diamond geezer

 Saturday, April 06, 2024

Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is 10 years old this weekend. A chunk of the North Park opened more quickly in the summer after the Games but the rest was only fully revealed on 5th April 2014, including all the good stuff round the Stadium. This was the moment that created a recreational powerhouse linking together the two sides of the Lower Lea Valley and signalled that promises of post-Olympic legacy weren't a dream. Nobody turned up to cut a ribbon, they merely drew back the barriers and allowed a procession of schoolchildren and drummers and then all the rest of us inside.

I wrote five posts about the opening, because of course I did, and also uploaded 100 photos of the pristine parkland to Flickr. It's fascinating to look back with hindsight and see what now sounds wildly optimistic and what merely commonplace.

The biggest concern 10 years ago was whether anyone would carry on visiting the park after the initial buzz died down, and of course they have. People continue to make a special effort to visit and enjoy, plus it helps that thousands now live here or hereabouts so are forever crossing the park. I'm still enormously chuffed to have this honeypot on my doorstep, even if I don't drop in as often as I did during lockdown. But not everything that was in situ in 2014 has been a roaring success, so here are some of the hits and misses one decade on.

QEOP hits
The parkland remains #1, a landscaped treat worthy of many a safari.
The playgrounds were very well designed and still attract loads of families.
The stadium, although never meant for football, remains a buzzy focal point.
The gushing fountains don't gush as often as they did, but still delight when they do.
Refreshment options, from the Podium to the Timber Lodge (now Brew Street), are still in business.

QEOP misses
The Orbit had high hopes of being a top visitor attraction but few were interested, even when they added a big slide.
The VeloPark remains quieter than you'd expect, especially the mountain bike trail because a £7 charge stifles demand.
Nobody needs an Information Centre any more, everything's on their phone, so it's been sequentially sidelined and shrunk.
Carpenters Lock was beautifully restored but hardly ever opens so narrowboats don't get to spill into the Park proper.
QEOP's narrow waist, on Waterden Road, still very much divides the Park into awkwardly separate halves.

I went back yesterday for a proper wander and can confirm that the park and its surroundings continue to evolve. If you've not been recently, the two biggest changes since this time last year are undoubtedly East Wick and the East Bank.

East Wick is one of the five new Olympic neighbourhoods, and for years has been a relatively small canalside cluster between the Copper Box and Here East. This first phase is now so established that it has its own Tesco Express (est 2023), not to mention boxing gym, yoga studio, beauty salon and multiple coffee options. Also symbolic on the placemaking front is that the teensy barbershop at Hackney Bridge is now empty and a full-on groomery called Curfew has opened opposite for pre-booked punters only, no walk-ins, so an E20 haircut now costs £26 minimum. It looked packed out anyway.

But phase 2 is now well underway, so much so that residents of Forbes Lane no longer have a view of the Park from their front doorstep, only a wall of skeletal newbuilds. This is because East Wick is expanding, as always threatened, to cover quarter of a mile of former lawn. First they relocated the trees, then they added cranes and silos of concrete, and now multiple grey cuboids obstruct the margins, awaiting cladding that'll make it look like they were built painstakingly from brick. Depressingly only 21% of the 210 new homes will be rented and notionally affordable, and the remainder are for open sale to incomers who won't flinch at £40 for a skin fade and beard trim.

Meanwhile the East Bank is where the real action is as Boris's vision of Olympicopolis finally reaches fruition. All four buildings now have big lettering on the front to identify the tenant - the BBC's three were only affixed in the last few days. At the V&A's upcoming space invader the internal fitout is well underway while at Sadlers Wells East a balcony rail is being fitted and the promenade studios are shielded only by sheeting. Down at waterfront level multiple 'foodie hotspots' await occupiers with the vision to believe that Aquatics Walk might one day be busy. When this new stone-coated footbridge opens across Carpenters Road and the railway, shoppers may perhaps rush over from the back of Waitrose and discover culture on their doorstep.

But the true pioneer hereabouts is UAL's London College of Fashion which flung open its doors at the start of the academic year and has been the destination for hordes of well dressed students ever since. Best of all you don't have to be a signed-up lanyard dangler to go inside, anyone can wander in and let their tongue hang out at the swirling architecture. I checked at reception it was OK and it is, ditto the taking of photographs, so long as you stick to the lowest three storeys of the building and inform the occasional security guard it's OK because the ladies at reception said so. Wow.

It's all about the central "orange-peel" staircase which swirls down from the upper floors in a concrete whirl, in that special curvaceous manner that only architects with an expansive atrium to fill can manage. It's gorgeous, especially if you turn up out of term time and it's entirely student free, which would be my top visitor tip. They've done that thing where the lighting's hidden downwards in the handrail, which adds glowing contrast, and the complex visual geometry shifts with every step you take. Head up to Makers Square, which to me looked like an open plan area full of spaces to rest a laptop, or head down to the lower ground floor with its workshop areas and cycle storage. Camerawise obviously up beats down.

If you want an even better reason to visit then wait until Tuesday when a new exhibition opens entitled Making More Mischief: Folk Costume in Britain. It's not a showcase of student work but an external project curated by the Museum of British Folklore, and aims to question seasonal cultures and customs in the capital. Expect Doggett's Coat and Badge, Carnival costumes and Somali May Day traditions, amongst others, some in specific galleries and some in situ. It was all tantalisingly out of reach as I walked by, or not yet fully labelled, but I'll definitely be back to see it properly. In the meantime have another photo of the staircase, and another, and several more, because I somehow walked out of the building having taken 72 of them.

Ten years on, and a dozen after the Games proper, what a gift the Olympic Park has been. Come again, and come soon.

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