Saturday, June 30, 2012

Five years ago the gates surrounding the Olympic Park swung shut. Previously the public had been able to live, work and wander within, but then the walls went up and the great transformation began. That transformation is almost complete, with the Games taking place next month, so I thought now would be an ideal time to walk all the way around the perimeter of the Olympic Park for an updated report. I walked the six miles this weekend, as close as I could get without getting arrested. And below I'll be blogging my circumnavigation, all Iain-Sinclair-like, a bit like I did in July 2005 and July 2007. Because it's history, innit?

In what follows, red text has been used for all paths and pavements that are now closed.

There are 100 photographs altogether [gallery] [slideshow]

London 2012  Around the Olympic Park
  1) Bow Roundabout to White Post Lane
  23 photographs here; map here

It's as good a place to start as any. You can see the Olympic Stadium quite clearly from the Bow Roundabout, either from the flyover or while standing on the pavement over the River Lea. This junction will be a key component of the Olympic Route Network, with Games Lanes galore and local traffic funnelled into whatever roadway's left. The roundabout's a mess at the moment as seemingly endless roadworks linger on, with temporary barriers along the roadway and scaffolding under the flyover. A group of uniformed contractors have been busy painting the metalwork above the underpass in a none-too fetching shade of urban grey, which must be a pre-Games spruce-up, but I doubt anyone important will ever notice.

A sign on the car-wash fence details the various footpath and towpath closures to come before the Olympics. The Greenway's already sealed, and the two miles of towpath between here and Hackney Wick are next. They close for security reasons on Tuesday 3rd July, which means you won't be able to follow my walk north from here for the next ten weeks. Just beyond the new cycle bridge, which stays open, a temporary barrier waits to swing across the water to prevent unscheduled boats from chugging this way too. The river ahead's recently been narrowed because Crossrail are digging a huge tunnel entrance just beyond the wall to the right. They don't want a catastrophic watery collapse so they've dug in some corrugated barriers and are filling up the bankside with pebbles for strengthening purposes. But even their construction work has had to pause for the Olympics, and will recommence in late September.

At the railway bridge, the accumulated graffiti of several years is being painted over (in Dulux dark blue) by two blokes in hi-vis tabards. High aspirations, but alas misguided, because within 24 hours tagger LB will have sprayed their initials really unartistically across the pristine surface. The towpath approaching the stadium is busy with walkers, joggers and cyclists, who'll all need to find alternative routes for the next two months. Here's first sight of the Park's perimeter razor wire, at least twice the height of the convolvulus-choked former fencing in front. Aboard a narrowboat moored outside Olympic Bicycle Hire, the owner is sitting legs astride at the bow end with his fishing rod dangling in the water. Nothing's biting.

The Greenway is firmly sealed off, with a fresh set of metal steps in place of the uneven climb that used to be here. If you've forked out a small fortune for a Water Chariots ticket, these stairs are for you. Up on the bridge is the Victoria Gate, the smallest of the four public entrances to the Olympic Park during the summer. It's my tip to be the entrance with the shortest queues, probably, given that it's not near any major transport links and therefore ideal only for those of us who can walk or cycle. Two police officers are busy here using a detector on a stick to check the underside of the Northern Outfall Sewer. There are a lot of potential hidey-holes in the gloom between these Victorian pipes, and the consequences of an explosion involving half of North London's sewage doesn't bear thinking about.

At Old Ford Lock a couple of yards of the Old River Lea are still accessible. A lone angler has taken advantage and settled in for the day with two rods and a thermos. The blue wall behind him is one of the few remaining fragments of the original security perimeter thrown up back in 2007, which has been allowed to remain because there are far more fearsome metal barriers blocking the entire river a short distance upstream. Meanwhile family life continues as normal at Lockkeepers Cottages, the former Big Breakfast house, which has somehow survived as an enclave of normality in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium.

Across the water a former warehouse at Swan Wharf is being scrubbed up to create "The Fringe", one of several entertainment spaces popping up in the local area to cater for bored rich Olympic visitors during the Games. Day membership will cost £150, giving you access to cocktail bars, restaurants and a giant video screen, whereas an evening of nightclubbing will set you back 'only' £40. So far there's nothing to see, and the same in the empty courtyard of Forman's salmon smokery upriver where an even bigger hospitality-soak is planned. Eight or so empty Water Chariots are berthed outside, hoping desperately to become the transport option of choice for those coming to splash their cash here.

