Now this really is a tubewalk with a difference... the difference being that all three Heathrow Tube stations are on private property, so you can't actually walk to them unless you get permission from the airport owners, BAA. Luckily, they were very kind when I contacted them about my plans, and they issued me with a permit that would let me take photographs of all the terminal buildings and Tube stations, as well as letting me walk around the Perimeter Road, which is on private land and isn't a normal right of way. They understandably couldn't give me permission to walk through the road tunnel under the northern runway, so I had to get a public bus to complete the last few yards to Terminals 1, 2 and 3, but that aside, I've managed to tubewalk Heathrow, and I never thought that would be possible. A big thank you to Lisa at the BAA press office for sorting out the relevant permits; this wouldn't have been possible without her help.
So I was more than a little annoyed to see the weather forecast for today, which showed a huge band of rain approaching London from the southwest that sat over the capital for the entire day. 'Heavy showers and humid,' said the man, and my heart sank, because Lisa had arranged for the local press to meet me at Terminal 5 halfway through the day, and I could hardly reschedule all of them just because of a little rain. So I packed my umbrella and hoped for the best, while the rain lashed down outside, gearing up for what looked like a seriously wet day.
Heathrow Terminal 5 to Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3
It's hard to tell from the maps, but it is perfectly possible to walk out of the new Terminal 5 building without having to play with any traffic; there's lots of space alongside the access roads in and out of the building, and even though pedestrians aren't allowed to walk along the access roads, there is at least plenty of pavement for them not to walk along. I decided to head for Terminals 1, 2 and 3 first, because that's the way the Tube line goes, so I left Terminal 5 at the Arrivals level (which is on ground level) and turned right, heading in what I thought was the best direction; I obviously didn't do anything too wrong, as nobody seemed to worry about me plodding along the roadside, even the security guard on the traffic barriers. Indeed, I asked a couple of guards in day-glo yellow tops which was the best way to the Perimeter Road, and they told me without once asking to see my permit, which was a shame after all the effort I'd gone to to get one. 'Never mind,' I thought, 'I'm sure it will come in handy later,' and wandered off into the rain.
The Perimeter Road is a strange beast. There are four of them – the Western, Northern, Eastern and Southern Perimeter Roads – and although you are allowed to drive on them and cycle along them, you are only allowed to do so on airport business, so driving along them to spot planes is against the rules; obviously, walking around Heathrow is hardly classed as airport business, so even though there are pavements around the perimeter, you can't just walk on them without getting permission (though there is no physical barrier if you choose to do so). I took the Western Perimeter Road from Terminal 5 to the northwest corner of the airport, skirting the outside of the heavy duty razor-wire fence that protects the airport proper, and following the route of a large raised road that looked for all the world like an under-construction roller-coaster. This turned out to be the driver-less light rail system that will eventually carry passengers between Terminal 5 and Terminals 1, 2 and 3, and the views of the airport will be spectacular, as it's really quite high off the ground. I can't wait to have a go when it's open.
I was so mesmerised by the curves of the roller-coaster that I completely forgot to turn left off the Perimeter Road and up to the roundabout with the A3044 (which is outside the airport and therefore fair game for anyone); trudging back in the rain was not a highlight, but what followed most definitely was. Tucked away at the northwest corner of the airport is the small village of Longford, and it's a delightful little place. I'd been expecting a small hamlet of run-down modern houses, living sullenly in the shadow of the aviation beast just on the other side of the Perimeter Road, but that couldn't be further from the truth, as Longford is a charming place with a genuine village character, some lovely houses and at least one great-looking pub, the White Horse. There has been a village here since at least 1337, which was the first record of its existence, but the excavations for Terminal 5 may have uncovered evidence of settlement as far back as the fifth century AD. There are quite a few rivers in this area – hence 'Long Ford' – and one of them, the Duke of Northumberland's River, flows from north to south through the heart of the village. This man-made tributary of the River Colne, which itself flows to the west of the village, was owned for many years by the eponymous duke, and its creation probably dates from the reign of Henry VIII. There's also a small park on the south side of the high street through which the river flows, and there's a good view of Terminal 5 from here (though not in the rain, I should point out).
