The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park remains closed as the huge operation to reshift, redesign and rebuild the site continues. From tomorrow, however, it will be possible to get a good gawp at the upheavals. Park in Progress tours, running from March till June, take visitors inside the perimeter and to the top of the Orbit tower.
We went along to a preview yesterday. It's a bugger to find. Signs lead the way from Pudding Mill Lane station, but significant numbers of guests coming from Stratford were left scratching their heads. That needs fixing.
After finally tracking down the site office, we're encouraged to don hi-vis vests and hard hats — purely as a gimmick, but one that kids will love. We then board a bus, which whisks us to our 'first stop' (and, as it transpires, only stop) at the Orbit Tower. En route, a recorded and enthusiastic Boris Johnson whets the appetite with bombastic descriptions of the ArcelorMittal Orbit (is it our imagination, or is he placing heavy emphasis on that first syllable?).
The views from the Orbit are undeniably impressive. The Olympic Stadium is largely unchanged, absent only its wrap and a clutch of seats. Elsewhere in the Park, the Aquatics Centre now stretches skeletal wings, as the seating stands are dismantled. Much of the infrastructure is gone, McDonalds is demolished, and the water polo arena is but a ghost. The transformation is well underway, and the view from the Orbit is the best place to see it.
The two viewing galleries now contain a selection of displays and hands-on activities to tell the history and future of the Park. One diversion implores you to use a surveyor's telescope to 'find the Mayor' hidden in a map of the park. An iPad hooked up to handlebars lets you virtually cycle through the transformed area. "The first thing everyone tries to do is run over the pedestrians," confides a nearby attendant. Elsewhere, there's plenty for the kids to push and pull. The biggest highlight, other than the views, remains the huge distorting mirror on the top floor, a simple but glorious wonder that captivates children and adults alike.
On the way down, those who are able are encouraged to take the 400-step helical staircase, which wraps around the structure. You can't see very much, and it gets tedious very quickly. If only they'd built in a helter-skelter. Then it's back on the bus, and homeward bound.
We're very pleased to see access to the tower restored, if only for a few months. Too few people were able to visit during the Games, and it seemed like it might be closed for a couple of years during the rebuild. But these "backstage tours" are, in our opinion, misleadingly advertised. The trip barely qualifies as a 'tour'. You spend five minutes on a bus, scale the Orbit tower, then take a five minute ride back out again. You're basically paying £15 (adult) or £7 (child) to get a good view. Overall, then, a worthwhile experience, particularly if you missed out on the Orbit first time round, but perhaps a little over-egged.
Park in Progress tours run on selected days until 23 June. Book tickets here.