Monday, January 30, 2012

2012 Olympics Preview: Olympic Park

London is an expensive place to live, but much like Washington, DC, there are lots of free or inexpensive things to do if you know how to find them -- and we try to take advantage of every opportunity we can find.  This weekend an organization called Walk London was offering a variety of free guided walks around London, lead by certified Blue Badge guides.  Normally these walks cost £8/person, which is still a pretty good deal, but free is even better!  We've been curious to see the Olympic Park, which has been under construction in East London ever since we arrived, so we spent over an hour on the District line riding the Tube out to the West Ham station to do the Olympic walk on Saturday afternoon.

We had never ventured that far east before, but although it was a long trip on the Tube, it was pretty easy since we got on at the beginning of the line in Wimbledon (guaranteed a seat) and didn't have to change trains.  We had no trouble finding the starting point -- there was a huge crowd of people gathered just outside the exit to the West Ham station.  In fact, so many people showed up for the walk, that they divided us up into three groups of about 30 each, since they had planned ahead and sent three guides.  Clearly, we weren't the only ones willing to brave the cold weather for a free tour. 

Our guide's name was Andy.  He lead us from the Tube station to the Jubilee Greenway, which is still partially under construction.  This is a new 60-km walking and cycling path that will connect many of the Olympic venues in celebration of the Queen's diamond jubilee.
The Jubilee Greenway: Sorry for any inconvenience
Signpost on the Greenway
We stopped at several spots along the way so Andy could give us some history on the Olympic games and tell us a little about the previous two times that London has hosted them: 1908 & 1948.  The 1908 games were originally scheduled to be held in Rome, but were moved to London after Mt Vesuvius erupted in 1906.  The 1948 games were the first Olympics held after WWII, and were known as the "Austerity Games" as the UK was still under rationing.  So, even though this is the third time London has hosted the Olympics, it's really the first time they've had a chance to properly prepare for the games.
Andy fills us in on Olympic history
When London won the bid for the 2012 Olympics back in July of 2005, the original budget was £3 billion.  The day after it was announced, there was a terrorist attack in London, and the security budget skyrocketed.  The current estimate is closer to £9 billion.  And that's just to prepare for the games.  The cost of actually running the games is mostly covered by private funds that come from corporate sponsors, such as Coke, McDonald's, and VISA.  Andy advised us not to show up in the Olympic village with a Pepsi and a Whopper, or we'd be politely asked to hide our food from the TV cameras.

At one point, Andy stopped to tell us how some of the nearby waterways had been restored, but we were distracted by the beautiful Victorian building off in the distance...
Andy shows us a map of the local waterways
And by this weird graffiti-covered thing behind him.  Some kind of large plumbing fixture?
Not sure what this is, but everyone took a picture
Andy promised to tell us about the building at our next waypoint.  This part of east London had been hit pretty hard during WWII, so it really stood out among its post-war neighbors. While it had fallen into disuse and was undergoing some restoration, it was clearly once a lovely building.  What could it have been?  A school?  A hospital?  A town hall?  Nope.  Give up?  It was a sewage pumping station!
Abbey Mills pumping station
The large hangar-like aluminum structure behind it (to the left in the above photo) is the current pumping station.  Not sure what they plan to do with this building, but it would be nice if it could serve some function during the Olympics.

We could start to see parts of the Olympic Park from the Greenway, including the top of the stadium, and a large metal tower that looked like a hellish roller coaster.  We also passed a lot of new construction on the outskirts of the park, which Andy said was all speculative housing, retail, and office space.
Approaching the Olympic Park
We came to a thick metal line and some numbers embedded in the walkway, which turned out to be the Prime Meridian.  This is an exciting discovery for cheapskates, because you have to have to pay an admission fee to take a photo on the spot where the Prime Meridian is marked in Greenwich, by the Royal Observatory.  The numbers around the line formed a sundial, which required a person as the gnomon to cast a shadow. 
Andy straddles two hemispheres
Since the sun wasn't shining, we couldn't test it out, but there was a handy spot in the middle instructing you where to stand by month.
Where to stand to be a human sundial
As we made our way towards the grounds of the Olympic Park, we were passed by some sort of official-looking 2012 Olympics tour bus.  Andy told us that you have to book these tours months in advance through the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA), and they are likely sold out through the start of the Olympics.