A rather cheaper meal deal can be found at the Counter Cafe, where a planked pontoon has been constructed in the river so that patrons can dine outside in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium. The view would be better had the park's 'Sponsors Village' not been plonked in the way - a blank canvas of white cuboids ready to host hours of schmoozing by the Games' international paymasters. The towpath has recently been renovated, and a fine border of brightly coloured flowers runs alongside. An unexpectedly large number of police vans are lined up on the other side of the fence, and dozens of security patrol vans too... and all this still four weeks before events in the Park properly begin.

A mysterious bridge has been built across the Lea from Fish Island, which ends abruptly with no steps down, nor any hole in the Olympic perimeter fence through which it might legitimately proceed. Listen and you might hear music blaring from... is that inside the Stadium?... where yet another Opening Ceremony rehearsal seems to be underway. And look, a mysterious hoop has appeared high up in the spiky metal crown, which might have something to do with the as-yet-undisclosed cauldron for the Olympic flame, except there's more than one hoop around the roofspace, so probably not. A peculiar blue construction lurks outside, which looks like a giant sculpture made from air conditioning units and containers, but surely can't be. And at last we're at White Post Lane, for a final lingering look back at the Stadium.

London 2012  Around the Olympic Park
  2) White Post Lane to Hackney Marshes
  22 more photographs here; map here

At White Post Lane, my Olympic Park circumnavigation passes from Tower Hamlets into Hackney. The road on the bridge is already blocked by a wedged barrier, with vehicular access only to accredited 2012 staff. Alongside is The White Building, a new cultural centre with a community vibe (in a very white building), which opens officially later this month. At King's Yard, a rare non-demolished building bears the painted mark of a clothespeg-nosed monkey. The Overground rumbles across the river, still the best (nay, only) way to peer into the heart of the Olympic Park round these parts.

That drab building beyond the Energy Centre is the Handball Arena, now renamed the Copper Box, as if this somehow makes a big brown-topped cuboid more interesting. Viewed from the rear, it certainly doesn't. A few trees on the riverfront have survived the construction onslaught, but not many, so it's left to a border of weeds and wild flowers to provide the only natural presence. A moorhen shuttles across the river, using long blades of grass from the Olympic side to set up home on the opposite bank. Immediately beyond a new bridge-to-nowhere is the Johnstone Boathouse, of AD 1934 vintage. It's far too small to host international rowing events, but is a reminder that the northern half of the Park had a sporting history long before the Olympics came along.

Hackney Stadium used to be located off Waterden Road, just up a grassy embankment on the right. It was formerly used for greyhound racing and speedway, but the operators went bust in 1997 and the arena was presciently demolished pre-Games in 2003. Alas it's not been replaced by anything recreational. In its place, and beyond, is the Olympic Park's absolutely humongous media quarter. At its heart is the twenty-thousand capacity International Broadcast Centre, from which TV crews from Brazil, Botswana and Belgium will report on the day's major events for an audience back home. It's hard to see from the footpath, blocked instead by the Main Press Centre, which in itself is at least a couple of cathedrals long. Contractors are still adding the final touches to the parking spaces outside, but the recycling bins are already in place for journalists on a fag break chucking away their Coke cans.

You may have heard that London 2012 is the public transport Games. That's not the case in the northwest corner of the park where the media circus has its very own multi-storey car park. It's a whopper, more in length than in height, stretching along a couple of hundred yards of the Eastway. Rest assured there is a small bus station at one end, ready to kick into action ferrying folk off to the diving or discus as appropriate. But there's nothing much doing around here at the moment - indeed the couple of security guards left to guard the entrance over the weekend looked bored beyond words. Nevertheless, perhaps someone should have driven YK12 TZC (a black Mini) inside, rather than leaving it parked out on the Eastway on double yellow lines. In case you've ever wondered, yes, official Olympic vehicles can get parking tickets, and presumably as taxpayers we're ultimately paying for this one.

