When our family took off for Australia from London Airport ( soon to be called Heathrow ) in 1964 I never imagined I would be returning nine years later, let alone that I would spend years living very near the airport and end up working there.
With perhaps the exception of China, Heathrow must be one of the most continually changing spots of land in the world.
London got its new airport in 1946. The site included the Vicar of Harmondsworth’s back garden, bought for £15,000 by Richard Fairey in 1930 as a site for testing his planes.
The village of Heath Row was bulldozed in 1944, plans were steamrollered through by the plane-mad air minister Harold Balfour. He persuaded Churchill’s War Cabinet in the 1940s that an RAF base was needed on Hounslow Heath, when actually he wanted to push through plans for a post-war civilian airport. An old lady told me years ago that when they saw a few tents going up near their home on the Bath Road they did not think it would make much difference to their lives.
In 1964 we walked across the tarmac to the steps and turned to wave to our relatives standing out on a balcony. In the seventies and early eighties you could still stroll on the roof gardens of the Queens building, children could play and plane spotters listened in to their radios.
In one of my many incarnations I was a lounge hostess for eight years either side of the turn of the century. Even since then everywhere I worked has either been demolished or changed completely. But passengers and the 80,000 ( guestimate, but it’s a lot! ) staff who work there are no doubt much the same.
With the children all at senior school it was time for me to leave behind my various pin money jobs and find properly paid part time work. A few hours in the middle of the day, Monday to Friday in the Terminal Three Qantas Lounge seemed perfect for someone who had missed out on the computer revolution; all I had to do apparently was work the coffee machine and put out a few sandwiches and I spoke the same language as the passengers. Two of us just had the morning flight out to Australia to look after. It turned out my senior colleague was a right… not easy to work with, but luckily she spent most of her time talking to the Qantas girls on the desk or to her twin daughters on the phone in the kitchen. The main lounge was Business Class and a select corner was for First Class passengers. There were cheerful Australians often meeting up with friends and British holidaymakers in a good mood. Another great feature of this lounge was the wonderful view of the south runway and Concorde taking off at 11am.
This little oasis of peace and quiet was down a corridor just before The Gates and up a flight of stairs. I don’t like lifts and could see no reason why I would need to use the rackety metal box that was always being repaired. When it was time for passengers to go to their Gate they could choose stairs or lift. One day the Qantas lady asked me to escort a nervous passenger because she was afraid of lifts; so am I wanted to say! Worse was to come. I was asked to fetch the papers… the Australian newspapers just arrived on the in bound flight. It turned out this involved going down in the same lift, but with the magic key which took the lift down to hell, or at least the outside; real airside where planes park; dark concrete undercover places passengers never see. I was petrified I would be stranded there if the lift doors closed… which they did because I had to walk a few feet to reach the bundles of paper. When I returned trembling to the safety of the lounge my colleague said I should never have agreed to do it as it wasn’t our job!
Companies, jobs and uniforms were to change as frequently as the buildings, but I did not know that at the time.