No, I didn’t take my paprika with me. Sure, I was thinking about it 2 minutes before walking out of the door. And yes, I was checking my inbox for a message from La Dalia Pimentón de la Vera 30 minutes later on the train.
But my small rucksack was fully packed with the kind of stuff you (probably don’t) require on a day trip with a herd of kids. No room for paprika. And as I wasn’t planning on preparing or cooking any food for the aforementioned herd, my romantic little travel gesture was probably unnecessary.
A mere day trip, despite dreaming of far-flung places to roam this half-term holiday. My lovely, crazy friend Fit as a Fruitcake escaping to the southern skies of Portugal with her four boys, while I stay put with my family, seeking diversions closer to home.
A day’s excursion, planned (by my sister-in-law and me) to facilitate the restoration of our children to their rightful families (following a customary cousin swap) at a mutually convenient venue.
Party: 8 children (aged 7 to 14), 2 mums, one (adult) cousin, one grandmother.
Agenda: modest. Our children, our tribe, enjoy hanging out together, and once reunited, there seemed to be no point in splitting them up to cater for different ages/interests.
We picked just two activities (from a huge variety on offer): the Big Draw and a Boat Trip.
We managed just one of those.
Why? Because Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park is what it says: #noordinarypark.
- It’s huge (560 acres with 6.5km of waterways). It was designed for crowds of Olympic size (obviously). A half-term holiday influx of families was nothing compared to the 2012 hoards of spectators, athletes and their entourages. We adults were happy with the kids running off as it was easy to keep track of them. Kids who flee their parents and enjoy their space do not heed the passage of time 😉
- The award-winning designs in architecture and landscaping had all of us gazing around in awe. Those of us with smart phones tried to capture the structures, planting, skylines. No rushing the teenaged budding photographer (or parents going gooey over their offspring’s silhouettes).
- Planned for the long-term, the area is ever evolving. The Olympic Park was conceived for the past, present and future. It is not a museum. The spaces used for the Summer Games 2012 and Paralympic Games 2012 continue to be used today. The vast area is inspiring, engaging and energising. Simply soaking up the atmosphere, as runners and cyclists use the pathways in the sunshine, is invigorating.
So what did we do?
The swimmers amongst us were keen to see the London Aquatics Centre, easily recognisable with its undulating wave-like roof – designed by Dame Zaha Hadid, who is now designing the National Olympic Stadium in Tokyo for the Summer Games 2020. The space is as impressive inside as out, with a competition pool and training pool (both 50m) and a diving pool (25m), all in use during our visit. Watching enviously as swimmers, gripped with hilarity, clambered over the Aqua Splash obstacle course in the competition pool, our kids begged for a repeat visit equipped with swimwear.
The Aquatics Centre has won awards for its design, but its architect probably didn’t envisage it as an irresistible structure for climb-hungry children. I have a No. 1 child who is forever itching to scale something…anything. However, he’s not especially fond of being told what to do (or what not to do). When the lifeguard’s whistle blew, it wasn’t for a swimmer. I’m glad I didn’t spot my No. 1 climber first, or I suspect he would’ve responded to my screams by leaping wildly from his lofty perch into the competition pool below (knocking surprised swimmers off the inflatables with one almighty splash – the hilarity stakes would’ve rocketed sky-high along with the splash).
After No. 1’s disgruntled, but peaceful, dismounting of the internal slopes of the wonderful wave roof, we were greeted by glorious sunshine outside. We headed in the direction of the Big Draw, but didn’t get very far.
The kids spied apparently spontaneous spurts of water whooshing upwards without warning, twisting along paths, catching other children unawares. They’d found the Waterworks Fountains. Amused adults sat on benches, chuckling at their kids’ delighted screams, and trying indulgently to ignore their sodden clothes. Worry about that later.
