London's park of dreams
Adrian Bridge gets a sneak preview of the Olympic site, already an attraction in itself
I never imagined that I would voluntarily sign up for a tour of a building site -- or that I would end up enjoying it. But I recently found myself on-board a bus being guided through one of London's more unlikely new attractions: the vast area in the east of the city that, in summer 2012, will stage the Olympic Games.
I had teamed up with my brother and our respective sons to join some 25 fellow passengers curious to see how far London was progressing in its transformation of a previously fairly derelict part of the city into a state-of-the-art facility, soon destined to play host to the best sportsmen and women in the world.
"Welcome to the park of dreams," said Sean, our guide, as we completed formalities at 'check-in' for the tour (involving security checks and ID control). "You are about to see a bit of history in the making."
With construction work very much under way, access to the 500-acre site is restricted and you share the road linking the main venues with a fleet of lorries, diggers and delivery vans.
It's noisy, dusty and frenetic -- not overly promising. But it is strangely exciting, giving a great sense of just how far the Olympic project has advanced, and of the attractiveness of some of the architecture.
Much to the surprise of sceptics, the project is due to come in on time and budget (£9.3 billion/€10.7 billion).
Some more facts: At least 90pc of the materials used have been recycled; almost 20,000 people have been employed, and thousands of shopping trolleys, car tyres and unexploded bombs from the Second World War have been cleared from the River Lea. This part of London, bordering Hackney, Tower Hamlets and Newham -- a long- forgotten part of the city -- has been transformed.
Even though there is more than a year to go before the opening of the Games, many of the main venues are already in place. As we passed the stingray-shaped roof of the Aquatics Centre, venue for the swimming events, Sean declared: "This fantastic building is where you will be able to watch the greatest diver in the world. And I am talking about Tom Daley -- not Eduardo or any of those other dodgy footballers."
Another building seen from various angles is the Velodrome (called the Pringle, thanks to the resemblance of its curvy shape to the crisp), the venue for the cycling events.
Work is still proceeding on the Olympic Village for the athletes, a major shopping centre, a new international train station at Stratford and the 80,000-seater main stadium itself, destined after it has been graced by the likes of Usain Bolt next year to become home to West Ham United. As we drove past we were told that the track is being laid this month.
What promises to be the real star of the show is the Orbit, a spiralling steel tower in red incorporating the five Olympic rings, designed by the sculptor Anish Kapoor. At present all you can see is the tower's base, but in the weeks and months ahead more and more will be revealed.
"London will be the only city in the world to have hosted the Games three times [the other years were 1908 and 1948]," said Sean. "But this time we have had much more time to prepare for it.
"And in addition to providing great venues for the sporting action, the aim is to leave a lasting legacy for this part of London."
Time will tell. The bus tours, which are free, are the only way of getting inside the site and seeing the venues up close. But there are other ways of getting a sense of what is going on, including walking tours around the outside of the Olympic site or simply taking a stroll or cycle ride along the six-mile long Greenway path that in part runs alongside it.
A popular vantage point is the View Tube, a building just outside the Olympic park providing panoramic views, detailed information and great coffee and breakfasts. When it opened it was expected to receive 1,000 visitors a month; at the moment it attracts more than 10,000, a figure likely to rise as more and more becomes visible -- and the weather improves.
In brilliant afternoon sunshine earlier this week, I joined visitors at the View Tube watching the action and having their photographs taken against the backdrop of the new stadium and the base of Kapoor's tower.
For those wanting to get what Sean termed a view of "history in the making", now's the time to visit east London.