An arc of pristine pavement temporarily forces pedestrians across to the other side the road. This is to avoid a major service entrance to the Park, until recently used to allow shoppers access through the security zone to Westfield's car parks down south. I was surprised to see a uniformed soldier on guard at the gate at the weekend, with no obvious civvy back-up, but we'll all have to get used to a military presence round this part of East London over the next couple of months. Close to the fence along the Eastway are some vehicle screening tents, and further back the end of the hangar-like IBC. And the shiny silver grandstand you can see the rear of, that's the so-called Riverbank Arena, where 2012's hockey matches will play out on a bright blue pitch edged with even brighter pink. If you're coming here during the Games be warned that it's at least a 30 minute walk from the Greenway Gate at the opposite end of the Park, and 45 minutes from West Ham station, so give yourself plenty of time to make your seat.

If you drive, there are great close-up views of the northern Olympic Park (and especially the Velodrome) from the elevated A12 East Cross Route. For pedestrians however there's no access, which means a diversion under the flyover to follow Ruckholt Road. This is a fairly major dual carriageway in itself, kicking off with a view down the River Lea that's the best Velodrome panorama those on foot going to get. The overgrown banks are very much how the river to the south of here used to look until five years ago, unlike the manicured landscapes since created beyond the barrier a short distance downstream.

Coming up ahead is a bright orange footbridge, leading to what used to be Quartermile Lane and is now Eton Manor Walk. This is the major northern entrance to the Olympic Park, this one targeted at visitors arriving by coach. In a controversial move, the Northern Transport Mall has been created on the Hackney Marshes. Not the entire site, 'only' the East Marsh, but it's unnerving to peer past security and see concrete and parking spaces where formerly were fourteen football pitches. They'll be restored after the Games, LOCOG assure us, but you won't find much green along here at the moment. Especially not in Waltham Forest, the next host borough round...

London 2012  Around the Olympic Park
  3) Hackney Marshes to Leyton High Road
  15 more photographs here; map here

Alongside Ruckholt Road, London 2012 have spent millions building a sporting venue that won't host a single event during the Olympics. It's Eton Manor, the venue for wheelchair tennis during the Paralympics, built across land that formerly housed a long-standing sports club. After the Games the two Olympic hockey pitches will be relocated here, to create a combined tennis and hockey centre for legacy public use. For now it's a stack of grandstands best viewed from within rather than without. Something's not finished, because there were 100-or-so workers in yellow tabards milling around the entrance at the weekend, most probably on a lunchbreak.

Across the road, beside the entrance to New Spitalfields Market, the gardeners have spelt out a good luck message to Team GB in white bricks across a flowerbed. It's debatable how many of our athletes will ever see it, but it's a nice human touch from the community rather than yet more off-the-shelf bunting from LOCOG. The traffic is relentless. It used to be possible to turn right and pass along Temple Mills Lane to circumnavigate the Olympic Park, but that's been closed off past the bus garage since January last year, and won't reopen before next Easter. Diversion ahoy, through the middle of Leyton, so we'll not reach the other end of Temple Mills Lane for another five paragraphs.

Someone's expecting significant Games-related pedestrian footfall over the railway, from northeast London to the Park, so workmen are busy doubling up the southern footbridge. The new span is a modern design, with barriers splayed out like a pair of fins, leading to a freshly planted slope of shrubs and flowers. Here stands a tall and very thin metal sculpture, resembling a shiny hypodermic needle puncturing the sky, although that's not presumably what it's supposed to symbolise.

We're now halfway round the Olympic Park as we start to turn and head back south. The next road is the main vehicular entrance to a giant Asda and the Leyton Mills Retail Park. Through the railings is a patch of well-tended allotments (these survived, others weren't so lucky). Asda's car park is green and pleasant too, in places, with a scattering of ponds amongst the fresh-mown grass. Stand by the 24 hour petrol station and the Velodrome's curved roof is clearly seen, if not especially close. To escape, walk along the narrow footpath in front of the row of retail sheds. B&Q's up first, then Currys/PC World, with Next next. Most visitors are piling heavy stuff into the boots of their cars, but some have arrived on foot and are carrying rather less. Pedestrian access isn't great, but contractors appear to be adding some non-zig-zag steps (at last!) beyond TK Maxx, which can only help in the unspoken battle against nearby Westfield.

