diamond geezer

 Friday, July 03, 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: the Olympic Zone
This is Marshgate Lane, about half a mile west of Stratford and just up the road from my house. I guess a long time ago it was quiet a country lane snaking between the triple braids of the River Lea, surrounded by grass, farm animals and the odd passing bird. Not any more. Marshgate Lane now runs through some of the most dismal scenery East London has to offer. It's a drab polluted wasteland covered by warehouses, small factories and discarded junk. Pylons stalk the grey horizon. Lorries thunder down from the M11 delivering fats and waste cooking oil to tall belching incinerators. Workers in orange dungarees eat their sandwiches surrounded by a sea of litter. A long queue of rusting cars lie trashed along the roadside waiting their turn to be cannibalised for spare parts. And, just to give you a true sense of the place, I took this photograph while standing on top of a giant sewerpipe. Marshgate Lane is a place you'd hate to work, not a place you'd like to live, and it could be so so much better. If London is awarded the 2012 Olympics, this part of London will be transformed. And about time too. Look down from the sewer pipe in seven years time and you'll see a striking Olympic Stadium rising anew in the centre of the photograph. It takes quite a leap of imagination to picture anything quite so enormous and important here today, but maybe a leap of imagination is exactly what's required around here.

Olympic snapshots 2015: the Olympic Zone
I think I was a bit harsh on Marshgate Lane there, it was a place of employment for thousands, and with the occasional green vista. But no, it wasn't lovely, more an overlooked backwater few visited unless they had to, where all sorts of businesses nowhere else wanted got on with making do. I have my doubts whether it would have been left alone had the Olympics not come to town, the price of remediating the land and rising above the flood plain might have been too huge. But with the delivery of a 1000-page compulsory purchase order its fate was sealed, and the tyre merchants and oilmen moved away. Almost nothing tells the story of 2012 quite like the view from the top of the sewer pipe, which I went back and photographed on a monthly basis once the area was sealed off. And nothing remains of that initial panorama, not even the pylons in the background, as a world-class arena and an entirely new road network was carved out. The building work's still not finished, with acres of flats pencilled in (eventually) to screen the stadium from view. But for now the View Tube on the Greenway remains well named, and still somehow sells enough cake and coffee to keep going. I may need to come back in 2020, or even 2025, to discover Marshgate Lane's true destiny.

Olympic snapshots 2005: the Olympic Stadium
Here's a view from the opposite angle, looking south towards the intended site of London's 2012 Olympic stadium. As you can see there's a lot of water round here. The River Lea passes along the western perimeter of the site, and we're only a stone's throw from the lockkeeper's cottages from which the Big Breakfast used to be broadcast. But there are several other rivers threading through the site, all part of the Bow Back Rivers, each with their own wildlife and ecosystem. Here at Carpenter's Lock two of those braids join, leaving a scrap of land inbetween that's just big enough to hold an Olympic stadium. The water also provides a useful natural barrier that would act as a security cordon around the future arena, should it ever be built. Today you can still walk freely following a series of overgrown footpaths along the riverbanks, taking in the greenery, the desolation and the silence. Very few local people appear to bother to tread these paths, far from the madding crowds, but those of us who frequent the remoter stretches of the Bow Back Rivers prefer it that way.

Olympic snapshots 2015: the Olympic Stadium
Sometime before 2005, someone, somewhere, first spotted that the outline of an athletics stadium would fit between the banks of the Bow Back Rivers. It only just fits, with the perimeter of the service area backing down to the water, but that simple observation sealed the area's fate. A second decision to create an arena with a sustainable athletics legacy now looks less sensible, with hard cash subsequently dictating that football took over instead. Unbelievably West Ham won't play their first match here until the next Olympics kick off in Rio, such was the expensive mis-step an altered legacy decreed. There are currently men on the roof, men round the rim, men on the embankments, and no doubt several helmeted women too. Whilst Stadium Island's waterside paths remain off-limits, almost every other riverbank walk has reopened in barely recognisable form. If I stop and concentrate on the curves I can just about remember how they looked before their serious scrubbing up, the greatest transformation along the west bank of the Waterworks River. I strode through here with undergrowth at head height, where now punters laze on lawns overlooking the Aquatic Centre. Far freer to follow, but an entirely different character altogether.

