ArcelorMittal Orbit review
The only parts of Stratford I've seen are the train station, shopping centre and old Olympic Park. That is more than enough for me -- there is only so much concrete and glass that you need to see in one day. It's a bit like Canary Wharf without the skyscrapers. Or the people. Or the water, or the boats.
When you exit the station you get sucked into the giant Westfield Shopping Centre. It's like a shiny ghost town that spreads out everywhere, full of empty tables in empty cafes, big shops with no one in them, escalators with no one on them, and security guards with nothing to do but pick up a few bits of litter. When the only thing they have to chase is a crisp packet in the wind, then that is when you know they are bored.
I'm sitting in a coffee shop and I've got practically the entire place to myself (it's 9 o'clock). It reminds me of airport shopping in the early hours of the morning. I've hung around a few early morning terminals in my time, waiting for my lazy plane at 3 AM, and everything is equally sleepy here. Same dreamy music. Same handbag women dawdling at the clothes stores, fixing their already perfect hair in the glass. Every now and then I see a river of businessmen come streaming down the corridor towards the exit, but that is the sum total of life in the Westfield Shopping Centre: an occasional blast of action and then it's back to distant music and me, an occasional shoe squeaking on the polished floor, and a high-pitched screech as a seat is scrapped across the lino. They are the sounds of silence.
Stratford is absolutely not worth visiting... unless you're desperate to climb the ArcelorMittal Orbit. That's the big observation tower that totters precariously over the old Olympic Stadium (it's West Ham's football stadium now). I say totter, because it doesn't look very well constructed to me. Imagine if you crunched up a mile of wire, and then bent and twisted it into the shape of a rocket. That is basically what it is. It looks like the skeleton of something, after you've stripped it of skin.
It's changed a bit since the last time I came here. The observation deck obviously wasn't making very much money, because they've decided to wrap a giant corkscrew slide around it. It's that little silver pipe in my photo. (I don't mean the thick grey band -- that's the walkway. I'm talking about the thin little tube that twists and turns around it.) I haven't paid for my ticket yet, but I can tell you right now that there is absolutely no chance of me riding it. I might be mad, but I'm not crazy. I'm not doing it, and that's all there is to it. You can call me a pansy if you choose, but you've got it easy sitting there reading this book in the comfort of your own home -- I'm the poor test pilot who has to risk my life sliding down a toothpaste tube at five hundred miles an hour. Apparently it takes forty seconds to slide all the way down from the top and you go quicker than the speed of sound. One guy even burst into flames. Another kid actually travelled back in time -- that is how fast he was going.
I'll take the lift up to the observation deck and tell you about that -- but I'm not riding the slide. No way. (I'm not doing it!) There are only two things that I refuse to do in London: climb up to the highest dome of St. Paul's, and this.
The observation deck is actually quite pleasant. It's nowhere near as tall as The Shard, for example, and it doesn't shake about like the London Eye. It's basically just a big circular room with floor to ceiling glass, and they've got a couple of touchscreens dotted around to show you what's what. And for some strange reason that I have never fully understood, they've also installed a couple of funny mirrors like you find at the funfair.
Unfortunately the view is a bit bland. The City is a quite long way away, so whilst you can easily see tall buildings like the Gherkin, Sky Garden and The Shard, anything smaller than a tower block is difficult to see. The dome of St. Paul's is easy enough, but that is pretty much it. You can't see Big Ben. You can't see the Tower of London or Tower Bridge. The London Eye is practically impossible to make out unless you have telescopic eyes (even I had to use the touchscreen for that one). You can also see the O2 Arena and Canary Wharf.
See if you can spot the cable car -- that will give you a challenge. You can see the power station at Greenwich as well, but the Royal Observatory and Old Royal Naval College are frustratingly hidden behind some tower blocks. If you're a West Ham fan then you can peer down into the Olympic Stadium, I suppose, but all you can see are the seats -- the pitch is hidden by the big white roof. So that is it for the landmarks -- very disappointing. If you continue around to the end then you can see some giant wind turbines on the hills.
There are actually two different observation levels, one below the other, and the lowest one is where the daredevil tube riders line up to die.
Obviously I am staying as far away from the queue as possible, just in case they drag me into it by mistake, but even I can see the look of fear on their faces. I can see them all fidgeting with their partners, some laughing and smiling, and some silently crying without tears. They're all clutching what looks like a giant sleeping bag. It's the kind of vice-like clutch that turns their fingers white, and brings out the sharp edges of their bones. As they inch closer to the front they bash a crash helmet onto their head and wrap their elbows up in protective pads, and then place their sleeping bag (their body bag) onto a metal shelf next to the entrance to the tube. I can't help thinking that the silver shelf looks like a mortuary slab. Then they lie down and shuffle their backsides into it, crack a few jokes to try and convince their friends that they're not absolutely petrified... and disappear. They literally vanish in a nano-second. One second they're there, and the next second all that remains is the trailing end of a high-pitched scream. Have you ever seen those pressurised toilets on an airplane? When you flush the lever everything gets sucked outside at supersonic speed -- that is exactly what it's like. It's like being sucked out of an airplane toilet.
I really cannot stress enough how terrifying this ride is -- it's the scariest thing in London. I would definitely think twice before sending a little kid down it.
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