The curious thing about the picture-postcard village of Harmondsworth is how close it is to London Heathrow Airport. ‘No one expects to find a beautiful place here,’ says Kay, the part-time bartender at one of the local pubs. ‘Though every time there is a new development in the third runway plot we get vans full of journalists.’
There’s currently a feeling of urgency about the Planes, Pollution, Planning and Politics walk from Discovering Britain as it is not certain how long Harmondsworth and the surrounding fields will continue to exist. The village sits in the middle of the blueprints for Heathrow’s third runway – possibly the most debated infrastructure project in the country. The bulldozers are not here yet and the future of the village is still undecided.
There are three plans for new runways at Heathrow, the favourite of which – the northwest runway – will flatten most of Harmondsworth, including 750 homes and a school. ‘The situation keeps the house prices artificially low in the area,’ says Kay. The villages of Hardmondsworth, Sipson and Harlington have been waiting for a resolution since third runways were first discussed at the beginning of the millennium. ‘It has become a classic example of a development project where locals don’t know whether to settle down and spend money improving their homes or start packing. There is a lot of suspense,’ she says.
The pub feels much further than half a mile from the glossy Duty Free temples that make up Heathrow’s Terminals 1 to 5. In fact, the little pub could be at home in any rural corner of the country. Its cosy trimmings of crooked bar, snooker table, mismatched chairs and the smell of pork scratchings are familiar. They belie the more surreal truth that the outside village makes the headlines of national newspapers every so often. ‘It’s not unusual to see locals’ names in the papers too,’ says Kay as she flicks through a copy of The Independent. ‘A few of them get very involved with the debate and the protests.’
London needs a new runway if it is to keep up with European rivals, according to the Davies Commission – the independent investigation in charge of the future needs of the UK aviation industry. It reported that Heathrow is always operating at 98 per cent of its maximum capacity. This is closer to capacity than any other major hub in Europe, with no space for new airlines and routes. In order to run direct flights to emerging markets, the government insists that more planes will need to fly from a major UK airport by 2030. Not long in building terms. According to the business sector, construction can’t begin fast enough.
In Harmondsworth, there is an uneasy relationship with the nearby hub. ‘Most people know that the development will be good for business in the short term,’ says Kay. ‘When Terminal 5 was being built, we had a lot of custom from builders and contractors involved in the work.’ In the long-term, however, a new runway will end at Kay’s beer garden at best. At worst, the pub won’t exist at all.
In the village, tensions gave way to outrage twice in 2015. Firstly, when the Davies commission concluded that the best answer to London’s transport issues would be to expand Heathrow, flying in the face of hopes that the runway could be built at Gatwick. The second time tempers were raised came when the final decision was postponed from December 2015 until at least the summer of 2016. The decision has drawn out the area’s state of limbo. The government puts the delay down to further investigating air pollution. However, locals speculate that it is to spare the awkwardness of unanimous opposition to the runway by London’s mayoral candidates, most of whom have contradicted the conclusion of the Davies Commission. It is likely that no final decision will be made until after the mayoral election in May.
Some 15 miles from the posturing at Westminster, Harmondsworth is wearing signs of protest. Walking along its central street, many houses have been skirted with anti-Heathrow banners. There are placards hung from lampposts and the windows of front porches and kitchens (triple-glazed to muffle the airport noise) have ‘Plane Stupid’, ‘No Third Runway’ or other campaign group vinyl stickers stuck to the glass. When it comes to noise, pollution and congestion issues, most of the population of southwest London has strong opinions on Heathrow. Harmondsworth, however, is ground zero.
“While it is generally assumed that the dwellings around Heathrow have sprung up with the airport, Harmondsworth can trace its history back to the Domesday Book”
Beneath all the slogans, Harmondsworth is a medieval Middlesex village. Off the small high street is a leafy churchyard and before it several, quaint, 17th century houses huddle around a pocket-sized square of a village green. Oddly, it’s the kind of scene tourists to England would hope to find, just a five-minute drive from Arrivals. The nostalgic picture is completed by a red phone box, its glass windows fogged with the greenish tinge they all seem to grow with age.
