As the Olympics loom, Alexandra Topping takes a tour within sight and sound of the London 2012 site
Interactive: an alternative tour around the site
The Olympic Stadium gleamed in the winter sunshine: imposing, elegant and, best of all, complete. But from the vantage point of the Greenway path, all around the signs of construction rumbled on.
Damien Erni, visiting the Olympic site with his family from Switzerland, looked impressed, if slightly concerned. "It's quite amazing how they are constructing all these buildings which will be used for different things afterwards," he said. "But we did kind of wonder ... is it going to be finished on time?"
Despite the lorries, high wire fences and men in hard hats, visits to the Olympic site are booming. Jo Hoad, chair of the Blue Badge 2012 tours, said: "People from all over the world are genuinely interested in the chance to see and hear about the Olympic Park for 2012. Over 34,000 of the public have been on the walking tours since April 2010 – the majority of these are proud Brits."
On a weekday trip, the viewing area is packed with visiting groups: a group of older women from Wimbledon, an army of small, very excited children and a batch of hungover students among them. Myrtle Linberg, 76, on a private tour with a Wimbledon ladies' group, admitted she wouldn't normally venture to this part of the city. "It was such a poor area before, wasn't it? But look at it now," she says, pointing at the stadium. "We've just been told there are more than 10,000 toilets in there."
Official tours run daily and cost £9, but some private companies are taking a more lavish approach. The Blue Tiger Company offers a 30-minute private helicopter flight above the site, lunch and tour for £350 a couple. "We get a lot of corporate and private clients, entertaining clients from the far east and Russia, but most people are from the UK," said Mia Patel, the sales director.
Simon Cole, tour guide and Hackney resident, has a different take. For him the Olympic boroughs – Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest, Newham, Greenwich and Barking and Dagenham – are worth discovering on their own merits. "To a lot of people, the idea of east London conjures up images of industrial decay or gun crime," he said. "But there is an incredible amount to discover here – you can look back 200 years and to the future, without having to move."
Cole gave the Guardian an alternative tour of the Olympics, taking in filter beds and football pitches, street art and the former Matchbox factory, as well as the swoop of the Aquatic Centre and the unromantic bulk of the media hub.
Starting the tour at the Princess of Wales pub on Lea Bridge Road in Hackney, he led the way into a little-known east London delight – the Middlesex Filter Beds, built after London's worst cholera outbreak struck in 1852. When they were closed a century later, the beds became an inner-city wildlife haven and today provide a pocket of tranquillity. Rushes rustle in the wind and the rumble of traffic can only be faintly heard behind the birdsong. A short walk further on to the expanse of Hackney Marshes – the spiritual home of Sunday league football with more than 80 pitches – provided a particularly urban bucolic scene – with centuries-old trees surrounded by tower blocks and former power stations. It is an area packed with historical significance: in the ninth century part of the Danelaw boundary between the Saxons and Vikings, later a haunt of highwaymen. Edward Walford wrote in 1878: "In the Marshes towards Hackney Wick were low publichouses, the haunt of highwaymen and their Dulcineas. Dick Turpin was a constant guest [...] and few police-officers were bold enough to approach the spot."
Following the walk along the Hackney Cut – an artificial channel of the Lee Navigation canal built in 1770 to improve transport links – towards the Olympic Stadium takes the explorer though the East End's former industrial centre. The area has its own wildlife – the lesser-spotted hipster, to be found among the street art and identifiable by thrombosis-inducing trousers and bear-like overcoats. "Walking around here gives you a timeline of London history," said Cole. "This was the beating heart of industrial east London but in recent years has started to transform and now has the highest concentration of artists in Europe, with more than 600 studios."
After passing the media centre we entered the Olympic zone: security fences grow higher, canary-yellow sentry posts appear along the route and urban ramblers – slightly incongruous with walking poles and backpacks – stomp by. Random facts from different and competing tour guides fill the air: "The Olympic Park is two and a half square kilometres – that's the same size as Hyde Park!"; "At the peak of construction more than 10,000 people were at work here"; "The Aquatics Centre is made from 2,800 tonnes of steel."
From the Greenway, the Olympic Stadium, which will seat 80,000 people during the games and may afterwards, legal wrangling permitting, be the home of West Ham, fills the horizon.
More than 800,000 tonnes of soil were removed and 33 buildings demolished before construction could begin, with 5,250 workers taking three years to finish the stadium on time and within budget. A little further along the path you see Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre, with its wave-shaped roof and detachable wings for spectators that will be removed after the games, the concave roof of the Velodrome and the temporary bubble structure of the Basketball Arena, which will glow at night.
Next to the stadium, Anish Kapoor's ArcelorMittal Orbit – Britain's largest public sculpture – rises like the world's most frightening rollercoaster, promising the best view of the Olympic Park.
Still, those looking on from the Greenway don't seem to mind this next best option.
There is a sense of fizzing anticipation, which seems set to keep visitors streaming to the site right up until the Olympic flame is lit during the opening ceremony.
"It's something a bit different to do, for certain," said Erni. "And even though it looks a bit like a building site at the moment, it is really quite exciting."
Simon Cole also appears in city-lit Berlin (£8.99) published by Oxygen Books