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The Blasted Heath: loss and lawlessness in Middlesex by Jon Woolcott

 

“The flat country hereabouts…is mainly stretches of market gardens and cornfields some of them margined in spring with broad belts of blossoming wallflowers, of plum orchards, beautiful in bloom, and of wide expanses of daffodils and narcissus, where individual beauty is lost in the mass except where these bulbs are grown, as we largely see them, under the fruit trees.”

Walter Jerrold, Highways and Byways in Middlesex, 1909

 

“They get a gang of villains in a shed up at Heathrow” Squeeze, Cool for Cats, 1979

 

 

1. THE HEATH

Just outside the northern perimeter fence, the barrel of half-buried cannon points skyward, as if waiting for something to bombard the earth. It marks something extraordinary: one end of an Ordnance Survey base line, the very first of many subsequent measurements that triangulated the British Isles, enabling the creation of the map series. There is another submerged canon five miles away, lost amongst suburban housing, which would have been visible from the top of a huge theodolite in 1784 when the working party drew their straight line. The choice of this as a location for the map-makers, being so close to London and on flat land, are the same qualities that brought the airport here soon after the Second World War.

 

Amongst a tangle of roads, a little blue sign declares a bike path: “Heathrow Airport: ½ mile.” Who on earth rides to Heathrow? Today, I do. I’ve cycled from central London to ride the perimeter road and then across the land that may be taken by the proposed third runway. It’s mid July 2018, in the depths of the heatwave that has turned much of Britain brown and dusty. I applaud whoever is responsible for the bike routes for trying, but these places are not built for pedestrians or cyclists – the scale here is not human – it’s built for the car, the coach, the shuttle bus, serving the beasts of the air. Passengers are ushered in by road or rail, through curving tunnels, and robbed of a sense of geography. They no longer know their place, nor in the rush for customs, passport control and departure gates, much care about it.

 

I’ve cycled in some bike-unfriendly places, but this is of another order. It’s noisy, fast, dangerous and confusing. The tang of kerosene is on the breeze. I’m having trouble working out where I am, as is my bike’s GPS, displaying a spidery black splodge marking the airport buildings on its little screen. Twice I cycle the same patch of the perimeter road, twice I’m convinced that I’m somewhere else entirely on this vast, flat circuit, punctuated by busy roundabouts. I scan the Landranger map, but the clues on the ground are scant, even though I’m so close to the source of the maps themselves. Everywhere looks like everywhere else. Most of the roads that lead off this one are short stubs ending at hangars. There are almost no road signs beyond those for terminals or for further off cities and large towns – nearby villages don’t get a mention. There are no landscape features either, no rivers or trees. There’s no escape from the clammy heat on this shadow-less terrain. The plain shimmers – the distance casts wobbly mirages. You’re in a lost place already, even without travelling; it’s geographically vague, unsettling. Big hotels, big car parks, the familiar and necessary detritus of all airports. The architecture of the terminal buildings themselves is a muddle, designed for travelling through, not looking at. The high perimeter fence has rolled barbed wire at its top, with strands of plastic whipping the wind. A sign warns me of Patrol Posts, the sky is threatening thunder.

 

The terminal buildings are largely clustered between the two runways, although Terminal Four lurks to the south, and Terminal One is gone, closed to passengers in 2015. Beneath them, about half way between the two runways is the site of the old hamlet of Heathrow, or Heath Row, bulldozed in the forties for the new “London Airport”. Insignificant and relatively remote, it once boasted three pubs and a manor house; in the 1930s it was described as possessing “a calmness and serenity about it that is soothing in a mad rushing world.” In the mid-twentieth century, it didn’t stand a chance.

 

I find my way at last, after pushing my bike and laden panniers up a grass slope, wobbling between buses on a roundabout, slipping across the wide A4. More signs, this time telling me I’m in a Low Emission Zone.

 

2. THE VILLAGE

Stan unlocks the door for us and we slip inside. Like almost all Anglican parish churches in England, the interior is cool, dark and quiet. It slows you down, hushes voices. The thick walls insulate, mostly, the noise of airplanes taking off from the north runway, just under a mile away.The architecture of St Mary’s, Harmondsworth is a familiar mix, the oldest part dating from the twelfth century, but rearranged and knocked about comfortably – the tower is topped with a delicate Georgian cupola, a feature of churches in this part of Middlesex.The various ages of its history are more visible inside: the arch over the door leading to the wooden porch is decorated with twelfth-century beak heads, their sharp prows curving over the stone, reminiscent of Concorde. Stan, a church warden here for twenty-one years, tells me that earlier this year thieves broke a small stained-glass window to gain access and stole £20 from collection boxes. Repairing the glass will cost cost £5,000. He’s used to shenanigans around here.

