diamond geezer

 Wednesday, October 26, 2016

10 Postcards from Runway Three

This is the view of Heathrow Expansion most commonly offered yesterday by television news. A gaggle of media vans adorned with satellite dishes gathered around Harmondsworth's village green as the government confirmed that Heathrow was their chosen option for an additional runway in the southeast. The village was originally going to be completely consumed beneath the tarmac, before an improved option was proposed nudging the new runway fractionally further south. This reprieves the village green, two pubs, the 12th century parish church and the largest tithe barn in the country. But the new runway will run perilously close to this spot, and houses less than 50 metres away will be demolished as a new northwestern perimeter wipes three quarters of Harmondsworth away.

This view shows precisely where the third runway will be going. It'll be cutting across this field, approximately along the line of poplars, before smashing into what used to be Hatch Lane. From here it'll head due west through the village of Harmondsworth, making a beeline for the primary school and community centre, if you can get your head around the idea of taking off on a foreign trip through what used to be kitchens, living rooms and classrooms. Most of the houses along Hatch Lane have No Third Runway posters in the window, while the lampposts are bedecked with a flurry of Stop Heathrow Expansion posters. Alas yesterday every resident's luck ran out, and not for the first time, although maybe it's better to have your home bought up with compensation than to have to live in decibel hell a few dozen houses up the road.

Every bungalow in Harmondsworth Lane is safe from demolition, but the runway will be scything straight across the field they look out across. It's not that noisy here at present, perhaps surprisingly, because it's much quieter to live parallel to an airport than at either end. But because the plan is to align the third runway as far north as possible within the new Heathrow envelope, with all the taxiways to the south, the screech of engines will then be a lot closer than anyone would like. The field's been farmed for generations, and the owner of Home Farm has no intention of caving in quietly. Everything up to and including the A4 is to be appropriated for airport expansion, including several business parks and hotels along the Great West Road, as a mile and a half of existing infrastructure is displaced.

Nudging the runway slightly south and west has provided a much more beneficial outcome for the village of Sipson. Like Harmondsworth it had been due to disappear, but now its pub and butchers and primary school and hundreds of homes will survive. All except these houses on the western side of Sipson Road, that is, which have to be sacrificed to create the RESA, or Runway End Safety Area. This'll be the overshoot safety zone, running right up into the back gardens of three dozen houses, and swallowing up a small cul-de-sac for good measure. How those living on the opposite side of the road will cope with takeoff roar and landing burn is anyone's guess, but perhaps a Holiday Inn or trading estate will be dropped here instead when local plans are finalised.

On the other side of Harmondsworth, beyond the Duke of Northumberland's River, lies Harmondsworth Moor. It looks very attractive, an expanse of braided streams and woodland, with winding paths, a convenient visitors' car park and a fluttering Green Flag to boot. In reality it's a former landfill site, landscaped and prettified by British Airways twenty years ago for the benefit of the local community, and to build their global HQ. They own an enormous office complex to the south of the site, alongside a serpentine pool called Swan Lake, and all of this will have to be knocked down. A substantial proportion of the 70000 young trees will have to go too, although those on the northern half of the moor should survive, accessed via a new road carving through the Green Belt along the airport perimeter.

The second village to be seriously affected by airport expansion is less well known, and that's Longford. Unlike Harmondsworth it'll be completely eradicated, every last brick and back garden, vanished as completely as was the village of Heath Row during the war. One of the two pubs is Tudor, one of the listed cottages is thatched, and there are several other hints of heritage among the more recent infill. Longford grew up as a linear settlement on the old Bath Road, and its residents must have been delighted when the Colnbrook bypass swept all its traffic away. But now its luck has run out, Third Runway permitting, as the entire village is replaced by two new piers where planes will dock, or rather the aprons upon which they'll park. The roar of engines will be as loud, but nobody will be left to hear.

Just to the west is Moor Bridge, the last patch of moorland before the edge of London, directly opposite the western end of the existing northern runway. It's currently part of the Heathrow Biodiversity Site, a green barrier of moor and meadow along the River Colne, and maintained by the airport because nobody in their right mind would live there. I've been before, and was amazed to find public access to hillocks immediately beneath the flight path. Heathrow's heaviest jets ascend at shallow gradients as they take off, so expect one to fire low above your head within a few minutes of standing here, at least for now. Expansion plans will see this meadow swallowed by taxiways and an internal parking zone, so picnicking plane spotters should visit soon.

The M25 is the Third Runway's greatest engineering challenge. When it was built it carefully skirted the edge of the airport, but sparing Sipson from the bulldozer has shunted the new runway west and the motorway will need to be tunnelled underneath. Not only will this be massively expensive but a fresh network of feeder roads will be required, and routes for drivers around the edge of the airport will become considerably more limited. The upside is thousands of construction jobs, but in the medium term expect a horrific number of closures and diversions while the new multi-lane carriageway is built, there being no obvious alternative roads to take.

Finally here's a look at the western end of Heathrow's proposed Third Runway, which'll be located to the north of the Colnbrook bypass in a large scrappy field currently grazed by horses. Specifically the runway will terminate beside what are now the banks of the Colne Brook, one of the watery threads of the Colne valley, where today a thicket of trees rubs up against the meandering stream. Relocating local rivers is going to be another massive civil engineering task - it has been every time Heathrow's been extended in the past. Approaching along a rarely-used footpath I disturbed a heron who'd been enjoying the silent banks, and also watched a hawk fly off with a small mammal dangling from its claws. If all goes to plan millions of foreign travellers will one day take off right here instead, and never once imagine the natural environment swept away for their convenience.

Back in Harmondsworth, an old lady with a shopping basket stopped to talk to me outside Gable Stores. She looked bemused by the crowds of media assembled on the green, so I told her they were here because a decision had been made on Heathrow expansion. "I've lived here 87 years," she said, "and I don't know any of those people." I tried to explain further, but the words floated past her, and instead she told me I should go and see the Great Barn. I realised with sadness that she didn't understand much of what was going on any more, and that further discussion about Harmondsworth's fate was no longer possible. Her plight matched that of her childhood village - slowly slipping away, deleting, erasing, until barely a memory remains. And that's when the intended impact of the Third Runway really hit home.

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