ODA tour bus
We turned our noses up at the plan-aheaders in their nice warm bus and continued on foot towards what Andy promised would be a nice vantage point overlooking the park.
To the "View tube"
Although only the people in the special bus were allowed on the grounds of the Olympic park, the "View Tube" did afford us a pretty good view of many of the venues, including the new stadium, which can seat 80,000 people.  Since London already has a large-capacity stadium in Wembley, they don't really need another, so this one was designed to be temporary.  Its fate after the Olympics is still to be determined, but it may be reduced in size and used as a football (soccer) stadium
Olympic Stadium
We were curious to know what this thing was, since we could see it from some distance.  Andy said that most school groups call it "the big red thing,"  but it is officially known as the Orbit Tower.  The mayor of London thought the Olympic park needed some kind of iconic structure, and this is the result.  It was largely funded by steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, who apparently has more money than Richard Branson, and was designed by sculptor Anish Kapoor.
The Orbit Tower
The tower has two lifts surrounded by a spiral staircase leading up to an observation deck.  After the games, the plan is to put a restaurant in the tower, but that it still to be determined.  There is quite an emphasis on Sustainability and Legacy with these Olympics, so many of the venues have been built with recycled materials, and will be recycled themselves after the games are over.

While most of the Olympic venues are now complete, there is still a lot of construction going on in the surrounding area of Stratford.  Off in the distance, behind the park, we could also see part of the massive new Westfield Mall.  I was surprised to learn that the mall had been planned on this site before they knew the Olympics would be held here.  I had always assumed it was the other way around.
Westfield Mall (left) and Olympic construction boom
L to R: Basketball venue, Water Polo pool, Tower, Aquatics center
Map of Olympic Park
Our walking tour ended here, so we took advantage of the nearby pop-up cafe to warm ourselves up with some tea and cake.
The Container Cafe
They seem to have made good use of shipping containers here, using them not just to build a cafe, but a small exhibit space, and, of course, a shop.
The requisite 2012 merchandise shop
Cafe supply vehicle
Since we still had some daylight left, we walked into Stratford to check out the town center.
Sunset over the City of London
On the way, we passed this historic building under renovation.  Warton House was once the headquarters of Yardley's of London, and still bears their old flower-seller logo.
Warton House
While the outskirts of Stratford seemed a bit dodgy with all the ugly post-war buildings and construction sites, the town center was actually quite nice, with some lovely architecture.
Stratford town center
Ye Olde Black Bull pub
Old Town Hall
Stratford Outdoor Market
St. John's Church (ca 1834)
Since it was getting colder and darker -- and nearing dinner time -- we decided to check out the Westfield Mall and find a place to eat there.  As we approached the massive shopping center, I could see why it was built here.  It is directly adjacent to the Stratford station, which is the endpoint of two Tube lines and is also served by the DLR (light rail) and overground trains.  I imagine it's also easy to get here by car, as evidenced by the huge parking garage.
Orbit tower and Aquatic center from Stratford station.
There was a pedestrian walkway connecting the mall to the station
Approaching the mall
This is one gigantic shopping center!  In addition to all the usual mall stores, it has a huge movie theater, a bowling alley, a casino, tons of restaurants, and a supermarket.
Shall we see a movie, or go bowling?
We did a circuit around all three levels of the mall, which was bustling on a Saturday evening, and then had dinner at Wahaca, part of a chain of Mexican restaurants in London.  I doubt I'll spend a lot of time at this mall, since it's pretty far out of my way, but I'll add it to my list of places to spend a cold, rainy day when I just want to get out of the house.

We were glad to get a peek at the Olympic Park and are looking forward to going back in a few weeks for another preview.  Stay tuned...


  1. Really interesting post! Your pictures are beautiful, too. The "Sorry for any inconvenience" sign cracked me up. :)

  2. Very cool! Thanks for sharing. The big red thing is weird!


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