Walking London’s Olympic sights
A London Walks tour snaps photos of the Olympic Stadium from the Westfield Stratford shopping complex. (Sean O'Neill)
London’s eastern quarter is home to a number of new attractions: the Olympic Stadium; the Aquatics Centre; Westfield Stratford City, Europe’s largest and poshest shopping complex; and the ArcelorMittal Orbit, a 37-storey sculpture and observation deck.
But before undergoing redevelopment for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, this square-mile slice of East London was a ghetto with decaying factories and rail yards, traces of which can still be found.
Through autumn, several walking tours are taking visitors through this regenerated area, to see the structures built specifically for the Games and to experience the neighbourhoods that surround the Olympic and Paralympic Village, where the athletes live.
A recent tour, run by London Walks, began in earnest near the West Ham Underground Station, on the Elevated Greenway, an odour-free pathway for walkers and cyclists that was built above a sewer. Presenting sweeping views of the city skyline, the greenway runs east to Beckton and, after the summer, will connect westward to a full loop around the city via Islington and the Regent's Canal. We learned a bit of history, such as how the city washed two million pounds of soil that had been contaminated by industry and that are now clean lots for the Olympic venues.
A light-rail train took us to an entrance of the Olympic Village in Stratford, originally a place where many Londoners feared to tread after dark. Our guide, Judy, told amusing anecdotes about the previous two times that London hosted the Games, in 1908 and 1948. In 1908, she said, spectators handed champagne to runners in the marathon, which meant that the first racer to approach the finish line was too drunk to find it. In 1948, the world was still recovering from war, and the "Austerity Olympics" were a low-key affair sponsored by Craven A cigarettes. American athlete Mal Whitfield caught the Tube after winning the 800 metres, carrying his gold medal and towel in a bag on his way to the home of a volunteer host family.
The best discovery of the tour was an unknown viewing pavilion on the third-storey of the John Lewis department store in the year-old Westfield Stratford mall. This pavilion has a broad glass window that provides a grand lookout at the Olympic Stadium across the street, though it's not high enough to enable visitors to see events.
The guides of the independent London Walks company have earned the city's premiere professional qualification for walking tours, the Blue Badge. Group size for their two-hour tour varies and can be as large as 60 people because reservations are not required. Tours are typically once daily, through 31 October, except during the Olympic and Paralympic Games when their tours are suspended.
Visitors can also take an official Blue Badge tour around the Olympic site, covering similar locations. These two-hour tours excel at covering details on athletic accomplishments and the engineering behind the city’s new architecture. The tours are limited in size to groups of 15, need to be booked in advance and run twice daily through the end of September, even during the Games.
Unfortunately none of London’s rain-or-shine Olympic tours offer access to the sprawling park itself, which is off-limits to the public. But a self-guided tour of venues, which you can see from a distance, and of the surrounding neighbourhoods can be taken by downloading a free guide from the non-profit organisation Winning Endeavours.