Walking Heathrow: Exploring the fissures of infrastructure

2016-11-24-07-52-46

As I’m sat in my car, parked in the Hatton Cross Station Car Park, I watch as the dark blue hue of the cold November morning sky slowly turns to a light grey, as the sun struggles to pierce the thick blanket of cloud above. Planes rumble up the runway, the end of which is about 100m in front of me separated by three rows of chain-link, razor-wired fence and a buttress of thick orange scaffolding supporting runway lights. These slender machines soar over my head, jetting off into the turning sky, roaring their ascent to the awakening population beneath them. In a few minutes, I was due to meet a traveller from New York. He had a 6-hour lay over and wanted to walk the perimeter fence of Heathrow, roughly 13 miles or so. The banality of such an undertaking bemused many when I told them I was doing it, particularly as it involved me battling the alarm clock a good 2 hours earlier than I normally do. But it is in the banality that the sublime can shine through; there is beauty in the everyday. Also, I was halfway through marking my third year cohort’s essays on psychogeography, and with their exciting adventures in the quotidian city teeming through my mind, how could I refuse such an invitation?

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Heathrow is one of the world’s busiest transport hubs. In 2015 it processed 75 million travellers, and at peak times, planes are taking off every 90 seconds. But the air travel is clearly only one part of the story. Heathrow’s tentacles of physical, infrastructural, affective and economic mobility stretch far and wide across the world. It is a transport hub in many more ways than the policy advocates will let on. Its infrastructure bleeds into other networks that are dangerously full. The London Underground, the M25, Southeast rail networks are all on the edge of chaos on a daily basis, and Heathrow straddles them, infusing them with regular intravenous shots of travellers, all the while leaching out passengers through their intermittent fissures. Infrastructural mobility then is what dominates the landscape; and as became apparent, bipedal travel is actively and affectively discouraged.

As we walked the vague route of Heathrow’s perimeter road, hugging the fence as closely as we could all the way round, the criss-crossing of multiple mobility infrastructures dominated the landscape, physically and atmospherically. The clashes of road, rail, air travel, and pedestrian routes belied state-led attempts to neatly divide them. Derelict car park entrances were being reclaimed by a ravenous feral nature, while road engineers furiously dug up the bitumen in a vain attempt to streamline traffic flows. Vehicular traffic of all kinds – planes, trucks, taxis, private cars, buses, emergency vehicles, underground trains, parking pods –were squeezing out the pedestrian from the landscape. Pavements would suddenly stop or else turn into gravel pits or shrubbery. Strips of corrugated metal were positioned on the fences at just the right height to restrict the view into the private space of the runways. The pedestrian, it seems, is not welcome here.

As we walked the Eastern edge, it became clear this was the ‘back end’, in so far as it’s where the workers, trade vehicles and emergency trucks congregated. ID check points, parked Boeing 747s peeking over the fence, gargantuan brutalist hangers; there were no stylised ‘smooth spaces’ of commercial air travel here, no giant advertising boards or manicured hedgerows sweeping you into the terminal; just the raw infrastructural materiality of intense productivity.

As we continue around the Northern road, the path became blocked many times by road works or pavements that suddenly stopped with a curb onto the asphalt. We swapped sides, walked on the pebbles, and followed ‘desire paths’ on the grassy verges.

As we travelled further to the Western side, we edged closer to the point where the planes touched the tarmac after hours slicing up the atmosphere. The decision was to get a closer look, so we walked through the automated vehicular barriers to the long stay business car park. No people to be seen, no security guards or booth jockeys, just a faceless checkpoint funnelling in the privileged few. But no barriers for those on foot; who would even be walking around here anyway?

We walked up to the fence, perched on the railings, and gawped as the planes took it in turns to line up, wobble a disconcertingly large amount (it was quite windy after all) and attempt a smooth, soft landing. Some did, others made for more entertaining encounters with the tarmac. We were as close as any member of the public could be to a landing commercial jet at one of the world’s busiest hubs by just following the fault lines through infrastructural jigsaw.

