The central London airports that (mostly) never were

Battersea Helipad: not quite the Sci-Fi central London aerodrome 1930s visionaries had in mind. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Last week the government finally (maybe) ended years of banging on about London airports by endorsing a plan to build a new runway at Heathrow, as opposed to Gatwick, or in the middle of the Thames as Boris Johnson was obsessed with doing for some reason.

The thing is, none of these places are really in London, are they? Okay, Heathrow might say it’s in London, but we all know it might as well be in Berkshire. But back at the dawn of air travel London’s planners and architects had dreams of far more convenient airports, right in the heart of the capital.

King's Cross

In 1931, architect Charles Glover proposed that Kings Cross could double as an airport  - in his plan, three half mile long runways would be built on top of a network of buildings in the area, intersecting to form a giant wheel in the sky. Unfortunately, even if it had been built, the entire enterprise would by now have been obsolete for decades, since commercial runways are now nearly three times as long as those in Glover’s design.

 

Westminster

Still more practical than the garden bridge, Lumley. Image: Popular Science/Public Domain

This charmingly bizarre suggestion from the 1930s would have involved constructing a gigantic bridge right next to the houses of Parliament – the interior would form a hanger, the roof the runways. Unfortunately there’s not much evidence this was anything more than the fevered imaginings of an artist working for Popular Science magazine and it’s hard to imagine it being a goer with politicians, for fairly obvious reasons.

Liverpool Street

After the Second World War, another rooftop airport was proposed to the east, this time to take advantage of Liverpool Street’s transport links – the design would have featured five skyscrapers constructed in ‘formation’, with two crossed landing strips passing over their roofs, though architects Lindy and Lewis were primarily thinking of it as landing place for the newly invented helicopter, rather than for planes.

 

Hyde Park

In the 1970s the British Institute of Geographers published a report making the case that should London need increased airport capacity, a cost-benefit analysis demonstrated that Hyde Park was in fact the ideal site, not least for reasons of convenience. This was picked up by the Sunday Times, who had apparently failed to notice that author John Adams was an anti-expansion campaigner satirising the controversial decisions of the Roskill commission, then considering a location for a third major London airport. Still, a retired Air Vice-Marshall wrote to the paper congratulating all concerned on their “courage”, so the non-existent project had at least one fan.

Waterloo

The 1950s and 60s saw a whole range of over-optimistic proposals to accommodate helicopters – thirty years after his first Kings Cross airport proposal, Charles Grover had another suggestion – Covent Garden market was then looking for a new home, so he proposed another development at Kings Cross, with a helipad on top of a new covered market. Other proposed heliport sites included St Katherine Docks by Tower Bridge and the roof of Charing Cross station: in the end none of these came to fruition.

In the end, the closest thing central London ever got to an airport was Waterloo Air Terminal, which in 1955 offered passengers the options of being flown by helicopter to Heathrow, where they could board planes to their final destination. The economics of this never quite worked as it was mostly used by people who just wanted to have a go on a helicopter, with no intention of meeting a flight; the service was dropped after less than a year.

Sadly these days if you’re absolutely desperate to get into central London by air, the closest you can get London Heliport, a small jetty over the Thames in an unremarkable bit of Battersea. But you can always sit on the top deck of the number 19 bus into town and pretend it's a really low flying plane.


 

 
 
 
 

This app connects strangers in two cities across the world. But can it tackle urban loneliness?

New Delhi, in India, where many of Duet-App's users come from. Image: Ville Miettinen

“You can be lonely anywhere, but there is a particular flavour to the loneliness that comes from living in a city, surrounded by millions of people”. Olivia Laing, The Lonely City

Our relationship to where we live and the spaces we inhabit define who we are and how we feel. But how often do we articulate the emotional impact of this relationship, whether this be loneliness, frustration or even civic pride?

“When I moved to a new city, started living alone, wanted to drink less, stay indoors more, and when I realised that I cannot make any more best friends.”

A new social network, a simple app that connects two individuals from the UK and India, aims to counter some of these issues.  Over the course of a year connected pairs receive one question a day through the app and their responses are exchanged with each other. A simple interaction that gradually builds a series of one-on-one relationships and invites users to imagine, over time, the other person living their life.

Distant geographies are an implicit part of the experience, therefore many of the questions nudge users to explore correlations between their physical and emotional landscapes. The data shows us that many of the Duet-App users are located in populous urban cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Manchester, Leeds and London, places that can just as often discourage feelings of belonging and place-making as much as they foster them.

“I had thought I'd never be able to live here again. but here I am living again at home after almost a decade living elsewhere. Living in Mumbai is a contact sport, and I can't do without it's chaos and infectious energy.”

Mumbai, India. Image: Deepak Gupta

In general cities are getting bigger and spreading wider at the same time as our communications are increasingly being conducted online and via digital gateways.

There is a sense that much of our online personas project an idealised version of ourselves; we increasingly document and express our daily lives through a filter and we are not always comfortable with a spontaneous expression of ourselves. Duet-App seeks to foster alternative digital relationships that through their anonymity allow us to be more honest and free.

“I feel a lot of people assume that I always have a lot going on for me and everything's always happy and amazing. I wish they could appreciate... how much of my own anxiety I swim in every single day. I appear and behave “normal” on the outside, calm and composed but there are always storms going on in my head.”

In exploring the responses to the questions so far, those that often garner the most replies relate directly to how we feel about our personal position in the world around us. Often these questions act as provocations not only to share responses but to reflect and articulate our thoughts around how we feel about what we are doing in the here and now.

Manchester, another popular city for Duet-App users. Image: Julius 

“Sometimes I feel sad about it [getting old] because I saw how easy it would be to feel lonely, and the fact that the world is set up for able-bodied young people is a bit of a travesty.”

Although many social media platforms allow for distant engagement and access into the lives of others we are in the main still curating and choosing our friendship circles. Through Duet-App this is randomised (and anonymised) with the intention of bypassing the traditional mechanics of how we broker online relationships. While directly exploring the digital space as a place for intimacy.


“Where do you go for peace?

“Well the internet, really. I do some mindless browsing, peek into the fandoms, listen to a few songs. Calms me down.”

Snapshots into the lives of someone existing and playing out their lives remotely can highlight shared concerns that break down preconceptions of how life is lived by others. Prompted by the reflections of a stranger exposed to our lives, digital relationships can encourage us to address the physical space we inhabit and the effects that the cities we live out our lives in have on our own well being. 

Catherine Baxendale is director of Invisible Flock.

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