With the Olympics kicking off in Rio I thought it was about time I paid a proper visit to the former Olympic Park – now the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park – in Stratford (not, for once, the one upon Avon). I’d paid one or two fleeting visits in the past but never penetrated far past the original stadium and had certainly never got to the northern extremities. There are some official trails to follow but I soon abandoned these in favour of a more random and probably more rewarding approach. First though it was necessary to run the gauntlet of the “Westfield Shopping Experience” but I’d boxed clever and arrived early – before the stores were open – so I got through unscathed.
I refelcted as I arrived that the London Olympics opening ceremony had coincided with my first appearance in a Tower Theatre show when I was fortunate to be cast as Mr Micawber in their production of David Copperfield. As anyone who knows me will attest I’m a huge fan of Dickens so winning this part was, at the time, the proverbial dream come true. Little did I know then that this was to mark the start of my journey towards an even grander Dream – playing Bottom with the RSC. Anyway, I digress…as usual.
The most notable feature initially was the new façade of the main stadium bearing the legend “West Ham United”. The club’s move to its new venue has, of course, been the subject of some controversy which I don’t propose to rehash here. All I will say is that the present ground’s surroundings are much more conducive to a nice day out than those near the old Boleyn ground which I used to attend when I was a young shaver – it being within walking distance from my (then) home.
Next I went to the Orbit, the sculpure/tower created by Anish Kapoor and described by Boris Johnson as “a giant hubble bubble pipe” and by the Daily Mail as a “catastrophic collision between two cranes” – take your pick. Having been in plenty of tall buildings in East London over the years and seen the views I wasn’t about to stump up the required £12 entry fee; neither was I tempted by the prospect of the newly installed slide which I imagine would be quite claustrophobic. Instead I preferred to admire the structure (and I think I do amire it) from the outside. I remember being similarly impressed by Kapoor’s Cloud Gate in Chicago (otherwise known as the Chicago Bean).
From there it was following the towpath nothwards past the various gardens looking quite spectacular (that’s the gardens – not me). You could really imagine yourself way out in the country – if it hadn’t been for the ever present noise of drills and lorries in the distance where construction is still in progress. My path led me past the Copper Box arena, Here East (the old broadcast/media centre), the Velopark and through to Hackney Marshes. It’s good to see the River Lea really being regenerated and not, for once, by a vast shopping mall. Instead it has become an area for rest, relaxation and a gentler approach to life. Various water based activities were taking place including paddleboarding – fortunately there was no sign of Orlando Bloom!
I retraced my steps down the other side of the River Lea as far as the area called the Wetland Bowl/Wet Woodlands. They have done a fine job of this piece of the park and although there was little animal wildlife in evidence the gloriously sunny day and the display of wild flowers induced some lingering.
Studiously avoiding the temporary gaudy funfair/beach area I next headed for the Aquatic Centre – not for the watersports but to have a look at the display detailing the next phases of development in the area. The most exciting bit of this was the plans for the so called Stratford Waterfront cultural centre which will feature, among others, outposts of the V & A and Sadler’s Wells …if it ever actually comes to pass.
My longish ramble over I wandered back to the main gardens. The crowds had ramped up considerably but I found a quiet nook under a tree and idled away some time recalling more happy dramatic memories from 2012. Going with David Copperfield to the truly awesome Minack in Cornwall (a first – both the theatre and Cornwall itself) and finding myself in front of capacity crowds (750) for each performance. Then being rapidly cast in Joe Orton’s Loot (another ambition fulfilled) and the musical version of The Mystery of Edwin Drood had made me feel I’d hit the ground running with my new company. And by the close of the year I’d also already been cast as the homicidal chef in SEDOS’s stage version of Gormenghast – probably my favourite book ever. Yes 2012 had certainly been a year to remember; 2016 was too. Now roll on 2020!