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During half term I decided to take the family for a day out in London, something that we hadn’t done for a while. I wanted to do something different and decided that, a year after the London Olympics, a trip round the Olympic Park would fit the bill to revive the happy memories. Researching the internet I quickly discovered that the Park will not open fully until July 2013, but I could book a ‘Park in Progress ‘ tour which included a visit up the iconic Orbit Tower.
Formerly known as the Acelormittal Orbit tower, this tower came to symbolise the London Olympics and (love it or hate it) it remains as a visitor attraction today. ArcelorMittal is the world’s leading steel and mining company and sponsored the tower at the request of Boris Johnson – thus the rather complicated name. The design of the tower was an open competition and was won by Anish Kapoor and Cecil Balmond. It is a twisted and colourful mass of metal that is 114.5 metres high, and is currently the UK’s tallest sculpture.
Ordering tickets I bought my tickets online from the noordinarypark.co.uk website. I had to specify a date and time and once I had done this it was easy to select tickets and pay. The tickets were rather expensive at £15 per adult. Children’s tickets were £7.
We were told to meet at the park offices, close to the Pudding Mill Lane DLR station and were warned to get to the offices 15 minutes before our tour started. The office is a short walk from the station so it was sensible to allow 10 minutes.
Arrival The park in progress tour was clearly signposted from the train station and took us on a
rather tortuous and winding walk through the large area that was the Olympic park outskirts but now resembled a large building site. I had been instructed to print out my tickets and once we arrived a member of staff quickly scanned these in and waved us through to the waiting bus.
Rather theatrical and unnecessary luminous jackets and hard hats were given out but were not compulsory – but were enjoyed by the children on the bus and gave the tour a sense of added excitement.
The Tower A three minute bus ride took us into the gated development site to the Orbit Tower. We were not allowed anywhere else on the site, but the bus hostess gave an interesting talk as we drove through, describing the canal that David Beckham sailed up during the opening ceremony and talking about her childhood in the area and the dire warnings not to swim in the ponds there at the “risk of turning toxic green” with the pollutants. The bus hostess was really funny and entertaining and made the short journey special.
Drawing up in front of the tower, there were definite butterflies in my stomach. I am not good with heights but I was determined to give the tower a try as I had paid so much money for it and there was nothing else to do !
Another extremely friendly park guide introduced himself to our group and took us around the base of the tower, giving us background as we went. We stood underneath the huge steel canopy and gave the token group scream to hear the echo. It felt a bit unsettling to know that the huge 84 tonne weight of metal was hanging above our heads.
Once this guide had finished his talk we were handed over to the lift attendant. By now we were getting the idea and shouted an enthusiastic ‘Hello’ as she introduced herself and joked her way through the 1 minute lift ride up to the top observation platform.
Stepping out the lift was only scary for a fraction of a second. Although the tower looks spindly from the outside, it feels solid and stable from the inside and the fantastic views take all idea of vertigo away completely. All of the visitors immediately turned to the view right into the Olympic Stadium and spent a long time imagining the atmosphere of a year ago. The views from the rest of the circular balcony were magnificent too – especially as we had a very clear day. The boys enjoyed spotting West Ham and Wembley stadiums, while I looked out for the landmarks that were indicated on the information boards scattered around.
There are two observation platforms; both of them have a circular void in the middle that allows you to look down to the ground if you should feel the need to do this (I didn’t!). The top platform is dominated by two convex mirrors which had the effect of turning the images of visitors upside down. For some reason this was fascinating – and yet another extremely friendly guide was happy to photograph those visitors who wished to be photographed upside down, with the panorama of London in the background.
The lower platform contained an activity centre for children, including ‘Spot Boris’ (look through a telescope to see constructed photos of the completed park and find Boris Johnson hiding behind various buildings), slide show glasses that showed visitors what the completed park will look like as you look out over the building site, and many more games centred around the park to keep children amused.
We spent nearly an hour in the tower, looking at the views and the two displays that were on the top and second floors. On the way down we were encouraged to take the metal staircase that wound down the outside of the tower, rather than getting back in the lift. Most people did this. I was initially a bit wobbly about the thought, but the staircase was wide and enclosed – like many people I held onto the metal bannister tightly on the way down and it really did add to the enjoyment of the visit. The bus driver and bus hostess greeted us when we got down – still as happy as ever, laughing all the way back to the site office.
Although expensive at £15 per adult, it was a worthwhile trip and one that my whole family will remember.
Facilities Toilet facilities are provided at the office and also inside the Orbital tower. Refreshments were not allowed on the site, but the site office had vending machines offering drinks to keep you going.
Opinion Although expensive, I thought this tour was worthwhile. What made it particularly enjoyable was the extreme and very natural friendliness of all the staff we met. They all proudly told us that they were local people – they all seemed young and very enthusiastic about their job, happily taking photographs of the visitors and giving us some background about living in the area. The bus driver even volunteered to lie down on the ground with our camera so that he could take a photo of all three of us with the whole tower looming up in the background.
I thought this was a great trip and would recommend it, despite the price. Choose a bright clear day or you will be disappointed.