diamond geezer

 Monday, April 10, 2006

Random borough (9): Hillingdon (part 2)

Somewhere famous: Heathrow Airport
The London borough of Hillingdon just happens to be home to the world's busiest international airport. Heathrow is like a city within the city, covering more than 3000 acres, employing 68000 workers and processing a greater number of passengers each year than actually live in the UK. It is at the same time both a modern miracle of efficient accessibility and a blight on the environmental living standards of almost the whole of west London. Can't live with it, can't live without it. And it's celebrating its 60th anniversary this year.

Heathrow opened in 1946, an unassuming alternative to the existing London Airport based in Croydon. Terminal facilities were provided in an army tent equipped with armchairs and chemical toilets, and a mere 60000 passengers passed through in the first year. Then came the jet age, the advance of air freight and a mushrooming in international travel and hey presto, one giant airport hub complete with one, two, three, four passenger terminals. A fifth terminal is nearing completion and should be operational in two years' time. It'll dwarf the remaining buildings (T5 could be the third largest airport in Europe in its own right), but only BA and Qantas passengers will get to check in beneath its signature glass roof. The futuristic 87m-high control tower has already opened, although it has the look of a fragile Thunderbirds model and might therefore be expected to explode and topple at any moment.

I got quite lost trying to find my way around between the terminal buildings. There are subways, gangways and slow-moving luggage everywhere. The roads are clogged not with cars but with buses and coaches, ferrying bleary-eyed foreigners to their grim boxy hotels spaced out along the northern perimeter. Suspiciously tanned aircrew wheel miniature suitcases towards unidentified buildings. Bemused families queue at sterile check-in desks in order to prove they're not terrorists. Everybody seems intent on passing through as quickly as possible, but nobody's having much luck. Welcome to the waiting zone.

Strangely the one thing that's very hard to do within the centre of the airport is to watch the planes. There are no aircraft immediately above you, merely those in the process of landing or taking off along the two parallel runways to either side. Visitors used to be able to stand on an observation deck atop the Queen's Building but that's been closed down, presumably in case an unassuming plane spotter turns out to have a surface-to-air missile hidden in their lunchbox. I discovered many displaced enthusiasts standing outside the airport perimeter in the car park close to the Renaissance Hotel. They clutched optical devices with huge lenses, wielded radio receivers which helped them listen in to control tower traffical and jabbered excitedly about percieved anomalies in the landing pattern. Every 90 seconds or so another plane thundered down the runway, its engines screeching as it picked up speed before ascending with a roar into the sun-dazzled western sky. Each passage was observed, discussed and recorded with disinterested fascination.

Beside the same car park I discovered the little-known Heathrow Visitor Centre - a small hands-on exhibition detailing the airport's aviation history. It's adequate, as far as a PR exercise goes, and provides a useful café in which some of the more ardent spotters can rest their heavy notebooks. But the view out through the grimy glass observation window was less than ideal and, while I was there at least, the place seemed to have doubled up as an adventure playground for bored mischievous toddlers. It's not the real Heathrow. I guess the only authentic way to experience the delights (or otherwise) of the airport would be to arrive with a giant suitcase, file meekly through security, drift aimlessly around between the duty free boutiques and then strap oneself down inside a Boeing. Maybe I'll try that particular option next weekend instead.
by tube: Piccadilly line  by train: Heathrow Express

[Part 3 tomorrow, because airports aren't all good news]

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