London walking tours offer peek at Olympic Park
Going to London before the Olympics? You can still share in the excitement and get a peek at Olympic Park on a walking tour through neighborhoods where few tourists ventured before.
There's no access to the sprawling park itself, where they're working on the finishing touches before the games begin on July 27. Free bus tours that Olympic organizers had offered inside the park ended in May.
But you can still get a good glimpse of what awaits the world's athletes from walkways and perches outside.
And with a guide on a walking tour, you'll get a fuller understanding of how London snagged the games for the East End, how the gritty industrial area was razed and cleaned up, and what will become of the buildings and urban park after the medals are all doled out.
The walking tours run daily, cost 9 pounds ($13.90) for adults and last roughly two hours. Come prepared for a leisurely stroll and for a change in the weather.
On a gray, drizzling afternoon last month, I joined a group of about 20 on a tour led by the affable Andy Rashleigh, a guide for London Walks, which offers a variety of popular tours around the British capital. Reservations aren't required; just show up.
We met up outside the West Ham subway station, one of the three main routes that most spectators will use to reach the Olympic Park. After a brief introduction and instruction - ''Usual rules: Don't get run over'' - he led us to the Jubilee Greenway, a spruced-up bike and walking trail that will funnel the crowds directly to the gates of the park.
The elevated pathway built on top of sewage pipes from the 1860s offers glimpses into the neighborhoods below.
Of all the tours he leads, the Olympic walk is special to Rashleigh. His grandfather worked in the area's railyards, his father at the docks and he was born in 1949 in an East End heavily damaged by the bombings of World War II. He later taught school there.
''As long as I've know it, it's been one of the poorest areas of the country. It needed something,'' he said by telephone later. ''There's a chance - we hope - that it will get a good injection of money and work'' from the games.
As he ushers the group along, he makes sure we don't miss the chance to straddle two hemispheres - there's a sundial in the trail's pavement marking the Greenwich meridian line that separates the Eastern and Western hemispheres. Or the big stone blocks that he explains were made from the crushed restrooms of businesses that once sat on the Olympic site. We also make a stop alongside one of the tidied-up canals and locks that lace the area.
But the real treat along the route is the delightful Victorian Abbey Mills sewage pumping station that sits just off the pathway. Farther along, Rashleigh points out that the plans for the ''Cathedral of Sewage'' have been etched into the outside wall of the Olympic Park's own pumping station.
A few twists and turns later, we reach a vantage point overlooking the park. We have views of the Olympic Stadium, site of the opening and closing ceremonies, the Aquatics Center with its sloping roof, the landscaped grounds and bits and pieces of other venues across the 500-acre complex.
''What is that?'' puzzled visitors often ask Rashleigh of a structure that looms over all. It's the twisted red steel sculpture called the Orbit which stands at 115 meters (377 feet). On top are two observation floors with panoramic views that will be open during the games.
Entrance to the park during the two weeks of competition will be restricted to ticket-holders. Tickets for the grounds only are being sold - 10 pounds ($15.45) for adults - but they've been quickly snapped up, according to Eden Black, a spokesman for the Olympics organizers.
As the games get closer, routes for the walking tours have shifted as areas around the park are closed off.
''We're still able to get good views dodging and ducking,'' said Victoria Herriott, a spokeswoman for the Blue Badge Tourist Guide 2012 Committee, which also conducts walking tours.
A variety of people - Londoners and tourists - have turned up for the tours, which have grown increasingly popular as the games draw near, she said.
''Even athletes that are competing in the games have shown up on the walks,'' Herriott said.
In addition to the daily walks, her group is also offering other Olympic-themed tours, including a day-long tour to the Olympics sites in London for the 1908 and 1948 games. It's the only city to host the games three times.
Both groups are planning to continue the park tours long after the Olympics and the following Paralympics are over. The park itself won't be open for a while as temporary structures are removed and work continues transforming the site into an urban park. But Herriott expects interest to still be strong.
''They will have all watched it on telly'' and want to see it, she said.
If You Go:
LONDON WALKS: Daily tour at 2:15 p.m.; extra tours at 10:45 a.m. on weekends; check online for additional tours. Meet at West Ham Underground station; no reservations needed. No tours during the Olympics and Paralympics. Adults, 9 pounds ($13.90); students and seniors 65 and over, 7 pounds ($10.85); children under 15 with a parent, free. Cash payment to guide. http://www.walks.com
BLUE BADGE TOURS: Daily tours at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.; check online for additional tours. Meet at Bromley-by-Bow Underground station; online reservations recommended. Tours will be conducted during the Olympics and Paralympics. Adults, 9 pounds ($13.90); students with ID and seniors 65 and over, 7 pounds ($10.85); children under 16, 5 pounds ($7.75). Cash payment to guide. http://www.toursof2012sites.com/