Bringing the countryside to the Olympics

Crossing from Stratford train station, the canal snaked its way around the old brick mill. A line of live-aboard barges were roped up with their metal chimneys puffing out the smell of bacon sandwiches. I was about to witness the foundations of one of the largest parks in Europe to be built for 150 years, a place that would not only be home to the finest athletes in the world but also, in the words of the mayor of London Boris Johnson, a place that will “provide ideal wildlife havens so that flora and fauna can thrive.”

This is London’s answer to Beijing’s Olympic Green and the contrast to China couldn’t be greater. I will never forget my visit to the games last year and my first sight of the Chinese Olympic Park, with its mirrored, sculptured buildings shimmering in the Beijing heat. You couldn’t fail but be impressed by the Bird’s Nest, Beijing’s US$423m national stadium, looming over the bubble-wrap inspired Water Cube.

At first it seemed as if the park had the lot, but I couldn’t shrug off the feeling that something was missing; there was a very temporary soul to the Beijing Olympic Park. Despite the world’s largest bird’s nest there were no birds in sight, no fish in the waters, and not an ounce of life other than the humans, who stood open-mouthed in wonder. A brand new environment had been manufactured but nothing had been enhanced from what had been there just months before.

But will our own effort be any different? Can we really hope that the global pressures of hosting the Olympic Games will sit comfortably with our wildlife in this small part of London? That’s certainly the hope of John Hopkins, head of parklands for the Olympic Delivery Authority. I visited John recently for Radio 4’s Open Country, and as he took me on a boat trip to see the work in progress, I told him of my impressions of Beijing. Smiling from beneath his hardhat, he explained how his team is working to regenerate the area

with an extensive programme of invasive species control. They’ll then start to remodel the banks and create aquatic vegetation and new habitats.
As we chugged by on our little barge I saw people laying the foundations for kingfisher nesting banks, working on wetland habitats for grey herons and making artificial otter holts. Common lizards will bask on quiet, sunny, south-facing slopes near woodlands, while the new wetlands will hopefully become breeding grounds for grass snakes.

John insists that our Olympic Park will act as the missing link that connects the Lea Valley Regional Park in the north to the canal networks that merge with the River Thames in the south. But what of those wonderful areas where wildlife had moved in after industry moved out? Well, a huge array of species has been relocated to nature reserves upstream, including 4,000 newts and hundreds of toads.

As my journey came to an end, John pointed out the efforts being made to protect the wildlife from the hordes of visitors and athletes that will make this park their home for a few short weeks in 2012. All around me I witnessed foundations being laid, not for sporting arenas, but the ecological foundations that I hope will put the heart and soul into the London Olympics. Long after the 2012 games have passed, a legacy will remain for British wildlife, a legacy that gives this small patch of Stratford a sporting chance.

This feature was taken from issue 22 of Countryfile Magazine. To make sure you never miss an issue subscribe today.


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