked from crossing by steel barriers, although anyone with deft feet and no pushchair could easily manoeuvre through the gap, a squeeze which ought to be proper connectivity, but isn't.
The Loop Road ascends to cross the Waterworks River, with fineviews down across the south end of the park. The riversidestrip is green, with steps, but then comes an extremely broad expanse of tarmac. This'll be great once covered with stalls or art or concerts or whatever, but it's nowhere you'll want to linger next weekend. Beyond that is a very artificial-looking swathe of grass, probably cricket pitch sized, should you want to bring a bat and ball or picnic hamper. A new tarmac path is being laid along the City Mill River to create a connection to the park from Blaker Road, which I'm excited about because this used to be my favourite entrance pre-Games. But the riverside within is currently blessed with little more with barrenearthbanks and little of beauty. Obviously QEOP is a long term project, but this corner feels longer term than most.
Coming up next, blimey, it's the View Tube, but viewed from below. I've lost count of the number of times I've stood in the yellow metal box and looked down at a roadsweeping in from Westfield, and now at last it's finally possible to stand there. In good news for the View Tube, and especially its cafe, a ramp iscurrentlybeing constructed to link the two levels. No more will the Greenway remain a separate quarantined zone, it'll finally be possible to step down and into the park proper direct. The workmen overseeing the digger watched me as I walked by, perhaps because I was the first person who had, but again nobody yelled that I should leave. The Loop Road continues towards the rear ofthe stadium, then drops down to the road junction I watched being constructed in monthly photos from the Greenway bridge above. Finally, I thought, after all these years, I'm down rather than up. I pressed the button at the pedestrian crossing to celebrate, and stopped nothing.
This is the point where Marshgate Lane bears off, and that's the only unblocked route a malingerer on foot can currently take. The road itself is too narrow for a footpath where it ducks down, so pedestrians get to walk instead beneath theGreenway, ducking under several rows of giant ribbed metal sewer pipes. It's best not to think about their cargo, although the sound of pigeons echoing from above may serve as an untimely reminder. I hadn't walked this sectionof Marshgate Lane for years, not since it was a dumping ground for car tyres, and I was impressed to see the narrow staircase up to the Greenway still intact. I'd reached the crossing point north of Pudding Mill Lane DLR that's been watched over by guards for years, but now I met none, as if perhaps I was almost meant to be here. A "No Pedestrian Access" sign suggested otherwise, and if only there'd been one at the other end I'd never have got this far. But the exploration proper can begin in earnest on Saturday. Really, nearly, open.