London 2012 Olympic Park Tour
Can The Olympic Games provide a lasting legacy for those in London’s East End? Will the 500 acre Olympic Park and surrounding boroughs become a ‘destination’ to rival the West End of the city? On our post Jubilympic Tour of London, we walked around the perimeter of the Olympic Park with 2012 Guided Tours to see if ‘the other Stratford’ is ready to be more than The Games, now that 2012 is all over…
“Why are they knocking down the Olympic Pool Dad? Don’t Eastenders like Swimming”
Throughout the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games much was made of the Olympic legacy so it’s a bit of a surprise to find workers at the Olympic Park dismantling the sides of the swimming pool enabling us to see right into it. But our guide assures us the world class Aquatics Centre won’t be disappearing altogether, unlike the Olympic spectators and athletes. While other Olympic buildings are being sent off around the world for future sporting events like Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games, parts of the Aquatics Centre will be a permanent fixture in Stratford. But not in its Olympic form; with seating for 17,500 it was just way too big for locals. So the builders are working on reshaping the building, making it more compact. By 2014 the re-opened pool will host aqua aerobics classes and swimming competitions, like any other community pool. And a swim will apparently cost less than a fiver. And you’ll be able to tell your mates you swam in the pool where nine world and twenty five Olympic records were made.
Why has the Olympic park become a building site?
Since 2005 when it was announced in Singapore that London would host the 30th modern games, The Olympic Park has been a work in progress, and now it is once more. Closed to visitors after the end of The Paralympic Games, the only life today comes from the JCB’s that trundle around the site. It’s hard to believe that only a few months ago millions of people around the globe watched world records fall and athletes rise to the challenge of being better, stronger and faster.
Will the ArcelorMittal Orbit be London’s Eiffel Tower?
Today Britain’s tallest piece of public artwork; The ArcelorMittal Orbit, looks like a twist of steel overlooking a builders yard. Which ironically is how it looked when I visited in the early summer of 2012. While dreams of sporting greatness were still just dreams. Now there are dreams of greatness for this iconic sculpture which is due to reopen as a tourist attraction in 2013. It has aspirations to rival the Eiffel Tower and Statue of Liberty by drawing in a million tourists a year.
Two hours of fresh air, exercise and Olympic education
You get a great view of Anish Kapoor’s 115 metre sculpture and viewing platform from outside Stratford’s Westfield Shopping Centre, a monument to consumerism that, judging by the crowds, will probably prove more popular than the Olympic venues that survive the post Games reshaping. But this isn’t where our day begins.
Much of our walking tour focusses on the area surrounding the Olympic Park, because this tour is about more than the 500 acre site that welcomed the whole world for a few short weeks. Our Blue Badge Guide Pamela talks repeatedly about legacy and regeneration. She speaks with hope and enthusiasm about an enriched community and about breathing life into a once derelict place through projects focused on social and economic as well as sporting impact. According to Pamela The Olympic Games were a short term means to a long term end, the real game being regeneration.
Our tour begins amongst the Old Mills
We begin our tour with our backs to Three Mills, a set of former working tidal mills on the River Lea near Bromley by Bow, East London. This corner of the East End is one of the city’s oldest industrial centres, criss crossed by rail and waterways that served the ‘dirty industries’ that used to dominate the area. Coalgas works, heavy industry and firms like Bryant and May and Yardley left behind vast swathes of polluted brownfield sites that have had to be cleaned up as a precursor to development. But now it’s had a good deep clean, it’s slowly coming back to life, with cafes and film studios and facilities for families, even though I bet the odd shopping trolley still shows up in the canal.
We trace the path of the River Lee, past communities of narrowboats moored on canals that criss-cross the area, and passing through the Wild Kingdom at Three Mills Green – a spread of hammocks, fallen trees, nets and ropes, funded by locals including artist Tracey Emin. Small signs of change but positive indicators of investment and facilities for the communities that live here. We join the main road and head towards the perimeter of the park, pausing at an Olympic Torch structure that was put up for The Games by Ikea. It was initially intended as dressing for the Games but recent developments mean it could be here to stay; planners are considering whether to grant permission for it to remain permanently as a local landmark and reminder.
Not everything here is here to stay though; some things were just temporary dressing. Worker ants are everywhere around us, dismantling bridges and mixing cement. But people like us are up for watching them do it. “In the last few years there’s been a huge interest in this part of East London,” says Pamela as she takes us towards the Park. Her tours reached a peak last year, but she expects to carry on giving them into the future, although the route will change as parts of the site open up. The North Park is due to open exactly a year after The Games began.
Will this make the East End a new destination?
Inside the Olympic Park complex (which will reopen as The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park,) everything seems to be in transit. McDonalds has gone, along with many other sponsor tents and buildings, and work will soon begin on a massive entertainment venue. The Media Centre that hosted journalists from every corner of the world is being transformed into a business park. At the nearby Olympic Village housing for the athletes will soon become 2,818 new homes (a percentage of which will be affordable), part of a bigger plan to create 11,000 homes across the site in the coming years.
The flats look ugly to me; the high rise structures remind me of Liverpool during my childhood. But I’m reassured they are state of the art, and soon to be fitted with brand new kitchens. (Athletes don’t cook apparently.) The nearby park lands and wetlands will stay as they are for locals to use. Over 70% of the the Olympic budget was spent on cleaning up the land and clearing 52 electricity pylons. Pamela shows us pictures of what the area used to look like; a wasteland without hope. “They’re creating a new destination in the East End,” she explains and I wonder if this place could in time become as big a draw as somewhere like Covent Garden.
But until this new destination is ready for visiting, my own kids aren’t interested. They’ve no nostalgia for The Games and can’t envision the significance of the Olympic legacy. They drag their feet and ask about lunch. But Stuart and I lived in Hackney once. We knew what it was. A few months ago, in a bubble of sporting achievement and human endeavour, the world saw what it could be. Perhaps by falling somewhere in the middle it will come to life as a sustainable, enjoyable and real place to live.
Shopping opportunities or sporting achievement?
We finish our tour at Westfield; East End’s shopping mecca. We try to enjoy ourselves but even in the London 2012 gift shop we can’t seem to find the perfect personal legacy. Check out this video where Cameron explains.
It’s slightly depressing that while the temple of sport and human achievement lies empty and unused, the temple to commercialism is thriving. It’s time for the site next door to be more and to achieve more than this vacuous depositary of Prada handbags, Liberty Prints and Apple computers. Regeneration is around the corner. I’ve seen the JCB’s and heard the chatter of the builders. But it can’t come soon enough. As Rio begins the long countdown to The Games, the East End needs London to deliver on its promises of a lasting legacy. Before that precious Olympic bubble bursts.