diamond geezer

 Monday, April 06, 2020

This is a post about a road in the Olympic Park that's always quiet, not just during lockdown.

Northwall Road runs for 1km across the northern end of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, parallel to the A12 dual carriageway. It's one of only four roads in the park which cross the river Lea, the others being Waterden Road, Carpenters Road and the southern loop road round the Olympic Stadium. During the Games Northwall Road was used as a service road to help athletes, officials and contractors whizz around behind the scenes. It was also supposed to be part of the proposed road network after the Games, as this map from 2008 confirms. Northwall Road is the purple connection across the top.

And yet it has no traffic. Despite being a hi-spec highway built at great expense, both ends of Northwall Road are sealed off by concrete blocks.

This is the east end of the road at the junction with Temple Mills Lane. Someone seemingly thought it worthwhile to include filter lanes for traffic turning left and right, and dropped kerbs for pedestrians struggling to cross and a sizeable traffic island in the centre. None of these are used. I do love the road sign which directs traffic towards Stratford International because it was installed at a time when people thought this station would be an important Eurostar staging post, rather the commuter staging post it's become. And yes, that is the Eurostar depot at Temple Mills you can see in the background.

Northwall Road starts off in the London borough of Waltham Forest, but within a few metres slips into borderline Newham. The boundary used to be Temple Mills Lane, but switched to the A12 when the East Cross Route was driven through in the 1990s. The narrow wooden bridge which crosses Northwall Lane is a peculiarity of the mountain bike course squeezed into these borderlands after the Games. A rough track weaves back and forth across scrubby hillocks on both sides of the A12, officially pay-before-you-ride, but invariably empty through total lack of demand. At this time of minimal supervision it ought be easy to trespass, but I've never quite had the nerve to hike up onto the white elephant bridge and enjoy the view.

Beyond the bridge Northwall Road opens out, and the speed limit pointlessly drops from 30mph to 20. You can see what a well-constructed road it is, broad and straight with cycle lanes along each side, built for a future life that never came. To the left is the BMX track built for the Games, and still occasionally populated with chunky-tyred riders. Initial plans included a roundabout at this point, linking down to what's now Chobham Manor in the East Village, but a desire to preserve residential harmony meant this was never built. As a result Northwall Road remains entirely junctionless, which may be one reason why closing it has had minimal repercussions.

And down we go. Northwall Road has a massive dip in it, a long descent to duck beneath the footbridge connecting Eton Manor to the Velopark. There being no cars, needless to say the road is often popular with cyclists. Several sped past me yesterday, enjoying the opportunity to ride an exemplary 1km tarmac course without having to fork out the usual £5 to ride the official road circuit. Given that Northwall Road cuts across what used to be the Eastway Cycle Circuit, closed in 2006 to make way for Olympic facilities, the irony is not lost.

This is the view from the footbridge (which is not easily accessed from below). To the right you can see the complex viaducts of the Lea Interchange, with the A12 rising up to span the river while spur roads trail to either side. Only Northwall Road offers local connections, or ought to, its closure forcing local traffic to deviate via Ruckholt Road instead. Conveniently there isn't much local traffic, the northern end of the Olympic Park thus far mostly undeveloped, but greater residential density will come. And once across the Lea we enters our third borough, which is Hackney.

A zebra crossing must have seemed like a good idea when Northwall Road was planned, allowing pedestrians to slip out of the park and down steps to the traffic lights. In reality the exit gate beside the zebra crossing is locked, and has been for some time, so the black and white stripes would have been superfluous even in the absence of traffic. Look closely at the road surface, here and elsewhere, and you can see the original road markings used during the Games before legacy painters came along to add cycle lanes and speed bumps.

Here Northwall Road finally diverges from a straight line and bends to its imminent conclusion - a junction with Waterden Road (opposite Here East and its multi-storey car park). So broad is this interchange that eight concrete blocks are required to obstruct the roadway, with gaps allowing through only those on foot or on bikes. These blocks can always be removed should Northwall Road ever be needed for event parking, or even occasional film shoots, but invariably the traffic lights continue to change from red to green for entirely non-existent vehicles.

Social distancing is always easy on Northwall Road. Bring your bike. Just don't all come at once.

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