A♠ Heston & Isleworth Last card! The Municipal Borough of Heston & Isleworth is now the central chunk of the borough of Hounslow, indeed it actually contained the town of Hounslow, but wasn't named after it. Heston and Isleworth were the original medieval parishes hereabouts, the latter based by the Thames, the other by the Bath Road. Today they're heavily built-up suburbia, but not necessarily the most desirable areas thanks to the proximity of Europe's busiest airport. For my final visit I've chosen to walk across the borough following the Heathrow flightpath, five miles as the Jumbo flies, watching the planes get bigger and bigger and bigger. [Google map][flight radar]
Walking the Heathrow flightpath (27R)
A quick bit of background first. Heathrow has two parallel runways, one to the north of the terminals and one to the south. Both run east-west.
When the wind is from the west, which it is 70% of the time, planes arrive from the east. Arriving planes funnel in to a focal point near Fulham, then follow a rigid westward line across the suburbs for eight miles before touching down. Half the time they arrive on the northern runway, 27R, and half the time they arrive on the southern runway, 27L. This is called runway alternation. The runway being used switches at 3pm every day, to give those living under the flight path half a day's respite. One week 27L takes the first shift, the next week 27R, alternating every Monday. When the wind is from the east, planes take off to the east, but never from the northern runway, for reasons we'll go into later. The rules are slightly different between 6am and 7am, and overnight. [video]
I ended up walking the northern flightpath, because that was in operation for landings on the afternoon I visited. I started in Syon Park, just across the River Thames from Kew Gardens, which is also divided in two by overflying planes. The flightpath just misses Syon House but scores an almost direct hit on the Great Conservatory and the garden centre - a warren of horticultural and outdoorsy retail units for retired couples and the green welly brigade. At this stage the planes are still relatively high, so not as annoying as I'd been expecting, but still intrusive enough in repetitive sequence. If you're ever tempted to visit Syon Park's Enchanted Woodland one Christmas, do try to pick a week when the illuminations won't be marred by engines overhead.
It's not possible to follow the flightpath direct except in a plane, so I anticipated a substantial amount of zigzagging ahead. I headed off across the hotel car park, which replaced a rather prettier butterfly house, then passed through a small arched gateway onto what used to be the Great West Road. This is the Isleworth end of the former borough, where there's an actual Acacia Avenue, and a pub hoping you'll part with £45 for a 'secret' New Year's Eve menu. At Busch Corner are the first two schools whose learning environment is repeatedly impaired by overflying aircraft, one council, one private. In Hartham Road one house has a No Third Runway sign in its window, despite the street having a Second Runway problem. Another poster up the road exhorts Peace & Joy at Christmas, the first half of which seems unlikely.
Spring Grove is a splendid chunk of suburbia, characterised by Georgian residences and wider Victorian development, all optimally aspirational until someone built an airport due west. The grand villas in The Grove, behind Isleworth Crown Court, seem particularly unfortunately placed. Planes fly over gabled roofs and chimneystacks, plus a prep school whose open days must be carefully timed to avoid certain weekends. Along Burlington Road a suspiciously high number of the semis appear to have exactly the same type of double glazing, utilitarian but effective, suggesting some organisation agreed to install it as collective mitigation. More modern housing rubs up against the Piccadilly line, a short distance from Osterley station, crossed by a confined footbridge leading to a litter-strewn alley.
Only when I reached Gresham Road did I start thinking, OK, now this is loud. It's somewhere around here that the engines on the larger jets start to whine pre-landing, slapping the decibels up a notch as the aircraft descend. And yet the Tudorbethan semis directly in the line of fire must still be desirable - I spotted one with two matching Rolls Royces out front - or else the inhabitants must really really like planes. We've now reached what used to be the hamlet of Lampton, of which a few terraced cottages survive, plus a pub that's still a pub and a pub that serves King Karachi curries. At the far end of Lampton Avenue the secondary school really couldn't be worse placed, and yet they built it fifteen years after the airport... although I guess aircraft were a lot smaller then.
The flightpath crosses the Great West Road at the traffic lights on Sutton Lane. One corner block used to be covered by the Master Robert Hotel, a lowrise 30s throwback boasting 96 bedrooms and a bar for weary travellers. But at the start of the year its owners knocked it down, their plan to build a taller hotel and 34 houses, because they know where the money is. Should you ever choose to book in, expect either a sleepless evening or a rude awakening at 4:30am... or, even worse, both, if you've picked the 'wrong' Sunday night when the runways change. Houses lining the arterial road face the double curse of traffic noise and aircraft noise, plus pollution from each, and this may be the least attractive ribbon development in the capital.
Heathrow's aerial concerto is getting louder now. Greencroft Road was built as a peaceful crescent off the main drag, but is now precisely overflown by screeching engines every minute and a bit. Vicarage Field Road is named after a rural idyll long since buried. Adelaide Road scores another direct hit, and yet the residents cope - I saw a Sikh man in his front porch on his mobile, his call barely interrupted by Aer Lingus passing over. But it's the A380s which are the worst. They whine earlier, they roar louder, and they hang over the rooftops with indiscriminate disregard for those beneath. At least airport regulations decree that each A380 must be followed by a longer gap than usual, to minimise turbulence, bringing a few valuable extra seconds of respite.
After miles of streets, it was unexpected to discover an extremely large field north of the Bath Road. This is redundant farmland and not for public access, with signs around the perimeter warning that the pesticides used may be hazardous to dogs. Were it not for the steady stream of planes descending overhead, landing gear down, it might be an ideal spot for a heck of a lot of much-needed housing. Instead Hounslow council have agreed to turn Rectory Farm into a 110 acre park, but not before they've replaced the topsoil with concrete, turfed over the top and removed all the gravel from underneath. The gravel will be used for construction elsewhere, and the resulting underground voids will be used for warehousing. It's a visionary plan, years in the making, and surely better than living here.
Cranford is the last village before the airport, and considerably closer to it than the equivalent suburb on the southern flightpath. That's why in 1952 the local Residents' and District Amenities Association obtained confirmation from a government official that planes would never take off over their homes. It's called the CranfordAgreement, and it's why during easterly airflow every departure takes off on the southern runway towards Hatton and Hounslow rather than these scrappy back avenues. Recent governments have been minded to scrap it, to even up the misery, but nothing will change until new taxiways are built at the airport, and these are on hold during the current Third Runway debate. In the meantime all Cranford gets is planes landing, half the time, but very loud and low.
You've probably been to Meadowbank Gardens, indeed flown almost directly down it, because this street of prewar semis is accidentally perfectly aligned with the flightpath. You'll have thundered over the rooftops of Berkeley Avenue, very close to the doctor's surgery, with undercarriage unveiled. And you'll have crossed both arms of Waye Avenue, here less than a mile from touching down, vibrating the walls and windows of those living underneath. And yet people do live happily here - it's ideally placed for working at the airport - and 3-bedroom houses still sell for £400,000. Humans are a resilient bunch, even in the face of extreme noise pollution, especially where proximity to employment is concerned.
The River Crane runs along the back of Waye Avenue, which is where the borough of Hounslow switches to Hillingdon, hence where I had to stop. I then walked quarter of a mile north to the nearest bus stop, where I was struck by how much quieter it was here, at least relatively speaking, only a short distance from the actual flightpath. During my two and a half hours following the flightpath I'd seen 90 planes overhead, which worked out at one every 100 seconds, which wasn't quite as frequent as I'd been expecting. But oh, the racket of the larger aircraft, and blimey how much closer to the ground they had been at one end compared to the other.
It had been extraordinary to see and feel the impact of a line on a map traced out in midair, and one hell of a walk.