 

Peter Ackroyd, in London: A Biography, expounds a theory of Chronological Resonance – some areas of the capital find it harder to slough off their past – areas remain poverty-stricken or keep their reputations for lawlessness. In these places, histories echo. Ackroyd is not much interested in the west of the city – he haunts Limehouse and the east, but the theory holds here: the land around these villages and the much-diminished Hounslow Heath has long harboured criminals drawn to rich, easy pickings. This was the haunt of highwaymen on a road from London to Bath – consequently the flat, damp and gravely land was hung with gibbets. The Ordnance Survey team, trudging through a dangerous landscape with their long glass measuring rods, would have been pleased of their military escort.

 

There was an airstrip before the airport. Proposed as an air force base during the war years, the land was requisitioned under the Defence of the Realm Act; but the intention was always to build the capital’s civil airport here. The hamlet of Heathrow disappeared. The farmers were not permitted to bring in the last harvest. At Imber and Tyneham, other lost settlements in the southwest taken over by the army, the inhabitants were similarly thrown off land; although in those Dorset and Wiltshire villages, traces do remain and the military allow occasional access. Here in the outskirts of the capital, civilian use meant that the village was rubbed out, and for a while even the name vanished, becoming London Airport. Heathrow Airport has become a new Highwayman of the Heath, taking what it wants, under the cover of darkness and in broad daylight.

 

The airport itself became a target for thieves of a more traditional shade. In 1949, the Flying Squad ambushed a gang planning a bullion raid: shots were exchanged, nine were arrested. Over the following decades a community of armed robbers gathered around Hounslow – valuables being transported to and from airports and ports were much more vulnerable than those locked in safes. The culmination was the infamous 1983 Brinks Mat raid which resulted in the loss of £26 million – still the greatest haul from any single theft in Britain.

 

If the grand larceny of the third runway goes ahead, the current plans would see half of Harmondsworth disappear, together with the whole of the village of Longford, where Stan lives. The perimeter fence will be just yards from St Mary’s. The original plans, abandoned with much fanfare by the coalition government in 2010 (“No ifs, no buts, no third runway”) had the fence abutting the wall of the church. Stan worked for British Airways at Heathrow for thirty years and was continually told that there would be no need for a third runway because soon all passenger planes would be vertical take-off. Beneath “The Argument” – Stan’s term for an arch between the wide Nave and one aisle that’s Romanesque on one side of its apex and Gothic on the other he explains that fewer people now sit on the dark sixteenth century pews. In 2010, Heathrow bought houses in the nearby village of Sipson, in the expectation that they’d soon be able to progress their original plan. This robbed the church of a third of its congregation and half its income. By degrees, the airport nibbles at the community. If the runway goes ahead redundancy awaits this place. But still the village tries: recently stained glass was replaced in the wooden porch, a few years ago the underfloor heating was replaced. This work revealed forty-eight coffins beneath the altar – six rows, eight deep – plague victims probably, quietly stacked.

 

Outside, leaves have fallen from stressed trees in the July heat onto the churchyard’s parched floor. We brush some from the flat grave of Richard Cox who first cultivated an all-conquering apple variety in the neighbouring village of Colnbrook. The original trees are gone now, their location marked with a memorial orchard planted with trees: Ribston Pippin, Blenheim Orange, Cox’s Pomona together with the Cox’s Orange Pippin itself. Colnbrook itself will be bruised, but not taken as the runway sweeps over the M25. Near the grave is a small path towards Saxon Lake, lying close to the M4; those intent on a swim pad up here sometimes.

 

The Great Barn, the granary and stables all lie at the end of a short lane nearby. Nearly six hundred years old it’s the largest surviving medieval barn in England. Unaltered and unimproved it’s much as it would have been in the fifteenth century. Justine, an archaeologist who lives and works in the village, meets me outside. Inside, it’s breathtakingly vast, has an organic hand-built beauty. Like the church it offers a welcome refuge from the thundery heat. Bright early afternoon sunlight seeps through the walls. The sandstone footings support massive oak uprights, twelve bays on each side run the length of the barn – nearly two hundred feet. The floor is concrete. If this is a surprise it shouldn’t be – the barn has a long working history. The community looks after the barn, though English Heritage, who restored it lovingly and sparingly, own it. Justine tells me that the ambition was for the restoration work to be invisible – the team who worked on it told her: “if we do it right you won’t know we’ve been here.” The oak and sandstone may be steeped in deep history, but the recent past is alive here too, for which the floor is a witness: the last harvest was brought in to the barn in 1978.

