diamond geezer

 Thursday, July 02, 2015

Ten years ago, that week in London began. On Saturday 2nd July, the enormous Live 8 concert was held in Hyde Park. On Wednesday 6th, the city learned that it had won the Games of the XXXth Olympiad and jumped for joy in Trafalgar Square. And on Thursday 7th, well, we remain thankful that nothing so ghastly has happened in the capital since.

Ten years ago I started a series of Olympics-based posts, leading up to the big decision day itself. We had no idea then how things would turn out, indeed at this point Paris was the hot favourite with London looking like a plucky also-ran. So I took the opportunity to write about my corner of East London and all the phenomenal things that were scheduled to happen to obscure run-down bits of the Lower Lea Valley if only the IOC's delegates agreed. I thought this was my last chance to highlight the recycling centre that could be a stadium and the derelict riverside that could be an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Amazingly no, it all came to pass, and I got to bore you silly for almost a decade reporting on the world-class transformation at the bottom of my road.

So I thought it was time for a retrospective, to see how much had utterly changed (for better or worse) and how much was somehow still there. I've been down to the Olympic Park with my camera and wandered through, starting off at Stratford station and ending up two miles later back at home. The journey would have been impossible ten years ago, unless I'd followed the main roads to the south or taken a giant detour to the north almost via Leyton. So, a huge improvement, then?

I started off at Stratford station, at a platform that didn't exist back in 2005. At least half a dozen new platforms have been added since, the Olympics having been a major catalyst to increase connectivity and accessibility. Remember how London was going to be gridlocked for a fortnight during the Games? It's for fear of that, or at least in mitigation, that Stratford now has one of the best and busiest stations in the capital. I headed off through passageways that didn't exist to a northern entrance which wasn't there, although by 2005 it was at least planned. Some people forget that Westfield was already pencilled in before the Olympic decision, taking advantage of surplus railway lands to the north of the station. All London 2012 did was speed up the shopbuilding, taking advantage of the whole area becoming a giant building site.

Westfield is buzzing, with local youth lolling through the doors and a posse of puffers hanging around in the smoking zone. Signs direct Park visitors up via the shops, because the place was designed that way, but I prefer the less commercial route to the right past the mouth of the multi-storey. But it's not pretty. The access roads round here form a peculiar split-level network, which must once have made sense on a masterplan document, and which are punctuated by 90%-pointless sets of traffic lights. They're also in the process of being surrounded. If you remember where the line of security tents was during the Olympics, that entire stretch (and then some) is being transformed into the somewhat pompous 'The International Quarter'. Thus far we're up to about fifteen storeys of the two main residential buildings, that's Glasshouse Gardens, while a serious start has just been made on the offices alongside - the pedestrian crossing across to the park closed on Monday.

To access QEOP from Westfield you now have to walk up to John Lewis, rather than walk past that retail shed that pretends to be a pub. This leads you past the DLR's emergency exits, no longer signposted, and past the Information Centre (which, to its credit, looks like a mobility scooter showroom). You'll have to get used to this diversion, it's in place until 2017 while building works continue. And look, here's the Aquatic Centre now in full Newham Swimming Pool mode. It looks a lot swooshier since its temporary wings were removed, and it's being well used too. Having said that the swimmers' entrance is awkwardly located down by the river, ideal only if you've come by car. And the upper spectators entrance always seems to be locked, unless there's an event on, and in either case the public don't seem to be welcomed inside.

Standing on the bridge above the railway it's easy to forget how down-at-heel this area was just a decade ago. A run of breakers yards and car spares depots lined one side of the river, while a variety of motor trade suppliers ran the length of Carpenters Road. They were the lifeblood of the area, long since demolished and dispersed, and their potential long-term replacement by Boris's so-called Olympicopolis would complete a most astonishing cultural transformation. As for the raised strip between the rivers, where the Olympic Park proper begins, that used to be a massive sprawl of railway sidings. A lot of earth-moving later millions of London 2012 spectators milled around here between events, and loved the place, and then the whole site was changed again to create a legacy-focused recreational strip.

It's ridiculously popular. Ok, so it's the middle of summer and the weather couldn't be better, but even so, QEOP can certainly claim to have worked. Kids are shrieking in the sinuous fountains, especially at the one point in the ten minute cycle where they burst from dribble to gush. Mums sit patiently watching, while their offspring either get wet or enjoy jumping about in the adjacent playground. A dozen people are sat on the roof of the main bar/restaurant, soaking in the sun, while the Orbit is perhaps not busy immediately beyond. More of that later in the week. Facing the Aquatic Centre are the 2012 Gardens, not quite as fabulous as during the Games, but still bursting with brightly-coloured flowers, because this park has far-better than average gardeners. And still they come.

Meanwhile the Olympic Stadium remains entirely inaccessible. All the bridges to Stadium Island are sealed off, unless you happen to be walking by when someone's opened the gate, while a huge army of workers busy themselves to turn the athletics venue (35 months ago) into a Premiership hangout (13 months to go). The amount of money that's been poured into this double transformation almost doesn't bear thinking about, so one can only hope two dozen Hammers matches a year are worth it. For the rest of us, the good news is that there are finally firm signs that a path is going in around the northern half of the island, which should finally mean the surviving arched iron bridge can be reopened. I used to walk frequently from here to the former Big Breakfast cottages, and it's great to see (after eight long years) preparations underway to unblock the entrance.

The centre of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park remains a bit bleak, to be honest. They call this tarmac expanse Mandeville Place, and only very recently has anything resembling a 'feature' been installed. It's a pavilion created from a wall in the Paralympic Village, surrounded by an 'orchard' comprising fruit trees from the home town of every UK Paralympic gold medallist. Alas it's still somewhat overwhelmed by nothingness, the tract of fenced-off land alongside awaiting transformation into the Sweetwater estate. But the Great British Garden remains a landscaping triumph, unarguably nicer than the former riverbank, even if no longer as colourful as during the summer of 2012. I'm delighted to find the Blue Peter swing chair empty - it's usually got some canoodling teens rocking back and forth - and take full advantage while nobody's looking.

Once back on the Lea, and heading south, what strikes me instead is how little has changed in the last decade. Lying just outside the security perimeter, this area's been left relatively alone (apart from a welcome widening of the towpath, paid for from the Olympic budget, to allow cyclists to pass without having to stop all the time). There are a lot of cyclists, many dinging furiously on their approach, although one has the misfortune to meet me below a bridge just as a jogger is arriving behind, and promptly skids and falls over... thankfully not quite into the water. I also meet a group of actors filming a scene beneath the Greenway, which never used to happen round here, and several ducks, who definitely did. Approaching the Bow Roundabout it's really only the 30+ storey lift shaft rising into the sky that joltingly reminds me that nothing round here will ever be quite the same again after 2005, and hence 2012. From nowheresville to internationally sought-after real estate, the IOC's 54 votes delivered so much more than a one-off month of sport.

My Olympic Park 2015 gallery
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