diamond geezer

 Saturday, July 04, 2015

The London Olympics? 2012

Ten years ago, even though it seemed unlikely to happen, I blogged about what might happen to the Lower Lea Valley if London won the 2012 Olympics. By cut-and-pasting what I wrote then, and updating each paragraph underneath, let's see how I did.

Olympic snapshots 2005: Olympic Park
Heaven knows why the IOC originally complained that the Olympic Zone area was inaccessible and underconnected because you can't move around here for train tracks. Branch lines, mainlines, light rail lines, tube lines, they're all here already. And sidings - acres and acres and acres of railway sidings. Some are already in the process of being transformed into Stratford International station, immediately to the east of the proposed stadium, and ever so convenient for (ahem) all those eager Parisian visitors to the 2012 Games. However, as you'll see from this photo, Thornton Fields sidings have yet to be transformed. They run off the mainline from Liverpool Street to Norwich, sandwiched on a long island site between two of the Bow Back Rivers. During the week inter-city trains are stockpiled here during that daytime lull between the morning and evening rush hours. But visit at the weekend, as I did, and the sidings are completely deserted. I'd been out taking a stroll down the Waterworks River, not another living soul in sight, when I noticed an unlocked iron gate beckoning invitingly from the towpath. There was no warning sign telling me to keep out so I wandered through into the empty sidings and stood all alone beside the vacant tracks and gantries. It was an eerie experience, and I had a gut feeling that this was somewhere I wasn't supposed to be. Come 2012 and these sidings will be wiped from the map to be replaced by a wide paved pedestrian walkway linking together the major sporting facilities up and down the two-mile-long Olympic site. I look forward to standing here again, still not a train in sight, but surrounded by hundreds of thousands of bustling spectators.

Olympic snapshots 2015: Olympic Park
So, that happened. Not the trains from France thing, because Stratford International station remains as inappropriately named as ever. But Thornton Fields sidings disappeared as planned, and were indeed replaced by a wide pedestrian walkway. If you came to the Olympics and walked up from the food courts by the Orbit past the stadium to the bouncy coloured flooring, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of bustling spectators, you walked across former railway sidings reappropriated for international leisure. I still suspect I really wasn't supposed to go wandering into these sidings ten years ago, but equally I really wish I'd taken more photos with a better camera and then stored them somewhere more carefully. The parkland site remains threaded with railway tracks, including what wasn't then the London Overground (which passes in tunnel beneath the centre), and what's now the DLR to Stratford International (which skirts round the edge). But it's the old sidings that remain the busiest part of the new park, with all of the playgrounds, most of the catering and the only gushing fountains. If you live within fifty miles of London but haven't been yet, you really should.

Olympic snapshots 2005: the Olympic Village
A Velopark is planned for the very northern tip of the Olympic Park, tucked inbetween the A12 and New Spitalfields market. £22miliion will be spent constructing a velodrome and an outdoor BMX circuit where blokes in tight lycra can wear enjoy wearing streamlined pointy helmets in public. But there's already a major cycling facility just a few hundred yards to the south - the 53 acre Eastway cycle circuit. A mile-long tarmac track curves invitingly through hilly green heathland, with challenging off-road tracks scattered around inbetween. London cyclists love Eastway and, as a visiting pedestrian, I was quite taken by it too. Not that there was any evidence that this circuit is ever used by cyclists any more. The changing rooms were padlocked, the admission prices were years out of date and the only official presence as I wandered around the track was a security guard with a very large alsatian. If the IOC award the 2012 Games to London, the Eastway circuit will be eradicated so that the Olympic Village and other sporting facilities can be constructed on the site. The world's best athletes and Paralympians will live right here, for a fortnight each, on the very spot from which I took this photograph. The Olympic village will also consume some really (really) nasty student flats nextdoor at Clays Lane (yes, I know they all belong to a well-meaning co-operative, but you'd really only live here if you had no choice). Hopefully the social housing left behind by the Olympics will create a more worthwhile place for disadvantaged local Londoners to live.

Olympic snapshots 2015: the Olympic Village
Well I got a lot of that wrong. Not the bit about replacing a cycle facility with a cycle facility, because that happened. The 2012 Velodrome is one of the most loved of the Games venues and, after a seven year hiatus, finally returned far greater biking opportunities (track, road, mountain, BMX) to the community than the somewhat ropey old circuit. But the location of the Olympic Village I got wrong, I think because the official plans were shuffled somewhat after the reality check of actually winning the Games. Clays Lane did indeed get the chop, but the majority of the apartments were located further south, again on railway land, and rather closer to the emerging retail hub at Westfield. The density of squared-off buildings has a certain Eastern European feeling to it, although the developers have been careful to thread sufficient greenspace through the site to prevent it feeling too shoeboxy. And remember how, back in 2005, everyone thought the mass of housing planned for the Olympic Park might be hard to sell? That's why the Olympic Village was eventually sold off cheaply to a foreign consortium, who no doubt now are rolling in it, while developers got breaks to speed up construction and reduce the amount of affordable housing. The very idea that a major Olympic legacy might be 'social housing' now seems ludicrous, but perhaps that's just a measure of how much London and its governance have changed, and not necessarily for the better.

