Christian Nolle

Hinterland of Heathrow


Exploring the towns around London's biggest airport.

I landed at Heathrow in the autumn of 1999 on a Scandinavian Airlines flight from my hometown of Aarhus, Denmark. The flight was mostly empty and the route was discontinued soon afterwards.

I have distant memories of passing through the place in the 1980s on a layover with Olympic Airways. My dad bought us food in kroners and the waitress paid us back in pounds. The place felt international; unexplored continents just a single trip away, the currency interchangeable.

My first visit to the airport without my passport came a year or so later. Back then I would spend hours on the spectators’ balcony on top of the old Queen’s terminals. One day I arrived and found it closed (for good it turned out) and decided to walk around the airport perimeter. That was to be the first of many trips.

This book is the result of these journeys through the towns that surround Heathrow: Bedfont, Colnbrook, Cranford, Feltham, Hatton, Harlington, Harmondsworth, Hounslow, Poyle, Sipson and Stanwell. Some of them will disappear if the third runway ever goes ahead.

Over the years the area has morphed ever so slightly. In 2004 I came across an abandoned sofa in a small forest clearing. Fifteen years later the same area is overgrown but still a dumping ground, and you can now spot the roof of Terminal 5 in the distance.

On approach to Heathrow you pass over these small towns in mere seconds. They appear as a blur below the wing. You can just make out a few distinguishing features: a football club at night, a church, a gas station just above the wing, cars caught in traffic. A few seconds later and you’re within the airport perimeter and arrive with the familiar bump as the wheels make contact with the runway, firmly grounding you in a small town west of London.

The people who live around the airport pay little attention to the constant overhead traffic. They are busy just getting on with their lives. These are not affluent towns; everything here is lived in and worn out. The planes roar in and out of Heathrow, London, Europe. In the places beneath the flight path, things work, but only just.

The Carer

On Hatton Road, by the horses, a van is parked with its back door open. It’s a common sight here; the spot is a popular place to park when planes come in to land on Heathrow’s southern runway. There are no parking restrictions and the police leave you alone. A disabled man in a wheelchair and his carer are watching planes land in silence. We start talking. The carer has driven down from Oxford for the day. He used to park around here when he was a taxi driver and today he has brought the disabled man down, as he likes planes. Later they will head west to watch the planes take off. Another car pulls up; a woman with red hair steps out of a beaten-up Ford Fiesta. She is here to feed the horses. She asks the carer if he knows who owns them. No one knows and the horses, while not starving, could do with a comb. She mourns the loss of Concorde while she feeds them vegetables from a plastic bag. He and the disabled man are waiting for Emirates’ A380 to arrive. Big and slow, not fast and sleek. The woman drives off. I say my goodbyes and continue walking.

The Rising

Right next to one of the runways I spot a family of four: a grandfather and three children. They are wheeling an empty pram along the narrow dirt path right up against the fence that separates the airport from the Northern Perimeter Road. The kids are all dressed in yellow. They throw a few rocks about innocently. The setup is reassuring, terrifying and beautiful. The yellow of the children’s clothes glow in the evening sunshine. Jets glide right past them for landing. I wave at them and the grandfather waves back. The children look at me with suspicion. We meet at the bus stop. He tells me in broken English that they came to see the landings, but not the rising.

A few double spreads from a dummy book produced for Hinterland of Heathrow. Ninety two pages incl. stories and an introduction.