March 13, 2004
Heathrow Terminal 4

A few years ago my work involved quite a lot of long-haul international travel. Anybody who has to do this sort of thing for a living will tell you that the glamour wears off rapidly after the first few long flights and and after the first few lonely nights in dreary corporate hotels. Nowadays I don’t fly so much - but I still know Heathrow like the back of my hand. So it always gives me great pleasure to visit the airport whenever I have to drop someone off or pick someone up. Terminal 4 is my favourite. There are a number of reasons why: the drive around the Northern and Southern Perimeter roads to get to the terminal from the Concorde roundabout is simply exhilerating. Trying not to be distracted by the planes coming in to land on the Northern runway - or by low-flying planes roaring overhead to land on the other runway. If I’m lucky I might get held up at the front of the traffic queue at the “plane crossing” near the British Airways plane hangars as a giant metal bird is pulled across the road from one hangar to another. Awesome.

Heathrow Terminal 4 - my favourite.

On this bright Saturday morning … (continue reading by clicking the “MORE” below)

… I had reason to be at Heathrow Terminal 4. The terminal building itself is a fantastic case-study into visual communications, atmospherics and delightful surprises. I parked on the lowest deck of the short stay car park and wandered into the Arrivals hall. The first thing that hits you about Heathrow Airport is the consistency of the municipal-yellow-and-black signage from the moment you enter the terminal building. There is something “warm” and reassuring about that colour scheme - and the effect is somewhat accentuated when you have been out of the country for some time and arrive back at Heathrow.

Yellow and black signage - uniquely characteristic to Heathrow.

A delightful surprise can be obtained by going up the escalators at the very far right of the Arrivals hall - the ones that lead you to Wetherspoon’s Bar. This is my favourite route to the Departures hall. When you get to the top of the escalator - it seems that the only place to go is the bar itself - but if you take a sharp left and follow the little passage you will come to another escalator which is going up. When you get to the top of this you hang left through an anonymous passage down the side of a Boots shop and you will suddenly be confronted by the bustling departures all. The effect is quite dramatic. There are hundreds of people - all crowding up in front of an endless row of what seems like hundreds of British Airways Check-in desks. There is a distinctly “international” feeling in the atmosphere. Even the airport staff and airline representatives - who look so ordinarily “London” when you might stand or sit next to them on the tubes or trains, or when you might pull up alongside them sat inside their cars at traffic lights on the streets - are transformed into members of an “international elite” when on duty in the airport. Like the architecture and the atmosphere - these people define the very essence of Heathrow.

Screens above Terminal 4 Check-in desks.

Another thing that amazes me about Terminal 4 is the system of Tensa-Barrier “mazes” that sprawl in front of the Check-In desks. These are so unlike those that can be found at the other terminals - and is probably because there is a lot more space - and the mazes are a lot deeper. The incredible thing is that the airline representatives who “man” the mazes have a way of changing the configuration of the maze at a drop of a hat - in order to react to the relative density of the crowd wanting to check-in for a particular flight. Amazing!

Instantly reconfigurable “mazes” in front of the Check-In desks.

There are times when I feel that I could spend all day at Heathrow Airport - there is so much to see. It’s so unlike any other airport in the world - and I have seen a fair few. It’s definitely the most interesting and varied - and despite being shabby and dated in some parts - it’s still one of the most welcome and reassuring things about arriving home after being out of the country for a while. And it’s not just me - I could see that on the faces of the people who had just arrived as I passed through the Arrivals hall on the way back to my car. I love Heathrow Airport.

Posted by jag at March 13, 2004 02:04 PM

Hmm.… Probably I can pay a visit on my way to US - if I ever take a BA flight

Posted by: sat on March 14, 2004 06:26 AM

Quite a few airlines between North America and Asia stop-over in London. But you would have to get permission to go “land-side” for a few hours if you didn’t want to stay stuck on the “airside”. (Basically - they give you a temporary visitors Visa at immigration.)

Posted by: Jag on March 14, 2004 04:06 PM

I agree about the comfort of the signage of UK airports - and the fact that there is so much of it - but I like the clinical cleanness of it all.

There’s nothing quite as thrilling as being at one of the quieter airports in the wee small hours; no-one about (except for those kipping in the lounges), nowhere to get a bloody cup of coffee. The calm is wonderful.

Posted by: Vicky on March 14, 2004 05:06 PM

Hi Vicky: Funny - cos I would have to agree with you: when I was a student bumming around the world I once turned up in the city of Toronto, accidentally one day ahead of when I should have been there to meet a friend - and I didn’t have a place to stay for the night. Couldn’t afford a hotel/hostel - so after exploring the city for the day I made my way to the airport late at night on the offchance that I might find somewhere to sleep for the night - on a bench or something - and found that the airport was completely devoid of any human activity. Found a row of empty seats in the departures lounge and slept the night away blissfully. Got woken up in the morning by someone with a vacuum cleaner!

Posted by: Jag on March 14, 2004 08:48 PM

I too luv Heathrow Airport. I lived 10 mins away from the airport (@hounslow) for 2 yrs. Many say that the sound of constant landing & take off of aircrafts is a pain.. but I used to enjoy it and the sheer comfort of watching from my bedroom - the endless flights descending at Heathrow is a joy in itself.

Posted by: Chakra on March 15, 2004 10:57 AM

You know, the more I read you blog, the greater appreciation for your writing style and view of the world I gain. I love the way you are able to take the most seemingly ordinary surrounding and capture something uniquely interesting. London through your pictures and words sure seems like a might fine place, not perfect but vibrantly alive and “human”. Thanks.


Posted by: maisha on March 15, 2004 05:56 PM

Chakra: in a funny sort of way I agree with you - there is something extremely fascinating about watching planes take off and land. And Heathrow - where it is commonplace for a row of planes to be seen in the sky coming in to land provides ample opportunity to experience this marvel.

Maisha: Once again - thank you for such kind words. The funny thing is that I don’t really think too hard about it. Just goes to show that the ordinary and “human” things in life provide so much fuel for the imagination - and are themselves very rich in detail and inspiring. This applies to everyplace - and not just London I am sure. Glad you enjoy it!

Posted by: Jag on March 15, 2004 10:41 PM

I live too close to the airport to pay any attention to planes any more but I do miss Concorde.

Posted by: strowppycow on March 16, 2004 09:59 PM

Hi Strop - missing Concorde? In that case - I wonder if you missed my posting from some time back titled “Goodbye Concorde”? If so - then you can revisit it at:

I put together a pop-vid of the last scheduled flypast of Concorde in October last year - footage taken from Hammersmith Bridge in West London. Dowload it and shed a tear or two.

Posted by: Jag on March 16, 2004 10:31 PM

I love Terminal 4 as well. It is a BIG improvement over Terminals 1,2 and 3. A very modern design with a lot of glass and shops! LOve ya Concorde!

Posted by: Patrik on October 1, 2004 09:03 PM

Can you try and get a heathroe pen for me please
who ever you are

Posted by: Avnish on February 17, 2005 06:05 PM
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