Friday, 28 August 2009

Hounslow Heath, Powder Mills, Flying Machines ...

Hounslow Heath – ever heard of it? One of the most dangerous places in Britain for over 200 years – this tract of land, part of the Forest of Middlesex, held the second most important coaching centre, after London. The direct route to Bath (A4), that fashionable Georgian watering place, and the Court at Windsor were straight across Hounslow Heath via one of the coaching stops – an ideal pouncing ground for highwaymen wanting rich pickings.

A map of Heathrow from before WWII

While slightly to the south the Kensington Gate Bar Turnpike was another direct way out of London across the Heath to the West Country: the Egham and Bagshot Turnpike (A 30) and the Staines and Bedfont Turnpike (A303) both known as the Hounslow to Basingstoke (Exeter) coaching routes.

The Heath over the years turned into farming and agricultural holdings, while the industrial revolution ensured that the location of the Grand Union Canal and the Great Western Railway made the area invaluable as a brick-making centre. Further south in Hounslow itself there was a Powder Mill plant, which was built in the 16th century and continued making gunpowder until 1927. These mills have long since disappeared, but the Shot Tower still stands, and the large mill pool has been turned into a nature reserve - Crane Park.

This southern part of the Heath, where a great deal of Heathrow Airport is now situated, was described as recently as Victorian times, as a ‘market garden’, renowned for its roses, narcissi, lilies of the valley, and for its apple, plum and pear orchards.

The Shot Tower in Crane Park

We used to live near Bagshot and I can attest that we lived in rural bliss, relatively I add! – and who would have thought that the London conurbation would stretch out beyond Bagshot within 50 years. Heathrow airport was there – but it was some distance away in London itself as far as we were concerned – but obviously with all the developments of the past two hundred years this productive farmland is now an ear splitting concrete jungle of noise.

Heathrow was used as a military airfield during the First World War, then reverting to a private aerodrome, used for assembling and testing, as Croydon was the main commercial airport.

A map of Heathrow from 1948 showing the small passenger aircraft apron just below "The Magpie" in the airport's NE corner.

In 1943, Heathrow came under the control of the Air Ministry and in 1944 on land acquired from the vicar of Harmondsworth construction of the new airport was commenced. Heathrow was named after the hamlet of Heathrow, little more than a row of cottages, which remained isolated on Hounslow Heath, which were demolished to make way for the airport.

This week ninety years ago the first paid daily passenger flight was undertaken from a patch of land on Hounslow Heath, about a mile from what is now London’s Heathrow Airport, to Le Bourget, Paris, operated by Air Transport and Travel Limited (now British Airways). This return flight cost 42 guineas, today that would be approximately £1,706.

Preparations for the first flight in the de Havilland (Airco Dh4 Biplane).

That flight in a converted bomber, open to the elements, travelled at a height of 2,000 feet (one third of a mile high), and navigated using landmarks – gravel or white chalk pits, hills, lakes, architectural buildings and particularly railway lines (which had their station names clearly marked on the roof).
The railway from Tonbridge to the south coast is relatively straight and could, in good weather, be easily followed. I was interested to hear that the pilots flew keeping the railway line on their left, which is different to us driving on our left (driving on the left can be traced back to Roman times, but was enshrined in England in the 1700s).

So much has changed in the 100 years of air travel; first by enclosing the planes and creating a passenger cabin so that by the late 1920s a four course lunch could be served – most of the stewards had to be short in stature due to the cramped conditions!

Imperial Airways Armstrong Whitworth Argosy passenger cabin.

By 1935 it was possible to fly from London to Brisbane for £195 – however the journey did take twelve and a half days! Ten years later, longer-range flying boats could do the journey in less than half the time.

Then there came even more luxury: a Boeing Straocruiser, which had a lounge, beds to sleep in (yes please!) and more for the wealthy; or even the practicality of the Bristol Superfreighter, an air car transport freighter – we used one in the early 1960s to take our car across the Channel, so we could drive to Italy. Economy fares came in the early 1960s – remember Freddie Laker?

In 1978 I got up in the middle of the night to go out and buy my 'no frills' ticket for £100 return to New York, go home and back to bed for a few hours, before setting off again – the fact I had not realised that Laker Airways flights went from Gatwick (not Heathrow) was neither here nor there really! Just somewhat worrying, as my space was likely to be on sold, as I had not turned up at the requisite time: mild panic set in .. but I made the flight and a friend’s wedding. One of her sons now flies the latest jet fighters for the American Air Force.
Concorde's final flight, G-BOAF from Heathrow to Bristol, on 26 November 2003. The extremely high fineness ratio of the fuselage is evident.

Then the first supersonic passenger airline, Concorde, came along reducing travelling times even further before being withdrawn. Now we have double deckers with huge seating arrangements – economy in numbers, but a cattle truck way to travel. The journey of invention continues and in another 100 years how will we be travelling .. on magnetic superhighways .. or how?
See below for notes on BBC pictures and BBC video.

It’s good to see you Mr Postman on this cool sunny morning – Hurricane Bill seems to have blustered on towards Scandinavia, it was so windy yesterday. Isn’t it amazing how much has changed over the years ...

Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Excerpts taken from the BBC “In Pictures: 90 Years of Travel” – these you may be able to see overseas. The video unfortunately is only available to UK licence payers and for those who wish, and those who can, it is accessible by this BBC link “Recreating the first passenger flight”.


Liara Covert said...

Your flying machine awaits, after you finish your latest excursion in the tardis! Dr. Who would like to borrow that again when you are back.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Liara .. yes .. when I get up and go .. I'll be off .. a glide into the ether .. I'm sure Doctor Who would love the excursion too .. and as they're usually younger and quite good looking perhaps they could come too?

Thanks for your thoughts ..

All the best Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Evelyn Lim said...

I have stepped onto Heathrow Airport like four times (not counting the returns). I love visiting London! Thanks for the write-up on the airport and how air travel has taken off.

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Evelyn .. great to see you here .. yes - London has so much to offer, but it's amazing to think that the commercial airport wasn't there 65 years ago! How much has changed.

Come back and visit again .. London & here!

All the best Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Giovanna Garcia said...

Hi Hilary,
Great job on this post. You are so amazing with all of the information you share.
I wonder what it feels like to fly in those early days.
Thanks for the great read.
Giovanna Garcia
Imperpect Action is better than No Action

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Gio - thanks for being here at such a busy time for you - the publication of your book will be truly brilliant and many congratulations for having achieved so much: you are flying .. I think you know what it feels like to fly! Lots of fresh air rushing past!

Have a good week - all the best
Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

Marketing Unscrambled, Home edition said...

Hello Hilary,

Another wonderful post.Never know so much about air planes. What a great job that you did with this one. We always learn so much when we come. Keep up the good work.

Dan and Deanna "Marketing Unscrambled"

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Deanna and Dan .. thanks so much for visiting .. so much has happened in 100 years, we tend to not realise! Gret to see you here ..

All the best - Hilary Melton-Butcher
Positive Letters Inspirational Stories