Not far after the river is a right of way that cuts north to the A4, though I missed it and ended up walking all the way to the A4 and doubling back on myself (I can confirm that the right of way does exist, though, as I spotted it when I walked back along the A-road). The A4 is devilishly busy at this point, but there's a wide central reservation, so crossing simply requires patience, and it's worth the effort as across the road is a small slither of Harmondsworth Moor Country Park, a large nature reserve that stretches northwest, all the way to the junction of the M25 and the M4. The small section along the Duke of Northumberland's River flanks a collection of grand offices called Waterside, which is home to the headquarters of British Airways, and the grounds are pleasantly landscaped. This far away from the airport the noise pollution is surprisingly low, probably because the planes don't fly overhead at this point, and there's a large lake with a noticeable amount of bird life; as headquarters go, it's a pleasant spot, which you might not expect this close to Heathrow.
At the top end of the British Airways corporate landscape is Moor Lane, which leads east to the village of Harmondsworth. If the third runway that the operators of Heathrow want gets the go-ahead – and there's certainly a lot of opposition to the plans, so it's not a foregone conclusion – Harmondsworth will be all but surrounded by the new development, though the developers have promised that they will preserve the Grade I-listed church and tithe barn in the village centre. The village is another pretty one, and while I think Longford has more attractive buildings, Harmondsworth has a much more enjoyable village green, with the Five Bells pub sitting pretty next to the aforementioned church, and a pleasant row of shops opposite. If it wasn't for the constant grumbling of the airport in the distance, this would be a prime spot; presumably though, with airport expansion plans surging ahead, this isn't quite the desirable residence it looks like to the casual visitor.
Leading east from Harmondsworth is Harmondsworth Lane, a quiet country road lined with pleasant cottages to the north and surrounded by golden wheat fields on both sides. If the third runway is built, it will run parallel to Harmondsworth Lane, but just to the north, and clearly this whole area will disappear under the concrete. It's a strange feeling, walking where one day there may be a busy runway, and it's easy to see why the locals are so angry about the proposals; currently they live in a rural idyll, if you ignore the noise pollution, and that will all disappear if the proposals get the go ahead. The government says it will compensate those who have to move, but I suppose home is where the heart is, and that's why there's such opposition to the uprooting.
At the eastern end of Harmondsworth Lane is the village of Sipson, the village that will be hardest hit by the third runway, as it will effectively be wiped off the map. There are, not surprisingly, 'No Third Runway' signs everywhere, and some houses have campaign literature pinned all over their gardens; the locals, united under the slightly cumbersome NOTRAG moniker ('No Third Runway Action Group'), are putting up a strong fight. To be honest, though, Sipson is aesthetically not a patch on Longford or Harmondsworth, and although it's easy to be sympathetic to the plight of the locals, it's difficult to get too worked up as a non-resident when the streets are lined with pretty shabby semi-detached pebbledash housing, a couple of interesting but unexceptional pubs, and a church that's impressive but relatively modern. If Longford and Harmondsworth were to be demolished, then that would indeed be a pity, but Sipson... well, I hate to say it, but having walked right through the heart of the village, I don't see what it's got that can't be found somewhere else in the suburbs of London, and fairly easily, at that.
The link road to the M4 motorway runs right past the eastern flanks of Sipson, meeting the A4 at Tunnel Road. This is where the motorway dives into a tunnel underneath the north runway, popping up in the middle of the airport at Terminals 1, 2 and 3. You can get a good view of the tunnel entrance from the raised A4, and in particular the model Airbus that sits in the middle of the Tunnel Road roundabout. There used to be a model of Concorde here, but a few weeks ago it was replaced by an Airbus done out in the livery of the Emirates airline. It isn't possible to walk down to the model, for two reasons: not only is the roundabout within the confines of Heathrow and therefore private property, but the roundabout is also classed as part of the motorway, so motorway rules apply, and that means pedestrians aren't allowed. I know this because after I visited Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 station, I wandered down to the roundabout to take some photos and got pulled over by the police. My magic permit did its stuff and they relaxed once they saw I was allowed to take photos within the confines of the airport, but even though they thought my tubewalk was a great idea, they politely pointed out that even with my permit, I still wasn't allowed here, so perhaps I'd like to make my way back up to the A4. With the traffic zipping round me at breakneck speed, I was happy to comply, but it does mean that the closest you can get to the middle of the airport – and therefore to Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 station – is the A4 overlooking the Tunnel Road roundabout.
However, if you want to get even closer, there are public buses that run from here through the tunnel, so I wandered a little further along the A4 to bus stop BL, from where any of buses 105, 111, 140 and 245 will take you to the terminals for a small fare. Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 station is on the other side of the bus terminal from the bus stops, and is so buried in the terminal building that it's a bit pointless commenting on its architectural merit. It was opened as Heathrow Central in 1977 and immediately became the new terminus of the Piccadilly line; the station was renamed Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 when the station at Terminal 4 started serving trains on , and it hasn't looked back since.