Continuing West, the endless rows of longstay car parks began to get frustrating; they anaesthetised the landscape by saturating it with privatised transportation registers. The comically Worlds-Fair-style futuristic ‘parking pods’ snaking around our heads provided some light relief, although the warnings that they have murderous tendencies was overly disconcerting. Dystopian visions of a rebellious AI will clearly need to look to parking pods as patient zero.

The Western edge of Heathrow signalled the main entrance (if there is such a thing). The antithesis to the Eastern side, the carpet-like greenery and smooth, sweeping curvaceous roads beckons the private traveller in. Taxis lined up, cars zoomed in. The East-West divide of Heathrow’s infrastructural capacities is a clear and vehement mirror of the same geopolitical contours that the hub itself exacerbates. Stopping to bathe in the deafening acoustics of the landing planes overhead, we could see the queue of planes stretching back across the Home Counties – their headlights lined up like the traffic jams they were flying over.

Coffee break? Coffee break. We meandered down the snaking roads that welcome cars, but the access for pedestrians was not so convivial. We ended up at the arse end of the luxury hotel, having to walk through the loading bay to find the reception café. Suddenly, we were surrounded by opulence. The silage of wealth was choking. Glazed marble, grand pianos being denied their purpose, designer muffins, elite travellers standing around checking their departure times on iPhone apps; it was a place of hyper-mobile aesthetics but with the ethics of nothingness. Still, the coffee was good.

To carry on around the perimeter, we were confronted with the option of walking a four-lane underpass or going toward the terminal building. The latter seemed more amenable and by now, I was on the lookout for other signs of infrastructural melding. So the walk to the terminal took us through the bus stop area, a site I have often utilised myself when going to and from Heathrow. I walked past people conducting the same place ballet I do when part of the mobility machine; grabbing my bag from the coach’s underbelly, trying to beat the crowds, having that smug feeling of being the first person to complete that phase of the journey. I was suddenly a spectator of my own previous journeys inside the streamlined tubes of hyper-mobility.

Walking past bike stores (another mode of transport – tick!) we found ourselves at the opening to a semi-accessible grassy track flanked by waterways. Sign-posted as a ‘biodiversity site’, we went through the soft barrier and walked on a raised green ‘road’ (the tyre marks were a give away) alongside the south runway, watching the queuing planes powering up then lumbering down the runway ready to take off; that is once we passed the wavy concrete curtain.

As we continued along this grassy road, I spotted a police van waiting patiently on the main road. They weren’t for us, where they? Oh yes. Restricted area apparently. Taking photos raises the alarm. Walking near gas pipeline hubs is suspicious activity. Pedestrians in a highly infrastructural site viewed as a threat. Classic militarisation of infrastructure of course but it also evidenced the marginalisation of pedestrianism in a space of geopolitically securitized, hyper-commodified global flows. A quick jot on the ‘stop and advise’ note and our names are confined to a police database for 12 months, no harm done, right?

We continue to hug the fence, by now our defenestration from the site feels more personal having been identified by the State’s enforcers of the status quo. As we walk past the entrance to Terminal 4 (again on grassy verges), the site of another uber-slick, elite-catering hotel is being prepared. The architectural renderings on the hoardings show off the curvaceous emblem to hyper-mobility; it’ll be so smooth and slippery you won’t want to stay!

The final stretch back to Hatton Cross is more of the same. The banality of the space that emanates from the car parks and the hulking concrete walls creeps back in; the sublime moments have faded and the routine of everyday life begins to cloud around me just as the sky begins to brighten.

Heathrow is a mess of infrastructural entanglement. In its efforts to secure ever more passengers with killer parking pods, bike stores, infinite road works, more and more car parks (and perhaps even another runway), it is leaving the pedestrian behind. But in so doing, it opens up different possibilities and potentialities of finding wonder in the fissures. As the gears of global, networked and hyper-mobile financial capital churn and Heathrow’s increasingly differentiated and vehicular-fragmented infrastructure moulds to its will, it is the plight of the pedestrian to find the sublime within the everyday workings of this transport Leviathan. At least, that was my parting thought as I got back in to my car to drive to work.

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One thought on “Walking Heathrow: Exploring the fissures of infrastructure

  1. Oli says:

    Reblogged this on taCity.

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