In 2012, like many other people in the UK, I was captured by the spirit and excitement of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Indeed, I was lucky enough to be able to get tickets for the last weekend of the Paralympics to see some of the swimming semi-finals and to the last session of athletics in the stadium.
To say I was excited to be amongst the huge crowds in the Olympic Park would be an understatement. It really was quite some atmosphere. And watching the swimmers and athletes compete was an absolute honour. I can honestly say that sunny weekend in September is one I’ll never forget.
I’d been intrigued, ever since, to see what the park, now named the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, had turned into, but had never got round to visiting (the last time I’d planned to go, it was so horrendously pouring with rain that there was no point).
By the time I got to the park mid-morning, it still hadn’t warmed up, there was a brisk wind blowing and occasional light drizzle, so perhaps it wasn’t the perfect day to visit. I think it’s also true to say that my desire to visit the place was strongly bound up with my memories of the feelings of late 2012, which may have affected my mood as much as the weather.
I found it to be a slightly disconcerting experience, albeit one I still enjoyed. I had a bit of shock on approaching the stadium across the bridge next to the Aquatics Centre. The swimming venue looked a little different without its temporary seating extension, but my eyes were drawn to the stadium itself, in the process of being converted to become the home of West Ham Footbal Club in 2016. To my (mild) horror, the distinctive triangles (home to the spotlights) at the top of the stand were missing! On reading the hoardings, I discovered the roof is being doubled in size, but I do hope the triangles will return as the stadium seemed to have less character without it.
I spent a few hours wandering the park. It’s still very much a work in progress (a few times I ended up on paths by the River Lee which were closed and had to backtrack), but it’s turning into a lovely space for this burgeoning, revitalised area of East London. While doing the inevitable ‘so what was here when the Games were on?’, I did enjoy spotting the new landscaping features, including children’s play areas, public artwork and a determination to make the nature aspect of the river valley a key element of the park. I also, I’ll admit, enjoyed sitting in the auditorium at the Aquatics Centre for a while, reliving memories but also seeing the good use the pool was being put to by swimmers.
It was interesting to see that the area near the Aquatics Centre and Stadium were pretty busy and ‘buzzy’ (probably loads of people revisiting the site like me), but the whole park has the feel of being a place people want to be, with plenty of walkers, cyclists and runners in evidence, as well as a crowd of people heading to an event at the velodrome.
After braving the Westfield Stratford shopping centre for lunch, I headed out to Hoxton. A friend who knew I was heading that way had recommended I visited Fabrique bakery, so I made a stop there for a drink and a very pleasant cinnamon pastry before heading into the Geffrye Museum which I’d wanted to go to for a while. The Geffrye is the ‘museum of the home’. In an old almshouse (and a more modern extension), they have laid out rather wonderful roomsets of middle class living rooms from 1630 to the 1990s. It was really fascinating seeing the rooms side by side and appreciate the changes and developments. Inevitably with this sort of museum, there were items in the last few rooms which didn’t belong in a museum. Well, they did, but I’m too young to want things from my lifetime in a museum!
I realised that the V&A Museum of Childhood was relatively close by and I thought I’d take a look. I decided it was near enough not to be worth using public transport. However, I am a man who (it seems) is incapable of going places without getting lost (even with GPS on my phone), so I ended up taking a wrong turn and walking the length of the high street through Bethnal Green (and, may I say, not a coffee shop in site when my aching feet told me they’d like a rest…).
So, my impressions of the museum… not entirely favourable, I’m afraid. The building has a large space inside the main entrance, which I would assume would have exhibitions in. It had a shop, an over-sized information desk and a cafe towards the back. The museum proper is on two levels around and above this area and is somewhat… odd.
Cases randomly filled with toys and games with very few clear themes and, to be frank, really unprofessional-looking labels for items. My absolute ‘favourite’ was a case themed around design which has a shelf of dismembered Action Men and Barbie dolls.
It was very noticeable that, a few large toys aside, this wasn’t a particularly child/family-friendly place. A few parents were bravely trying to explain the old toys and games to their children. The great majority of adults seemed to be slightly stunned and happy to let their offspring charge around shouting (and I can’t say I blame them!).
I was really surprised that a museum run by one of the foremost design museums was, well, so badly and uninterestingly designed.