diamond geezer

 Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Will there be a third runway at Heathrow, and if so where will it go? The village of Sipson has long feared it might be up for heavy tarmacking, but murmurs about RAF Northolt are now resurfacing. This former WWI aerodrome near Ruislip is still used for military flying operations, but also a handful of private civil flights. Expand those, bring in the more executive side of Heathrow's traffic, and the issue of southeast capacity might possibly be solved. It'd be a bit cheeky, rebranding Northolt as Heathrow North when it's six miles distant via an as yet unbuilt train service. But this particular kite's suddenly being flown again, just in case it might be a solution, just in case London's residents and politicians could ever stomach it.

To understand the scenario a little better, I've paid my own visit to RAF Northolt. Not inside the site, obviously, because I'm not a serving serviceman or an oligarch with a private jet. But it's quite easy to walk around the perimeter, to get some idea of what's inside and how the airport interacts with its neighbours. Should this pie-in-the-sky idea ever go ahead, I don't think they're going to like it.

Ruislip Gardens is one of London's quietest, and ugliest tube stations. But this scrawny box on the outer reaches of the Central line could one day be rebranded Heathrow Terminal 6, if plans to redevelop RAF Northolt ever get off the ground. Rail connections are potentially excellent. Chiltern Railways could easily choose to stop here rather than passing straight through, and HS2 will one day pass directly beneath in a newly-proposed tunnel. Links to Heathrow may be poor, but links to central London could hardly be better.

The main entrance to RAF Northolt is across the road. It's not as scary as you might expect from an RAF base, with a small checkpoint beyond the gate and range of dull-looking buildings scattered beyond. The Armed Forces don't waste money on adornment, unless you count the wartime Hurricane installed as a gate guardian a couple of years back. The fence is considerably less substantial than that around the Olympic Park, but does its job, and there's a corrugated board at eye height to stop you gazing within too closely. I spotted a bunch of what looked like RAF cadets socialising inside, with one of their number walking alongside a soldier with a whopping great gun. You wouldn't mess.

Further down West End Road, the fence makes way for a hedge. A sign on the verge warns of low flying planes ahead, and "stop when lights show". That's because the road is extremely close to the end of the runway, so close that the red navigation lights are in the hedge on one side and in the adjacent field on the other. Pedestrians can see almost nothing through the thicket of hawthorn, but there's one short fence above which the runway can easily be seen across some barbed wire, perfectly aligned. If the Queen were flying out you could very easily stand underneath and watch, if only that were ever deemed acceptable.

Where the hedge ends there's a petrol station, which might have a starring role in some future Heathrow North disaster movie. There have been no serious crashes lately, but the local area has seen a number of planes land unexpectedly over the years. The most infamous of these was a Dakota struggling to take off just before Christmas 1946, weighed down by a fall of snow. It came to rest in the roof of a semi-detached house in South Ruislip, where it's said passengers escaped down the loft ladder and out through the front door. The house still stands, and couldn't look more ordinary if it tried, but at least the skies are mostly quiet... for now.

The southeastern corner of the airfield's at the Polish War Memorial on the busy A40. Walking along the southern perimeter's not encouraged, but I spotted a very definite pavement stretching off along the dual carriageway and decided to follow it. That was OK for the first ten minutes, past a small farm, a few private jets and the first of a line of hangars. But then the pavement abruptly stopped, switching to a narrower line of paving alongside the speeding eastbound traffic, and I had to follow that instead. Not the safest of places to walk, and not especially interesting either once another row of eye-level panels blocked the fence. It took a total of thirty minutes to reach the very far end of the runway, marked by the dinkiest line of low-level lampposts and another set of red landing lights. Were this the new Heathrow it would be easy enough to add a new off-slip for traffic here, and that'd be your road connection sorted.

The western edge of the airfield is very different. A patchwork of meadows rolls down to the Yeading Brook, the space filled by galloping horses and a few sparse sheep. At its heart is the Ickenham Marsh nature reserve, a reclusive woodland hideaway where the gnarled trees are a squirrel's playground. Should the runway at Northolt ever need to be extended and reoriented east to west, as would seem likely if the Heathrow pipedream wins through, this unassuming farmland would be ripe for compulsory purchase. I walked the Hillingdon Trail through the shallow valley, picturing the panorama once as verdant riverside, then again as tarmac and duty-free. It'll probably never come to the latter, but fear the transformation if plans ever take off.

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