Much of Leyton High Road close to the tube station is a right mess at the moment. Waltham Forest council is giving the area an urgent "Streetscape" facelift before the Games, which has been underway since April and clearly isn't finished yet. Several pavements are half-repaved, on both sides of the road, and barriered off while work completes. It's hard enough squeezing past people here at the best of times, and temporarily even harder still. Don't think of pausing on the bridge over the Central line to admire the view of the Olympic Park, great though the view is, because people will only curse. Residents in neighbouring streets have already been fortunate, offered approximately a thousand pounds each from council funds to repaint their frontages and refresh their front gardens. It's all so that spectators walking this way think nice thoughts about Leyton, rather than what they might think if they wandered a parallel thoroughfare a few streets back. It may be a deception, but the collective results look upliftingly positive.

Enough money has been thrown at the parade of shops by Warren Road to make an impressively big visual difference. Nine shops have been repainted, each in a different colour, and their façades brightened and rebranded as if this were SW1, not E10. But reality kicks in to the south of the station, where the usual accumulation of kebab shops, salons and fried chicken dispensaries holds court. One shop has been reworked into the Madrasah Al-Tawhid mosque, just two windows wide, complete with golden minaret at former upstairs-flat level. Another unit is filled by a lowbrow cafe called "Olympic Coffee", whose continued existence I take as convincing evidence that LOCOG's legal growlings about protected trademarks have been all bark and no bite.

Diverting off the main drag, the Victorian terraces round Westdown Road back down to the railway, not quite adjacent to the Olympic Park. But Drapers Field, the next greenspace along, is close enough to have been completely swallowed up. This used to be the local public recreation ground until it was appropriated back in January to create an "Operations Support Area" for the Olympic Village. Where there used to be hard and soft sports pitches, now there's a very big white marquee which is being used to store supplies for the Olympic Village. It's full of bed linen, towels, soap and shampoos (honest, it is), as if someone took all the storage cupboards from a chain of hotels and stuck them in a single tent. At the foot of the embankment is an "Access control point", through which cleaning staff with appropriate security clearance gain entrance. Someone's got to change the athletes' beds, someone's got to scrub their showers, so for many this hidden gateway in the backstreets of Leyton is their passport to welcome temporary employment.

London 2012  Around the Olympic Park
  4) Leyton Road to Westfield
  25 more photographs here; map here

The top of Leyton Road is really quiet at the moment, apart from Olympic deliveries to the Temple Mills Lane gate. Peer over the wall, past the French gas storage facility, and that circular glass building beyond is Newham's newest school. It'll be the administrative centre for the Athletes Village during the Games, then from September 2013 it'll be the Chobham Academy. The Village stretches off to the left, and it's huge. There are more than fifty residential blocks, built around communal squares and courtyards, with sufficient rooms to accommodate 17000 athletes. They allowed journalists inside to spend the night over the weekend, then enjoy breakfast in the arena-sized dining hall. The walls are a bit thin, so I'm told, although you might be able to prove that for yourself if you decide to buy a flat here once the legacy phase kicks in.

The entire eastern border of the park follows the line of the Village, at a distance, with frequent interruptions for gates and access controls. Magenta signs mark the official entry points, with security guards hanging around for not-yet-many people to flash their passes. One of the best views is from Thornham Grove, an obscure crescent nudging up against the railway, populated with minor vehicle depots and taxi companies. The local corner shop is the "Olympic Supermarket", another blatant misappropriation of protected trademarks, but nobody official seems to care. Some of Newham's poorest residents live alongside, looking out towards the Village across a fence branded Inspire a generation. Whereas the border of the Olympic Park used to be barred by bright blue board, now magenta wraps and razorwire are the order of the day.