Olympic snapshots 2005: Hockey Stadium
Wander through to the southern edge of the Eastway cycle circuit and there, hidden down a well-hidden footpath, you may stumble upon the delights of the Bully Point Nature Reserve. I was charmed to discover this verdant mini-valley hidden away between some allotments and a giant building site, extremely close to the tunnel mouth into which Eurostar trains will plunge on their seven minute journey to St Pancras. Here the tiny Channelsea River flows, here trees and bushes explode each summer in a riot of green, and here butterflies silently flit between the fragrant flowers on the riverbank. Even kingfishers are regularly seen, here, bang in the middle of a godforsaken East London wasteland. To be honest it's only the urban location that makes this lowly spot feel so special. But a successful London Olympic bid would erase this natural beauty spot forever. The Channelsea river would be diverted and the allotments concreted over, while Bully Point would disappear forever beneath the pitch of a new Hockey Stadium. In fact the entire Olympic development zone would have to be fenced off for several years leading up to 2012, its green corridors made wholly inaccessible to us local residents while all evidence of reality was obliterated. Sure the new Olympic park would have trees and flowers and rivers but they'd all be fresh, sanitised and artificial. And somehow, I suspect, rather disappointing. Standing here in peaceful silence amongst the leaves and buzzing insects, I hoped for the first time that London's Olympic bid might fail so that the wildlife residents of Bully Point could survive into a more permanent future.

Olympic snapshots 2015: Hockey Stadium
Bully Point Natural Reserve is long gone, indeed when I went back in 2007 'before the park was closed off' they'd already dug it up. Against all the odds, its replacement is far better. The northern half of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is a triumph, not only during the games themselves but also since. Resculptured earth mounds have given the area height and shade, rising up to a ridgetop where the Olympic Rings still stand. The Lea flows between wide reedy banks, the plantlife already so high in places that if London 2012's big screen were still here you'd not be able to see it. The whole place combines gorgeous wetland with a major drainage project, the riverside designed to flood in case of heavy rain to protect areas downstream. It's also a big hit with wildlife, with frogs hiding out in marshy pools and the skies busy with birds and dragonflies, which isn't bad for a habitat that didn't exist even five years ago. Not all of the riverside paths are yet open, the latest obstructed by a lengthy project to reduce the size of a temporary bridge across the Lea, which supposedly had post-2012 obsolescence planned in, but seemingly not in the right way. The Channelsea River exists now as a series of wetland pools to the west of the Athletes Village, the Waterglades, much prettier than its pitifully light footfall merits. This is in part the fault of a still-sealed path, with the southern exit (past the half phoneboxes everyone loved during the Games) blocked because officials can't be arsed to add a footpath connection along busy Waterden Road. Utterly wasted opportunity, folks. Equally deserted is the legacy Hockey and Tennis Centre at Eton Manor, where every tennis court was empty yesterday afternoon, in perfect sunny weather at the height of Wimbledon. Something's not right there either. But the heart of the Northern Park is marvellous, and reassuringly appreciated, and even more of a riot of green than I could have imagined.

Olympic snapshots 2005: Media Centre
I am, very nearly, an Olympic resident. A marathon runner could jog from my front door to the edge of the Olympic Zone in one minute flat (and, if all goes to plan come 2012, they'll be doing precisely that). The prospect of wholesale urban regeneration on my doorstep is therefore a very desirable thing, and would be even more desirable if I owned my flat rather than renting it. My corner of the Olympic Zone, between the Bow flyover and Pudding Mill Lane DLR station, has been designated as the Media Village and International Broadcast Centre. This means that we'll be descended upon by the global equivalents of Gary Lineker and Sue Barker, their task to link together the latest reports from the taekwondo, the weightlifting and the synchronised swimming. I look forward to sharing a bag of chips with everyone outside Mam's Fish Bar. Construction of the Media Village requires that a whole swathe of heavy industrial units are cleared away from the site first, although most of these appear to specialise in waste disposal so maybe they can dismantle themselves. I'd like in advance to thank you, the British taxpayer, for funding a project that my local councils could never ever afford by themselves. True community gold really could be unearthed at the end of this Olympic Zone rainbow. But I wonder how easy it would be to live with the biggest building site in the country at the bottom of my road for seven long years before any of the rewards can be felt.

Olympic snapshots 2015: Media Centre
I didn't end up quite so close to the Olympic Park as I expected. The Media Centre intended for Stratford High Street was relocated a mile further north in Hackney Wick (much to the abhorrence of local residents whose green view was promptly replaced by a huge shed). Instead the industrial estate on the northern flank of the Bow Roundabout survived, at least until Crossrail eyed it up and said hang on, we'll take that. They sealed off Cooks Road in 2009, and stuck up a sign saying they'd reopen it in Spring 2015. That seemed impossibly far away at the time, but has now passed, and there's no sign of Crossrail departing any time soon. You can see their tunnel-building enclave from the DLR near Pudding Mill Lane station, itself expensively relocated to make way for emerging tracks. A brand new flyover is being constructed as we speak, with three new blue-bottomed bridges across Marshgate Lane, and pedestrians hereabouts are often temporarily barriered-off while a JCB drives through. What with the stadium also as yet incomplete, it means the southern end of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park still has the feeling of a mega-building site, although this time it's trains and not athletics making a mess. Simultaneously marooned are half the replacement allotments for the much-loved Manor Gardens site, destroyed at the end of 2007 to make way for the northern parklands. A few dozen identikit wooden huts stand empty beside plots of uncultivated soil, as the 2015 growing season wastes away for no readily obvious reason. Two adjacent footways also remain barriered off, restricting access from the High Street until Crossrail have the good grace to disperse. Ten years on much of the Olympic Park may be blazing forward, but down south we have years more growth and inconvenience to go.

» thirty photos from 2005
» fifty-four photos from 2015 [slideshow]

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