While it is generally assumed that the dwellings around Heathrow have sprung up with the airport, Harmondsworth can trace its history back to the Domesday Book. In fact, across the village’s total history, ‘Heathrow’ as either an airport or an idea accounts for a relatively short amount of time. ‘We get a fair few Americans who stop here during flight layovers,’ says Kay with a smile. ‘They’re interested to hear that even this pub is older than their country.’
There are parts of the village that are even older. Walking beyond the church, there is a narrow building that seems to stretch on forever into the fields behind. It is an enormous tithe barn, the Harmondsworth Great Barn, and it is the largest timber framed building in England. At 200-feet long and the colour of burnt umber, it was built in the early 1400s and is now a Grade I listed building.
Inside, magnificent oak beams seem to recede, like the mouth of a basking shark, into the dark innards. Above, graceful arches create a church-like atmosphere, with 13 wide trusses holding up the roof. Fondly dubbed ‘the Cathedral of Middlesex’, by poet John Betjemen, this behemoth is considered a marvel of medieval carpentry. Its timber frame, made with wood cut from long-gone forests in Kingston, has inspired other builds over the centuries such as New Zealand’s Christchurch cathedral and the library of Mansfield College at Oxford University.
It is an arresting place, originally built for Winchester College, which owned the produce of the Harmondsworth’s Manor Farm. For years the barn was the college’s golden goose – it stored vast amounts of grain that could provide revenue for the school. Considered architecturally experimental for its time, it sported three threshing floors instead of one. The barn changed hands over the centuries and for a time was owned by Henry VIII as part of his hunting estate. However, for a steady 700 years it was used for agriculture. This changed in the 1980s, when the structure found itself in the hands of first a doomed property developer, then next an ambiguous company based in Gibraltar.
The buyers were probably banking on the compensation value should the airport be expanded. They were to be disappointed. By 2009, with the Heathrow decision stagnant again and no sign of the owners, the barn fell into disrepair. The situation escalated to a rare legal intervention by English Heritage. Without the owner’s consent, the charity carried out repairs and eventually purchased the barn in 2012. These days, it’s maintained by the local community on behalf of English Heritage, who open it to the public on the second and fourth Sundays of each month from April to October.
According to the latest plans for the northwest runway, the Great Barn will be spared – the airport’s new perimeter fence is mapped at a few hundred metres away. The barn’s surroundings however, will be dramatically altered.
Walking out of the village, a web of footpaths can take you off at different angles across the open grass of Harmondsworth Moor. Much of the surrounding land makes up part of the Colne Valley park, part of London’s green belt that runs like a broad sleeve around the M25 from Buckinghamshire in the north to Staines-upon-Thames to the south. This close to London, it seems total escape from infrastructure is all but impossible. At its midsection, the Colne Valley park hugs the western edge of the airport, the park’s open grasslands and wide lakes sit in stark relief to the circuit board of development on the two existing runways. From the vantage point of a breezy rise, it is possible to see the metal bulk of a Boeing 747 lifting like a great bird into the air, wing tips swinging slightly in the headwind. Bliss for plane watchers. After 90 seconds a second plane follows, 90 seconds later, another. The control tower at Terminal 5 stands sentinel.
Back on the ground, the surrounding moor appears studded with large, roughly cube-shaped boulders. These are the remains of London’s original Waterloo Bridge, which was demolished in 1935. The bridge’s first incarnation was built in 1810 with granite from Cornwall, however, its nine arches caused a dangerous build-up of scour from the sediment of the Thames. When it became unsafe, it had to be destroyed.
The bridge was replaced by the reinforced concrete version that runs between Waterloo station and the Strand today. Meanwhile, slabs of the original were sent to Australia and New Zealand as historical links to the British Commonwealth. The rest of the disused blocks were stored here on the moor, where they have stayed. These days, they are arranged into sculptures, strewn in the grass, and used as benches for dog walkers admiring the view.
Out here, the rush of the motorway and flight paths are surprisingly distant. The skyline feels wide open in this not-quite-countryside, while the travel updates, tube delays, Oyster cards, Uber taxis and online check-ins of London’s hectic travel lifestyle feel much further away than they are. However long that might last is anybody’s guess.
This was published in the February 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.