Instead of hopping back on the bus to continue my route around Heathrow, I nipped back to Terminal 5 to meet Lisa from BAA, who had arranged for some members of the local press to come and take my picture and ask me the odd question about my tubewalk. I'd like to report that it was a hoot and I had a great time chatting to the journalists, but in the event nobody turned up. One photographer had to stay at home as something had broken in his house and he needed to stay there while it was fixed, and another rang at 12.45 to say he would be late as he was on another assignment, and then he rang back at 1.30 to say he wouldn't be able to make it after all.
So Lisa and I chatted over a coffee and she took some photographs of me posing in front of the Tube station in case the papers still wanted a picture, and I ended up back at the Terminals 1, 2 and 3 bus stop, a good hour-and-a-half after I'd first arrived, and with precious little to show for it. I felt a bit sorry for Lisa, as it wasn't her fault and she ended up having to entertain a horribly damp and slightly whiffy tubewalker during her lunch break, but I guess that's life. Never trust the press, I say... and I say that as an ex-journalist.
Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 to Hatton Cross
It's an easy bus ride out of Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 station back to the A4, and I took the opportunity to hop off early to explore the Tunnel Road roundabout (which, as I noted above, is off-limits to all pedestrians, even those with permits, and the police soon moved me on). Walking east along the A4 is an exercise in huge hotels, large office blocks and even a McDonald's restaurant that has laid out the McDonald's logo on its forecourt, presumably to entice hungry holidaymakers in the skies above to grab a Big Mac once they land (which is, of course, the first thing you hanker for after eating aeroplane food, I don't think). The traffic is busy and there's not a lot of respite, but the A-road does have lots of pavement space and plenty of traffic lights along its length, so it's easy walking.
To complete my tour of the villages that might be affected by the third runway, I thought I'd turn north up the A437 to the village of Harlington. This village isn't inside the development area for the runway, but it would be right under the flight path. On the other hand, Harlington isn't a terribly attractive place, and the streets are lined with faded pebbledash terraces while the high street shops are well past their sell-by date; there's a clear hierarchy of beauty as you head east, from the delightful houses of Longford and attractive green of Harmondsworth, through the fairly standard suburbia of Sipson to the pebbledash of Harlington. Even the lane heading east from Harlington, Cranford Lane, is dead straight and dead boring, with diggers chewing up the land to the south and flat fields to the north hiding behind thick hedges.
Things pick up slightly at the far end, with the greenery of Cranford Park to the north. The London Loop heads this way on day 8, heading for Uxbridge, and as this leg of the Loop starts at Hatton Cross, it's a perfect route to follow all the way to the next station. From Cranford Lane the Loop heads across a small recreation ground to the A4, where it turns east past shops and some pretty uninspiring roadside buildings to Waye Avenue, where pebbledash is king and the sound of the jets pounding above is truly impressive. There's no point in trying to pretend that this is a nice part of the world; it simply isn't, and it's quite a relief to come out by the River Crane at the southern end of the road.
From here to the A30, which runs along the southern side of the airport, it's a fairly green wander along the river, which is all but hidden behind thick undergrowth. There are quite a few picnic tables along the way, though someone has used quite a few of them as fireplaces, so they don't make quite as pleasant a rest stop as you'd hope... and soon enough you come out onto the Eastern Perimeter Road, from where it's a short way onto the A30. Interestingly, the Loop appears to pass through private Heathrow land along the Perimeter Road and the signs tell you that you shouldn't be going this way, but as the Loop isn't way-marked at all round here, it's hard to know exactly what you're supposed to do, and the guidebook certainly tells you to go this way, officer.
Hatton Cross station is an easy walk along the A30, along the London Loop link route. On your left as you feed from the Eastern Perimeter Road onto the A30 is a concrete cutting that carries the Piccadilly line east to Hounslow West, and the planes get quite a bit lower and noisier at this point, as the southern runway is just past the Tube station. The station itself is fairly perfunctory, housed in a concrete bus station that looks like it was built in the 1970s (probably because it was – 1975, to be exact).