We stopped awhile ourselves, and rolled up our sleeves in this bright, warm suntrap. Our skin, already growing Autumn pale, was glad for the sun’s late October glow. Our small tribe became more dare devil, engaging with the water, second guessing which small jet would jump up to be the big one next: they grew a little damp…wet…wetter…..soaking. Now we were the ones worrying about that later.
That was how we bypassed the Big Draw, and its venue at the top of the ArcelorMittal Orbit (Britain’s tallest sculpture), which offers a 360 degree viewpoint of London with vistas stretching over 20 miles. I know little about the activity, except that it involves adding to a giant 2 metre high community artwork inspired by London’s skyline. I’m sure it would have been dryer than the fountains, but possibly less fun 😉
A late lunch was enjoyed at the EastTwenty Bar & Kitchen. We secured a table easily, and ate hungrily (good kid-friendly food with appealing options for adults too – but my Caesar salad lacked a red paprika splash). I enjoyed quizzing my sister-in-law’s cousin about his life in Moscow teaching at a British School. Another city on my bucket-list. Russian sounds pretty tricky though – so come on Duolingo – hurry up and make it available on your cool app!
Our planned Boat Trip along the river was brilliant, an alternative and peaceful perspective of the Park. Our skipper was a comedian. Lots of (genuinely funny) emergency briefing gags. Forget the convention of captain last off his vessel in case of evacuation; he intended to beat us down to the pub for a reviving pint. And the friendly guide was super informative, with tips about the wildlife, the Park’s design, the Games and the massive, transformative impact the Park has had on the local area. It even has a new postcode – E20.
Most relevantly exciting to us was our guide’s announcement that the world’s tallest tunnel slide is planned for the Orbit. It will whisk thrill seekers from top to bottom on a 40-second partially transparent ride: “Please, please can we come back?” Don’t think I want to ignore those pleas. Sounds awesome.
Last stop was a big play area to the north of the park, Tumbling Bay Playground. Lots of water play for the budding engineer, timber-framed wobbly walkways, sand pits, slides, swings and tree-top towers. Blending into the natural environment, we nearly lost the children.
Dusk surprised us by falling early (none of us yet used to winter’s dark hours). Time to go. We were tiring, though many others were still running and cycling through the Park. The tribe fondly disbanded. Although I sense (and hope) our children absorbed at least a little of the idea that a tribal mentality doesn’t have a place in the Olympic Park. The global Athlete’s Village is now home to a thriving community, East Village, with a medical centre, shops, cafés, restaurants, and the new Chobham Academy that uses the Aquatics Centre for swimming lessons. Other new neighbourhoods will be opened over the next few years, as well as a commercial space called the International Quarter. The present and future of the Olympic Park buzzes with words like sustainability, community, equality and inclusion.
We drifted wearily to Stratford station, and found ourselves in London’s busy, over-crowded concourses once more. My children drew closer to me, and gazed with weary eyes at the commuters over-filling trains, homeward bound. We squished into seats, ate our sandwiches and I asked my children their favourite moments: the Boat Trip, the Fountains. Being with the cousins. Can we go back?
Yes, I think we can.
But I’ll be first down that slide. (hope it’s ready for Spring 2016!).
If you’re planning on visiting #noordinarypark, you might want to plan ahead (as we did, albeit loosely). Or you might be happy to wander. Either way, it is massive, so be prepared to wander and walk a lot.
I realise this blog post comes at the end of the half-term holiday, and activities like the Big Draw are only running for another few days, but I have only skimmed the surface of what’s on now and in the coming months and years. There is and will be plenty to look forward to.
For the record, I sprinkled liberal dots of La Dalia’s dark red spicy stuff over my late-night supper, to accompany a generous glass of red wine. I was on holiday after all.
Geeks’ and Historians’ Spot
Facts and Figures: the geeks amongst you will enjoy this: http://queenelizabetholympicpark.co.uk/media/facts-and-figures
Historians might like this timeline: http://queenelizabetholympicpark.co.uk/our-story/transforming-east-london/timeline