Olympic snapshots 2005: the Stadium (interior)
If you try standing here in seven years time you'll probably be arrested, because this is the very centre of the proposed Olympic stadium. Stand on this spot on the evening of Friday 27th July 2012 and you'll be whisked away in a heaving sea of choreographed flag-waving schoolchildren, all taking part in the extravagant made-for-TV spectacle of the opening ceremony of the XXXth Olympiad. And over the following fortnight the world's best athletes (and the world's most convincing steroid-takers) will stand here on the winners rostrum to receive their Olympic medals. Hence I was very disturbed to discover that there are already three flags fluttering over this very spot, and that they're all German. That's because there's a Mercedes after-sales centre on the site today, the sort of grey shed you bring your car back to when it stops working - I guess it beats turning up early and staking your claim with a beach towel. But a single cross of St George still flutters proudly in the forecourt of Bywaters skip hire service nextdoor, so maybe there's still hope.

Olympic snapshots 2015: the Stadium (interior)
For two years after London's successful Olympic bid was announced I made a point of returning regularly to this cul-de-sac, in an attempt to fix its footprint beneath the would-be athletic track. When I returned four years later for a test event, I tried to trace out the path of the former road, with Bywaters skip hire I think the location of the winners rostrum, and the Mercedes after-sales centre replaced by the javelin-chucking zone. Later, sat high in the back row for the Paralympic Closing Ceremony, I looked across to the flaming torch on the site of the salmon smokery and the filled-in Pudding Mill River beneath the Royal Box. I'm willing to bet I'm one of very few people who can still picture the old within the new. Of course to see inside the stadium today you need to look from above, either from a helicopter (ahem) or from the viewing platform of the Orbit. The new roof is on, the largest cantilevered roof in the world don't you know, its purpose to keep every football spectator dry in case of rain. It should also improve the acoustics, which is good to know if you've got tickets for the Rugby World Cup in the autumn.

Olympic snapshots 2005: Aquatics Centre
These two ramshackle buildings are fairly typical of the industrial skeletons to be found scattered around London's Olympic development site. They were half derelict when I took this photograph 18 months ago, a crumbling example of what happens when an area is left quietly to fall apart, and have since been demolished. We're looking out across the Waterworks River on the eastern edge of the Olympic Zone, on the very spot where London's new Aquatics Centre is about to be constructed. The powers that be have promised to build two 50m swimming pools and a 25m diving pool here, whether we win the 2012 Games or not, which is the sort of government commitment this deprived area so desperately needs. The inhabitants of nearby Stratford wait expectantly to see whether this new water feature will be full of international champions breaking world records or just teenagers divebombing one another and urinating in the shallow end when they think nobody's looking.

Olympic snapshots 2015: Aquatics Centre
Blimey, I'd forgotten the government had pledged a swimming pool to Newham whether we won the Olympic bid or not. Thankfully that commitment wasn't tested, and we ended up with the swish Zaha Hadid version. Residents can now book sessions for £4.50, or a pound less during the day, assuming you can find a slot between coaches of local schoolkids. Or perhaps you'd prefer to book with the Tom Daley Diving Academy, although before you get too excited his branded sessions also run at the Brixton Recreation Centre and the Waltham Forest Pool, so don't expect the chiseled boy wonder to triple somersault in front of you. Or there's a gym hidden downstairs, should you want to pump your body inside an Olympic icon for £450 a year. I can't say any of this appeals to me, because I'm one of the millions of dead loss Londoners who've not chosen to adopt a healthier lifestyle as a rest of Seb Coe's festival of sport. Still, it's damned convenient for those who have.

» thirty photos from 2005
» thirty-two photos from 2015

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