The aerotropolis of Heathrow

Each year at the start of the autumn term, I lead my students on a walk from Brunel University, about three miles from Heathrow as the jet flies, to the boundary of Europe’s busiest airport.

Our route passes through the rundown area of West Drayton, a desert with windows in which everything costs 99p. Though the airport is a leading regional employer, many of its skilled workers prefer to live in the Chilterns or along the river in Windsor or Henley. Former manufacturing districts such as Hayes on the M4 corridor — once home to EMI and a host of hi-tech interwar businesses — now have to survive on a drip-feed of zero-hours contracts for frothy-coffee dispensers and airline meal assemblers.

My students and I then plunge into a tangled hinterland of abandoned landfills, car breakers’ yards and travellers’ sites — home to Heathrow’s ancillary trades, which include the detention centre for those economic migrants unfortunate enough not to make it all the way to market.

Before the tunnel leading into the terminals, we reach the picturesque village of Harmondsworth — which, if the recommendation of this month’s Davies commission is heeded, will be severely truncated by a third runway for the airport. At its centre sits the Great Barn, an astonishing 15th-century grain storage facility dubbed by John Betjeman the “cathedral of Middlesex”. As an administrative area, Middlesex is long gone — yet the Great Barn survives, for now, beautifully intact. If the commissioners have their way, English Heritage, which acquired the Barn three years ago, may well have to up posts and move it.

Read the rest of this article at the FT, here.