Hatton Cross to Heathrow Terminal 4
You can walk most of the way to Terminal 4 along the side of the A30, which is outside the airport boundary. This might explain why this is plane-spotting central, particularly on the section due east of the southern runway. Planes coming in to land are almost close enough to touch at this point, and the noise is truly terrifying. The street lights on the A-road are squat as if cowering from the cacophony above, and it's quite a relief to pass under the flight path and get on with the walk to Terminal 4; I'm clearly not made of stern enough stuff to be a plane-spotter.
It's about a mile of dead-straight walking to Aviation House, where there's a gap in the fence onto the Southern Perimeter Road. As per usual, this is private property and you shouldn't walk here without a permit, but nobody seemed remotely interested in checking my permit as I walked past the back of the Hilton, with its strange covered walkway into the heart of the terminal, and along Swindon Road to the bus terminals at the front of the terminal. In order to take photos of the terminal I had to get my permit signed by the man at the control centre, though again nobody asked me why I was snapping away in the first place. Heathrow Terminal 4 station is down an escalator and along a brightly coloured corridor, through the doors marked 'Heathrow Terminal 4' (as opposed to the plain-old 'Underground' sign that's used for Heathrow Terminals 1, 2, 3 and Heathrow Terminal 5 stations).
Heathrow Terminal 4 to Heathrow Terminal 5
In order to complete a tubewalk of Heathrow, it isn't strictly necessary to walk from Terminal 4 to Terminal 5, as there's no direct tube link between them, but as there's a loop in the line at Terminal 4, it seems appropriate to finish the whole round-trip. The walk to Terminal 5 is mostly along the Southern Perimeter Road, so again you need a permit to walk here, though there seems to be a newly constructed cycle path along the southern side of the road, to the west of the Sealand Road roundabout, and the signs clearly show that this cycle path is for use by both pedestrians and cyclists, so perhaps change is afoot.
The Perimeter Road has quite a different feeling to it along the southern reaches, particularly as you get towards the southwest corner of the airport. The man-made Longford River flows right next to the road for most of its distance, and although you'd never spot it, this is quite an ancient waterway, although its course was changed when the airport was built. The original Longford River was dug on the orders of Charles I back in 1638, who commissioned an inquiry into 'how the waters of the Colne could be brought over Hounslow Heath into the Park' in order to improve the water supply to Hampton Court. These days it's more like a canal than an irrigation channel, and ducks and moorhens play on its waters while an impressive collection of massive airport buildings loom on either side of the river.
Eventually the huge cargo buildings on the southern side give way to suburban houses, and there's even a pub, the Rising Sun, overlooking a small bridge that you can cross if you're feeling thirsty. This is Stanwell, a suburban village that has been here since at least Norman times (it appears in the 1086 Domesday Book as Stanwelle). It's mainly full of housing for airport workers and isn't terribly visible from the Perimeter Road, but it stretches quite a way south, all the way to the A30; it's considerably bigger than the villages to the north, and borders three huge reservoirs to the west.
The walking continues in the same vein until the Southern Perimeter Road joins up with the Western Perimeter Road, and Terminal 5 looms into view in the near distance. It's an impressive building – not surprisingly, as it is currently the largest free-standing building in the country – and you can see why it cost £4 billion and took 19 years to design and build. The main terminal building is actually called T5A; T5B and T5C are satellite buildings that are yet to be built. T5A has just one roof covering the whole building, which is the size of five football fields, and as you approach it along the Perimeter Road, the 40m-high bulk of this massive glass and steel structure is apparent.
It's easy pavement walking all the way to the terminal, and as you approach from the south, you get to enjoy a view of the road ramp that feeds traffic to the Departures area on the top floor; it's like a huge Brio wooden train set, and you can't help but stare as you walk underneath. This is also where you can find the VIP entrance to the terminal, and I couldn't resist taking out my camera and taking a shot, in the hope that this would at least get me questioned, and sure enough the man in the security booth ran out shouting, 'No photos here!' I waved back and fished out my permit, and he looked me up and down before examining my permit in minute detail, until even he had to accept that I could take photographs of his VIP entrance if I wanted... and so I took another one, just to celebrate my last happy moments as keeper of the Power of the Permit.
And so ended a fascinating walk around Heathrow, only spoiled slightly by the rain that dogged me on and off all day. This is an interesting place to walk, simply because it is completely different to anywhere else on the Tube network, and knowing that I could walk around the perimeter and take photos without worrying about the legalities was the icing on the cake. It's not every day you get permission to walk round an entire airport, and I'll remember it fondly as I tell my grandchildren, 'You see that runway? Well, I remember when all this were fields...'
Or, if the people of NOTRAG win the day, perhaps not.