London 2012: Testing Greenwich Park's Olympic venue

Image caption The arena is sited in front of the 17th Century Queen's House by Inigo Jones, with Sir Christopher Wren's Royal Naval College in the background

The equestrian Olympic test event is taking place this week in south east London's Greenwich Park but turning the capital's oldest Royal Park into an Olympic venue has not been the smoothest of rides.

Greenwich Park: the home of Mean Time, location of the prime meridian, playground of royalty from Henry VI's reign and countless visitors since.

Endangered stag beetles creep in its undergrowth, pipistrelle bats flit among its ancient trees; beneath its soil lies a Roman temple and Anglo Saxon graves.

But this week, the ground of this World Heritage Site is thundering with horses' hooves as the park hosts the equestrian and modern pentathlon Olympic test events, a smaller scale dry-run for next year's big contest.

"Here we have one of the most, if not the most brilliant backdrop of London with the Queen's House and the Royal Naval Academy and the Maritime Museum, it just goes on and on," said Jeff Keas, Principal of venue architects Populous.

However these same unique features have meant that Greenwich Park has been the most controversial venue of the 2012 Olympics and while the Games have long since passed planning permission there are still some local protests.

'Olympic feel'

It certainly looked stunning on Monday as, one-by-one, 39 top-hatted international riders took to the arena for the dressage competition, their steeds gleaming in the hot July sun.

British Olympian William Fox-Pitt hailed the "wow" factor of the location, saying it had "an Olympic feel to it already" and praising the temporary raised arena which has been built on stilts to counteract the sloping ground below without the need for digging.

And another top British rider, Piggy French, who was leading at the end of the first day, said: "It's got me hyped up. It's surreal: all the same faces as if we were in a muddy field... but you look to the right and there's the City of London.

"There's a real buzz and I hope it will bring more public interest and help people see what a fabulous sport this is."

Image caption Deputy head teacher Joanna Gledhill says her primary school pupils are getting a new experience

Among the few hundred spectators watching from the 2,000 seater stand were 35 pupils from Foxfield primary school in nearby Woolwich.

They are not traditional equestrian event-goers but are here on free tickets provided to local people by London 2012 organisers Locog.

"It's been a struggle to get Olympic tickets and our parents are less likely to apply for tickets for this sort of thing so the children wouldn't have had this opportunity normally," said deputy head teacher Joanna Gledhill.

Ten-year-old Bailey was one of the children watching the dressage with interest, if a little bemusement. "I think it's really good, all the different coloured horses are beautiful and they are doing really well.

"They've got to move their shoulders and arms all at the same time."

Meanwhile her classmate, Nawang, also 10, was hopeful that his designs will win a competition to feature on the Olympic show-jumps as "millions of people are going to see them".

This kind of reaction will be music to the ears of Locog who are keen to stress the sporting legacy of holding the equestrian contest in an urban setting, almost within sight of the Olympic Park.

By contrast, in the 2008 Beijing Games the horse events were 1,225 miles away in Hong Kong.

Image caption The cross country course has been fenced off

But outside the arena and with roughly two-thirds of the 183 acre park fenced off behind high barriers, others are not so positive.

Dog trainer and behaviourist Simone Day comes to Greenwich Park every day for work and pleasure.

"I grew up on a horse farm, I competed at a national level in Canada growing up.

"So when I first found out that the equestrian events were going to be held here I was over the moon until I found out what was going to have to happen to make that happen and I thought 'this is not the appropriate place to do it'."

Image caption The park is well used by locals and tourists

She said that the temporary closure of large parts of the park was affecting her business and she was concerned about the prospect of long-term damage to the park.

Those fears have also been voiced loudly and repeatedly by Nogoe, No to Greenwich Park Olympic Equestrian Events, a high profile campaign group which counts historian David Starkey, Supreme Court Judge Jonathan Sumption QC and writer Blake Morrison among its patrons.

The group has organised a protest for each of the three days of the test event, although Monday's effort only attracted a peak of 25-30 campaigners.

Ancient trees

Nogoe is particularly concerned about the hilly cross country element - 3km with 26 jumps for the test event but 6km and 40 jumps in 2012 - which will take horses and large crowds close to 400-year-old sweet chestnuts.

Spokeswoman Sue McNeil said she was dismayed by the preparations for the test event.

"We have discussed whether we use the word 'rape', but it is like a rape of the park - it's covered in sand and railings and tractors.

"One or two trees have had severe pruning. It makes us suspicious of what will happen next year."

Such comments bring a heavy sigh from Derrick Spurr, 2012 project manager for The Royal Parks - the body responsible for the management of Greenwich Park and seven others including Regent's, St James's and Richmond Parks.

"You get all this talk of 'lopping' and 'chopping' but we are carrying out light pruning. Most pieces are the size of a pencil. I've done demonstrations for local groups and they're always surprised," he said.

Mr Spurr, who spent 12 years as Greenwich Park manager, said that any more serious pruning carried out in recent years had been done for normal tree management reasons unrelated to 2012.

Locog has constantly pledged that no tree has or will be felled for the test event or the Olympics.

Mats and mulches have been employed in order to protect the root-zones of trees, especially those along the cross country course and each jump has been constructed on top of the ground rather than dug into it.

Meanwhile, English Heritage was brought in to scrutinise the site for potential damage to areas of archaeological significance.

At its recommendation, an extra bank of soil was spread over the Roman area to protect it. The cross country route avoids the Anglo Saxon burial mounds in the western side of the park.

Other specialists have been involved in monitoring the rare acid grassland which covers parts of the park's steep escarpment and which Locog says will be restored and improved post Games.

Sloping site

But environmental concerns have not been the only issue making Greenwich Park tricky, back at the arena in the northern end of the park, topography has played its part.

The site is less sensitive than most parts of the park, having already been disturbed when it was dug up for allotments during World War II.

But it slopes by up to four metres over the 100m span of the field of play: too steep for international eventing regulations which stipulate no more than a 1% incline.

To get around this without excavating or building up a bank of earth, engineers Atkins developed a "deck" of specialist plywood on metal legs which sits directly on the ground without the need to dig.

This will be dismantled and taken away after the test event, as will the "pop up" stable tents with their integral drainage, the warm up ring and the hospitality marquees.

All aspects of the test event will then be analysed by Locog, from the field of play to marshalling to crowd flows and the state of the ground. Campaigners have pledged they will also keep a close eye on the aftermath.

But Derrick Spurr said he was "absolutely confident" that within a few months of both the test event and the 2012 Games finishing, the Olympics would be nothing more than another chapter in the park's rich history.

"We'll get the right growing conditions in the autumn and the park will start to green up again very quickly."

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