I have always had a lot of reservations about the London Olympics - the militarisation of the whole area, restriction of the freedoms of speech and movement, the bewildering amount of money the project went over budget, the crass commercialisation and the flag-waving nationalism all turned my stomach, even at the same time as I knew that I would enjoy the spectacle of sport on display. My concerns weren't allayed when I arrived in Stratford (my first visit since before the Olympics) and while looking for my hotel, I got accidentally channelled into the Westfield Centre - a massive shopping mall that you have to pass through in order to get to the Olympic park and which is also directly connected to the Tube station. Once in, I couldn't find my way out. It was as if they had made the whole of Stratford indoors and then filled it with a fiendish whirlwind of commerce, noise and bright lights. I ended up begging a man selling fruit smoothies from a walkway stand to tell me where "outside" was. I know that Westfield has brought a lot of jobs to an area greatly in need of them, but it's hard to believe that this grizzly monstrosity is the answer.
So, not a good start. But the next morning, I headed out for the Olympic park. It was a beautiful, blue-skied morning, and the aquatic centre is the first structure you come to; it's absolutely stunning - all sweeping scoops, dips, curves and waves.
And you get the same effect in the light and airy inside:
The competition pool is 3m deep and 10 lanes wide, giving a luxurious feeling of space; this was greatly enhanced by the fact that there was hardly anyone there and for half an hour, I had a lane to myself! It's nice and cool, and isn't heavily chlorinated, so is a delight to swim in. While most pools only have viewing galleries on one side, the rows of seating on both sides gives the pool a stadium feel that is compounded by its recent Olympic origins. In the momentary absence of other swimmers to join my clockwise lane circuit, I treated myself to a sprint down the black line to the roar of the crowds as I raced to victory - one of Olympic history's big upsets as the middle aged woman with the duff shoulder snatches gold.
Unfortunately, after half an hour and several golds, I was tapped on the head by a uniformed staff member and told that they were closing all but lanes 1-4 because they were going to be doing some filming. I moved over and 5 of us swam up and down the lane perfectly amicably, but it was still slightly annoying because the filming didn't actually start until over 45 minutes later. I felt like we could all have been left to enjoy our luxuriously solitary swimming a bit longer.
But that aside, it was a fantastic experience. The pool and changing areas are roomy and spotlessly clean, and the facility is priced equivalently to the other pools in the London boroughs; my off-peak ticket cost £3.50. The training pools were packed with children having swimming lessons, and divers were being coached while doing improbable things off high boards. It had a sense of legacy that much of the remainder of the Olympics infrastructure doesn't at the moment, which was nice to see. I hope that it continues to be a success and to be accessible to as many local people as possible, if only to demonstrate the palpable demand for more public pools at a time when public leisure services are being brutalised.