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.


 

 
 
 
 

Cats and dogs and Pokémon and ball pools: The eight joyful trains of Japan

Okay, it may not look like much, but... the exterior of the Genbi Shinkansen art experience. Image: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

If you’re on this website, you’ll likely agree with the statement: trains are good. We like trains. Trains are marvellous.

But in Britain our idea of a good train is “runs on time, doesn’t smell of wee, possibly has a spare seat”. Our national rail ambition has been battered by years of this crap: the most exciting we can hope for is to catch sight of the Orient Express as it flashes through a station, or a ride on the Settle to Carlisle railway.

Yet in Japan, there are trains dedicated to art and sake and Pokemon. There’s a train with a ball pool, for Christ’s sake.

These trains aren’t usually part of the ‘real’ timetable (that is, they don’t show up in the regular searches), and sometimes only run on specific days, they do still run proper routes. The Tohoku Emotion, for instance (all about dining; one car is an open kitchen) runs between Hachinohe and Kuji, adding a direct train between those cities in an otherwise annoying two hour gap.


Cost is, of course, another issue. It’s not possible to book many of these trains outside Japan so prices are tricky to come by, and some of the dining packages on offer will obviously involve laying down some hefty yen.

That said, the Kawasemi Yamasemi, an exquisitely decorated train that runs three times every day direct between Kumamoto and Hitoyoshi in central Kyushu, costs about the same as travelling between the two on the bullet train (it’s faster too, because it’s direct). And I’m happy to bet the farm that any of these trains will cost a damn sight less than Japan’s newest, shiniest novelty train – and probably be more fun.

So without further ado, here are some of the best – and this really is what they’re called – Joyful Trains in Japan.

Pokémon with YOU

Yes, there really is a Pokémon train. Introduced in Tohoku to cheer up – and raise money for – the region’s children after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, the service runs between Ichinoseki and Kesennuma stations, and if Niantic hasn’t worked out a way to put special Pokémon Go characters at each station, it’s missing a trick. There’s a playroom with big Snorlax cushions, the Drilbur Tunnel and real life Poké balls. And, as far as we can tell, a seat costs less than a fiver.

Oh, and because it’s run by JR East, you can do a Google Street View walkthrough of the whole train, which are available for many of the company’s Joyful Trains. Japan. Is. Awesome.

Image: Google Street View.

Tama-Den

If cute character-themed trains are your thing, then you should also check out the Tama-Den which runs on the Wakayama Electric Railway’s Kishigawa line. Tama, you may recall, was a calico cat who became feted as a stationmaster, and elevated into a goddess when she died in 2015. (Her replacement, Tama II, works a five day week at Kishi station.) The Tama-Den is covered in drawings of her. And you thought your cat was spoiled.

Meow? Image: as365n2/Flickr/creative commons.

The same company also runs the Omo-den, which is all about toys and has cash-guzzling capsule toy vending machines on board.

Aso Boy!

Where there’s a cat train, there must also be a dog. Aso Boy! usually takes you past the caldera of Mount Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan, but since the Kumamoto earthquake the route is altered.

 But even with the lack of its main scenic draw, this is still a top train because it features the cutest of all Japan’s regional mascots. Kuro is JR Kyushu’s yuru-chara and the damnably adorable dog gets everywhere. It’s one-up on the Tama-Den because you can buy Kuro-themed food and souvenirs, and this is the train with the ball pool.

The balls are wooden though. Ouch.

On board Aso Boy! Image: Jill Chen/Flickr/creative commons.

Genbi Shinkansen

The bullet train is cool enough, but this one is decorated inside and out with the work of eight modern artists. Running between Niigata and Echigo-Yuzawa, the Genbi Shinkansen reckons it’s the world’s fastest art experience. With a journey time of just under an hour, works range from standard wall-mounted paintings to art that’s literally part of the furniture.

Images: ©Mika Ninagawa, used courtesy of Tomio Koyama Gallery.

SL Ginga

Not only is this train hauled by a steam locomotive, it has a freaking planetarium on board. It’s inspired by children’s author Kenji Miyazawa’s book Night on the Galactic Railroad which is set in the early 20th century, and the decor is meant to echo that era. There are galleries devoted to Miyazawa’s life, and the train runs between Hanamaki – where he was from – and Kamaishi.

Image: Google Street View.

FruiTea Fukushima

The whole of Fukushima province has been tainted by association with its namesake nuclear power plant, which is deeply unfair as it’s a gorgeous part of the country.

To drum up tourism, the FruiTea train went into service a couple of years ago on the standard line connecting Koriyama to Aizu-Wakamatsu, a castle-and-samurai town. There are several Joyful Trains dedicated to eating and drinking, but this one deserves a mention because its locally produced fruit snacks and drinks deserve wider recognition. As does the area.

Here’s your Google Street View walkthrough:

Image: Google Street View.

Shu*Kura

There are three Shu*Kura trains, all departing from Joetsumyoko but with different destinations. This is another train dedicated to eating and, well... drinking.

Niigata Prefecture claims to brew the finest sake in the world, and this three car service showcases the best of them. It also has live music and snacks, but the point here is that you can stand at a sake cask-themed bar and get tiddly without anyone judging you, like they would for that M&S prosecco.

And check out the lights on that thing.

Image: Google Street View.

Toreiyu Tsubasa

This is the train to catch if you want to go full Japan. Most of the cars don’t have seats, they have tatami mats and low tables instead, billed as a ‘conversation space’.

There’s another tatami car designed as more of a lounge for people after they’ve used the footbath. Yes, you did read that correctly. A footbath. You’re not going to want your shoes with all this tatami anyway, and it’s a unique way to view the scenery between Fukushima and Shinjo.

Image: Google Street View.

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