The eastern entrance to Westfield ought to be up Penny Brookes Street - for now nothing more than a line of tarmac. But this has been closed for Gamestime, with all deliveries diverted round a big loop into an extensive Vehicle Screening Area. Cars, coaches and lorries are filtered off into different tents, then massed security guards scuttle out and wave wands underneath to check for explosives. Pedestrians have been diverted along a sinuous path around the edge, with a grandstand view from the zig-zag footpath allowing perfect sight of collective security protocols. I watched a restaurant delivery van set upon and delayed for several minutes, the driver ordered from his seat, having made the simple mistake of being the only vehicle passing through. Not surprisingly, you can add this footpath to the list of access points that have been closed since I walked here last weekend.

It's been a joy to stroll around Westfield with the car parks closed, at least for pedestrians if not for those who own the shops. Even the taxi rank and bus station are closed, leaving shoppers to exit either on foot or by train, if they bother coming at all. This freedom to wander un-mowed-down won't last, but the various service roads around Westfield's perimeter have essentially become additional pavements. The car parks aren't all empty, though. Beside the railway to the south of the Olympic Village, one multi-storey appears packed full with official London 2012 vehicles, mostly from the fleet of BMWs that'll help shuttle the Olympic Family around town. If you're looking for a second hand vehicle this autumn, expect four thousand of these to flood the market.

The Games will finally bring Stratford International station to life, as spectators flood in by Javelin (or queue for "up to an hour" to take the train back into town again). Until then the entrance hall echoes, the platforms are mostly deserted and any queues are non-existent. Alongside is a small office labelled Manhattan Loft Gardens. Few in Stratford have yet realised, but there are plans to build a monster 42-storey tower here, immediately adjacent to the station, with gravity-defying cantilevers and three open-air whole-floor gardens. Residents will be ideally located for Waitrose and Mothercare, but only if buyers and hotel guests can be persuaded that E20 is a desirable postcode.

To the south, the rising canyon between the multi-storeys has created one of the fiercest wind tunnels I've ever experienced. Brave that and you emerge onto the terrace at the rear of John Lewis overlooking what will be the nerve centre of London 2012's spectator operations. Westfield Avenue (as it's narcissistically named) forms the border between the main shopping centre and the biggest Park entrance. Comprehensive one-way systems will be in place during the Games, both to file ticketholders in, and to disperse exiting crowds past as many shops as possible.

For now access is a little freer, although you'll not get past the army-staffed gate at the north end of the road without a pass. This is Stratford Gate, and there really is a gateway beyond the metal fence announcing Welcome and Bienvenue to London 2012. Dozens of security tents await, where your tickets will be scanned, your picnic hampers thrown away and your offensive weapons confiscated. I don't know who won the contract to provide these marquees all around the Park, and their smaller pointy-topped cousins, but their balance sheet must look mighty healthy at the moment. A large tarmacked waiting area is ready to hold back spectators beneath the Holiday Inn, where a snaking queue between metal barriers is expected. Huge unavoidable adverts for Olympic sponsors have been strung up, although those stuck here may find the exhortation to "Flow Faster with Visa" a little hard to swallow. And on the corner are the first London 2012 ticket offices I've seen - both blue-faced portakabins - but as yet shuttered and empty.

London 2012  Around the Olympic Park
  5) Westfield to the Bow Roundabout
  15 more photographs here; map here

Leading off from the quiet end of Westfield's estate is Montfichet Road - a sloping curve on concrete stilts. It's not quiet when shoppers' cars are entering and exiting this way, but there are none of these at the moment. Instead a steady stream of pedestrians spills along the elevated pavement, looking for the ideal spot to stare or point a camera across the Olympic Park. The height of the wall has been raised recently, leaving only two spaces where it's possible for someone of average height to get a decent view. A more than decent view, to be honest, with a broad panorama revealing three iconic Olympic venues as well as all the kerfuffle of the backstage services laid out below.

The Aquatic Centre appears in close-up, its two grandstands rising steeply to the cheap seats at the top. The curved lines of Zaha Hadid's integral design are mostly concealed, but full architectural splendour will be revealed once the reduced structure is handed over as Newham's legacy swimming pool. On the building's grassy snout, five Olympic rings are being installed. Less thrillingly, the flaps of one of the tents at the foot of the main staircase have been drawn back, revealing nothing more inside than a couple of Coke-branded refrigerators. The majority of activity is concentrated in the foreground, where scaffolding is being erected, containers have been stacked and a temporary village is establishing. To shield one particularly ugly (but permanent) utility building, artist Claire Woods has designed a colourful tiled façade - could be a map, could be abstract woodland, could be anything.

