diamond geezer

 Monday, June 24, 2024

A Nice Walk: Heathrow T2 to T3 (500m)

Sometimes you just want to go for a nice walk, nothing too taxing, a bit of a stroll, world class transport connections, dry in all weathers, popular with tourists, moving walkways, duty free opportunities, entirely step-free, won't take long. So here's a brief subterranean trek linking two of the terminals at London's premier airport, nowhere near enough to make a day of it but a nice walk all the same.

Heathrow is an inherently hostile environment for pedestrians, 3000 acres of concrete and greenspace sealed off so that air travel can predominate. But there is a tiny island in the middle where the terminals are, linked to the wider world by train and by road, where free roaming is partially permissible. Here a lengthy subway connects flights to transport interchanges, meandering rather more than this graphic suggests, and hardly anyone walks the full length of it. So that's what I did.

Terminal 2, otherwise known as the Queen's Terminal, is actually Heathrow's newest terminal having opened in June 2014. It replaced the original T2 and the Queen's Building, the office block with the much-loved observation deck, and should one day extend across the footprint of Terminal 1 if that's ever demolished. It's high-stacked and glassy, with departures on top of arrivals and a massive swooshy sculpture running the full length designed to resemble the slipstream of a stunt plane. It's the only pretty thing you'll be seeing on the entire walk so make the most of it.

Walking from here to the central bus station is not an option, as you can see if you stare down from the top deck across the drop-off zone and clock the security barrier along the central reservation of the innermost ring road. Additional signs at ground level warn Authorised Staff Only Beyond This Point, so the subway is instead the sole approved route. Reaching it requires queueing patiently by a bank of lifts, of if you don't have luggage taking the single escalator to one side. It's not especially welcoming.

The first section of subway isn't much more appealing, walking between undecorated walls with silvery vents and ducting clearly visible through the slats in the ceiling. You could be heading for a multi-storey car park under a suburban shopping centre rather than taking your first steps into one of the greatest cities on earth. Thankfully the moving walkway then begins, and everything always feels a lot more modern with one of those around. Look carefully and you'll see the surface ducks down slightly before rising again, ever so gently, into the middle distance. The sign overhead which says Beware Restricted Headroom is only likely to be relevant if you're the world's tallest man or you're carrying a surfboard.

The first 'pause' you reach is the exit for the tube station, bus station and coach station. Only the tube station is welcoming, its blue nameplate indicating the way to a bank of ticket machines and the cheapest link to the West End. Not to be outdone a separate information desk shines forth in the subway offering UK Sim cards and a gentle nudge towards the Heathrow Express. If you're in less of a hurry, enjoy the mini-exhibition of travel posters still celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Underground's arrival 47 years ago.

Ploughing on, the next moving walkway feels a lot more futuristic which I put down to the bright blue glow of the lighting alongside (and also the fact the ceiling's properly finished). If you're lucky you can stride ahead unobstructed, but if you're less fortunate you could be stuck behind an obstructive group of passengers outnumbered by their luggage. On reaching the far end a second blue-lit walkway awaits, this I think longer and with a slight uptick in gradient at the far end. The gap between the two is to allow for the interjection of an emergency exit, and also for the more practical reason that the subway bends.

As the blue light fades away the subway becomes static again and starts to provide a choice of exits. The first is for lifts to the short stay car park, where one machine will validate your parking ticket and another wants to sell you a Coke. The second exit is a funnel into the railway station, once for just the Heathrow Express but now also for Crossrail. A purple-waistcoated operative hovers beside the entrance in the hope of selling tourists the more expensive fare, all while standing beside a sign claiming £25 is a special offer. Arrivals from T3 are more likely to fall for this ploy than arrivals from T2.

Not far ahead the passageway splits left for departures and right for arrivals. I picked left and got to enjoy a fourth travelator experience, because this really is a brilliant walk for those who don't like walking. Here at last the walls have adverts, but alas for the Heathrow Express exhorting inbound passengers to 'Transfer at Paddington' for a variety of geographically impractical tourist activities. A yellow sign warns End of Conveyor Keep Clothing Clear before the subway terminates at a bank of lifts, or more directly a final escalator, before disgorging into the piazza in front of Terminal 3.

Terminal 3 is a 1961 building repeatedly upgraded, the latest spruce-up being the canopied forecourt and drop-off zone in 2007. It lacks the architectural wow of T2 and T5, unless perhaps Milton Keynes town centre is your thing, which is fine because most people are only here to check in and pass through security as fast as possible. I struggled even to find a coffee shop and a WH Smiths because they'll be airside, indeed there's very little need ever to visit if you're not flying yourself and even less need to walk here from Terminal 2. But I have... and then I walked back again.

A Nice Walk: Heathrow T3 to T2 (500m)

Sometimes you just want to go for a nice walk, nothing too taxing, a bit of a stroll, world class transport connections, mildly adventurous, roadway adjacent, non-claustrophobic, very low footfall, entirely step-free, won't take long. So here's another brief trek linking two of the terminals at London's premier airport, nowhere near enough to make a day of it but a nice walk all the same.

But what if you don't go down into the subway, I thought, is there an entirely unsignposted route from T3 to T2 for pedestrians above ground? Are the roads which swirl around the bus station really impassable or is the subway not the only way to do it? It isn't easy to tell on a map, partly because 2D diagrams are poor representations of complex 3D networks and partly because official maps don't like to let on that backway shortcuts exist. I took a chance and walked past the Virgin Atlantic entrance towards the maelstrom of circulatory service roads, and was pleased to discover the pavement continued so kept on walking.

I passed the redbrick boiler house, the last of the original 1950s Central Terminal Area buildings not to fall foul of the wrecker's ball. I crossed the entrance to Control Post 5, one of the key security gateways where official ground staff can drive airside. I followed specific painted walkways, each with a dropped kerb, and beaming faces on billboards welcoming drivers to the airport. And I spotted a proper pushbutton pelican crossing so I crossed that because it looked like it led to the central bus station, and instead ended up here.

This is St George's Interdenominational Chapel, an ecumenical cave designed by Sir Frederick Gibberd to cater to the wider needs of Heathrow's staff and passengers. Outside is an almost plant-free Garden of Remembrance surrounded by plaques and memorials to departed crew and entire passenger lists from crashed planes. It's surprisingly peaceful, inasmuch as a few benches within a ring road close to screeching jet engines allow for contemplation. I hoped to descend the spiral staircase to the chapel proper but had unfortunately managed to arrive during Sunday's sequence of Adoration, Rosary and Mass so that pleasure'll have to wait.

Also the chapel is a dead end, alternatively accessed through a gap in the flyover at the far end of the coach station, and it turns out this is not the way back to Terminal 2. The trick is not to cross the crossing but to stay on the pavement and continue under the flyover. The four roads up there are called Condor Way, Contrail Way, Cloud Way and Cirrus Road while the road you're walking beside is Cosmopolitan Way, this because every road name in central Heathrow begins with C. Also the roads to the north begin with N, to the east with E, to the south with S and to the west with W, but I assume everyone knows this already.

Just beyond the flyover is what I think is the only hotel within the central Heathrow island, the Hilton Garden Inn - ideal for anyone who wants a very short walk to airport check-in and doesn't mind also being closest to the aircraft noise. It really is a short walk, finally properly signposted, straight across Terminal 2's bespoke bus station where coaches and minibuses serve 20 gloomy concrete bus bays. The central crossing deposits you either by the lifts or at the foot of the Slipstream sculpture, and hey presto it had proved surprisingly easy to walk between Terminals 3 and 2 above ground. But only if you know where you're going... which I now do.

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