 

The building is extraordinary, unexpected, but it’s also a reminder of the recent history of this landscape. This was good land – today I was startled by how quickly after turning my bike north from the A4 fields spread out on each side, agriculture reasserted itself; I followed a tractor’s trailer loaded with bales, much more like cycling my Dorset home patch. Small parcels of land are still farmed around Heathrow. In the barn there’s a small photographic exhibition from the years around the world wars. Farm workers peer out from the flat land, pausing briefly from picking leeks or packing onions into bushel baskets. Elms, the ghosts of the landscape, line the horizon. One picture shows a ploughing match taking place where Terminal Three now stands. This land was visited in the spring by Londoners seeking a little respite from their city, coming here to see the fruit trees in blossom, to bear witness to the season. The barn is home to wildlife still – little owls and barn owls are resident, four species of bat nestle in the high beams, hunting from dusk. To avoid squirrels nibbling the local history leaflets left for visitors, the villagers are careful to put the literature into plastic containers overnight.

 

The barn, the square granary sitting on its staddle stones, and the stables together say much about the agricultural history of this place. Sometimes visitors ask if it would be possible to move the barn if the runway comes. Larger buildings have been moved before, but this was built to make a living from farming here. To disconnect it from the land it served would be a poor substitute. Even Heathrow would not attempt to demolish this Grade I listed building; instead it would become a structure glimpsed briefly amongst the hangars for those few nervous seconds before wheels touch tarmac.

 

3. THE MOOR

Back on my bike and down a lane the other side of the small village green, I come to a gate which leads to higher ground. Bridges cross the River Colne and its brooks, shaded under willow and ash, where moorhen float.The path is gravel, the grass tall and leggy, umbels and teasels wave a little under the greying, hot sky. Rabbits chew and hop into the bushes. There are a few dog walkers nearer the village but further away on this weekday afternoon I have the place to myself. This is Harmondsworth Moor. The miracle is that it’s new. When British Airways proposed their headquarters, ‘Waterside’, which lies at the edge of the moor, the planners gave them permission to build on this Green Belt only if they created this landscape. Opened at the turn of the millennium, it’s the largest public park to be built in the London area in the last century. If the word Park summons up images of bandstands and floral clocks, think again. This is much wilder – much of this land has never been farmed. Maybe I’m getting used to it, but it’s peaceful here and I ride the paths, up little slopes, in relative quiet. This is a landscape which feels connected to the sandy clumps of Chobham Common and Bagshot Heath to the west. Only when I get within sight of the M25 do I hear the traffic. The ’planes are landing from the west now and are barely visible. The day before I rode across Waterloo Bridge on the way from the station to my hotel at the north end of Drury Lane. We think of the Thames’ crossing places as ancient, and sometimes they are. But the bridge was built in the 1940s, and the stones from its predecessor were brought here, and are now dotted about the land.

 

Aside from a small section closest to the interchange between the M25 and the M4, Harmondsworth Moor would vanish under the third runway. The rivers will be covered or drained, the ground levelled, this green belt land scrubbed out.

 

 

4. AT HOME

Back in the village, Justine welcomes me, offers me tea, I stow my bike in her garage. Her house sits back a little from the quiet lane – a fig tree crawls across the front, a welcome invasion from the next-door neighbour. Inside the house is full of Justine’s quarter century here, packed with books. It suits her. The front portion was built in the nineteenth century, but the back half dates from the sixteenth, its ceilings lower, the layout symmetrical and pleasing. Her study at the front, where she edits an archaeological journal and helps run the campaign to stop Heathrow’s expansion, overlooks The Crown, one of the two village pubs. I ask how close the airport will come and she points to a tree at the back of the pub’s little beer garden, close to the road – that’s where the boundary will be. But it’s difficult to know. Heathrow’s plans are “indicative” at this stage – and the recent parliamentary vote has given them carte blanche, for now.

 

“The pub will remain?” I ask.

 

“Yes, but it won’t have any customers.”

 

We have tea outside in the back garden on the terrace, a cat stretches and plays a few yards away. Justine has learnt to live with the mostly constant rumble of the aircraft, and at certain times of the day, when the planes land on the north runway it’s noticeably quieter. Her life and that of the airport are mingled. She came here as a child to ’plane spot from the roof of one of the terminals. She acknowledges the benefits – its proximity allowed her to buy this house in a quintessentially attractive English village more cheaply than elsewhere in the south east. She can hop on a bus and be somewhere else across the planet with less fuss than most. But the airport is a terrible bully, and not even a consistent one. When Terminal Five came – like the Great Barn, its roof raised section by section on its huge supports, Heathrow’s argument was that if permission was granted for the new terminal, a third runway would never be required. Heathrow distributed leaflets locally with this claim printed in them. Challenged with this at recent public meetings, the current Chief Executive simply said that his predecessor should never have said that. Can the great Highwayman simply change its head honcho every time it changes its mind, wants to take more land? It seems so. It wasn’t always the case. A third runway was mooted as far back as the fifties, but the idea was rejected immediately – nobody would tolerate the wholesale destruction of English villages, it was thought.