Further to the left, one end of the Olympic Stadium pokes out beyond a strip of parkland. A pure white wrap, untainted by chemical sponsorship, dangles down around the exterior like the teeth of a very sharp comb. Again there's what looks like a posh caravan site close by, plus a ring of purple booths from which food, beverages and souvenirs will be dispensed. A tall magenta tower is the most striking recent addition to this end of the Park. It appears to be an observation deck for security guards, or whoever, but is also plastered with useful directions for spectators (Greenway Gate ↑, Copper Box →). The red-coiled Orbit rises alongside, from here deceptively much taller than the Shard, and also 40% cheaper to ascend. But the view from this observation deck includes the sprawling mess of tents and boxes down here, so the experience may be far more like looking down on Legoland than you'd expect.

As Montfichet Road descends, so the Olympic Park fades behind a wall of tiles and metal mesh. A pair of security staff guard the rising barrier wedged into the roadway, then there's a roundabout affording one last lingering view of the Orbit (and its associated McDonalds). When I think of the dead end scrap yard and railway sidings that used to be here, the transformation is nothing short of astonishing.
South of the railway, beyond the big yellow "This access will be closed to pedestrians and cyclists from 1 July" sign, life continues almost as normal. Residents of the Carpenters Estate wander home with plastic bagfuls of shopping, alongside incomers returning to their flats in the dour newbuild blocks across the road. In a fortnight they'll have a new Tesco on their doorstep, as the supermarket chain nudges into Stratford by taking the ground floor of a 43-storey skyscraper. But whether the 'Halo' can clad its top three lofty storeys in time before the Games, that's yet to be seen.

Stratford High Street's been given a major brush-up of late, including planters, hanging lamps and still absolutely no cycle lane. Old garages and warehouses have been knocked down to be replaced by tile-fronted apartments, plus a couple of budget hotels in which glum looking families pick at all-day breakfasts sat behind pavement-level plate glass windows. London 2012's Southern Transport Mall is across the road beside the Greenway, linked to the Park via a temporary six-lane footbridge. It's firmly sealed off at present, as is the new at-grade pedestrian crossing, denying local residents access to Games-time-only infrastructure improvements.

Blue Badge guides continue to offer Olympic tours even though the Park's nearly all sealed off. I passed seven such groups on Sunday, including one listening attentively beneath a Cadbury's billboard trying to imagine what they might have seen more clearly a few weeks ago. There is a decent glimpse of the Stadium up Blaker Road, and from a brief spell of Bow Back River towpath past the redundant City Mill Lock. But Pudding Mill Lane's now a dead end unless you're going to the DLR, and there's just one week left there before that's lost too. The army are out in unexpectedly high numbers along Marshgate Lane - mostly younger cadet-types, for whom standing semi-attentively beside metal gates must be hugely easier than training for war, and hugely less satisfying.

The far end of Stratford High Street, alongside the flyover, will be a key section of the Olympic Route Network. Two eastbound lanes will be whittled down to one and the westbound contraflow restricted, entirely necessarily so, but with miserable consequences for both private and public transport. The Games Lanes here have yet to be painted in, but a forest of signs has been erected, if not yet fully revealed. I can't see the car wash by the Lea staying open during what might have been its busiest ever fortnight, nor the former carpet warehouse alongside being hired out as a temporary logistics hub.

Which brings my six mile circumnavigation back to where it started, beside the closures notice at the Bow Roundabout. During the week it's taken to write about it, something major's changed here and an unexpected artwork has been installed. On either side of the central circle are two large chunks of dirty metal, each spelling out the letters B O W, finally giving this junction some smidgeon of a sense of place. Long rectangular planters are being embedded alongside, to be filled with attractive vegetation in due course, with "accent lighting" scheduled to be added next week. It's always all change around the Olympic Park, but my manor's transformation has never seen a summer like 2012.

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