 

Justine offers me a chocolate éclair – we agree that Best Before dates are for guidance only, and munch contentedly, sip strong tea. Her house would not be taken by the extension to the airport – just. That’s only some eight hundred homes, but hers would be amongst the many thousand more rendered uninhabitable. One wonders: for what? Heathrow’s glossy website makes much of the £187bn that supposedly will be added to the UK economy. That’s by 2050. About £2 a week for each of us, assuming the benefits of such growth are to be shared equally. It wouldn’t buy you many flights, but it might get you a coffee at Costa in Terminal Five. The picture is much more nuanced than the blandishments on the website. Justine and the team behind the Stop Heathrow Expansion Campaign have answers for them all, from Heathrow’s plan to create Britain’s only “hub airport” (itself an answer to a problem that no longer exists – new smaller planes don’t need to ferry passengers to larger airports – instead they fly direct to their destination) to the claim that “new green spaces” will be created by the new runway, on land which is now… fields. The campaign is wary, with some reason, of being labelled NIMBYs, and concentrate their efforts on pointing out the wider impacts on the whole region and on the UK’s carbon emission commitments.

 

John Grindrod’s brilliant memoir about growing up in suburbia, Outskirts, has much to tell us about the origin of the NIMBY. The term is an American import, first used in the 1970s by a petrochemical company to denigrate a group protesting that dumping toxic waste was causing much local harm, including a rise in birth defects and miscarriages. The acronym soon leapt the Atlantic and was much exploited by property developers and politicians, some of whom even claimed it as their own invention. But why is a defence of where we live necessarily a bad thing? Shouldn’t caring for our own places be not only a good thing, but a mark of good citizenship? Some politicians, and especially those fond of wrapping the Union flag around their shoulders and gazing, misty eyed, across the White Cliffs, tell us that their first duty is the Defence of the Realm – where then is the defence of Harmondsworth, Sipson, Longford, the church, The Great Barn, the Moor – architecture, history, the lives and memories of people?

 

Harmondsworth, the village which may soon be scythed in two, the south destroyed, the north irretrievably scarred, is an almost perfect representation of an idealised English village: two pubs, a small, triangular green, a street layout which is almost certainly medieval in origin. Beauty or history may not, alone, be enough of an argument to halt the destruction – would it be any worse to destroy or dislocate a poorer community, or one less blessed? But it does reveal the extent of the crime, the theft that awaits. Surely, beauty must be its own defence.

 

This defence now lies with local councils determined to take Heathrow to court, the mayor of London, a few MPs, but its heart is the campaign rooted in the villages here. After time spent in Justine’s company: pragmatic, logical, determined Justine (“I don’t do emotion”), one must conclude that it’s in very good hands. I hope that Heathrow has met its match. I’ve used up her afternoon so I thank her, push my bike away.

 

I cycle south across the Heath along the perimeter road, instinctively but needlessly ducking as ’planes roar in, skirting the great Highwayman in the warm wind of the late afternoon. Across the flat green grass, beyond the tall fence, glimpsed through the heat haze, is that a lone gibbet, swinging?

 

 

Sources and further reading

There’s much to be read about the history of the villages, landscapes, the airport, and its growth. This is a selection:

Map of a Nation, Rachel Hewitt, Granta, 2010

Map Addict, Mike Parker, Collins, 2009

London in the Twentieth Century, Jerry White, Viking, 2001

Nairn’s London, Ian Nairn, Penguin Books, 1966

Highways and Byways in Middlesex, Walter Jerrold, Macmillan, 1909

London: A Biography, Peter Ackroyd, Chatto and Windus, 2000

Outskirts, John Grindrod, Hodder and Stoughton, 2017

Heathrow: 2000 Years of History, Philip Sherwood, The History Press, 2009

The Great Barn at Harmondsworth and Harmondsworth Village leaflets

How Heath Row became Heathrow, Cassini Maps: www.cassinimaps.co.uk/shop/pageheathrow.asp

www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/blog/2013/11/heathrow-airport-honours-the-work-of-major-general-william-roy/

www.colnevalleypark.org.uk/harmondsworth-moor

Ordnance Survey Landranger Number 176: West London

 

JON WOOLCOTT works for Little Toller and is researching a book about the hidden and radical histories of the south of England.

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