Overlooked Britain Lucinda Lambton
‘To be in Heathrow is to be in the historic bosom of the British Isles’ is a mantra I intone daily and with delight. ‘With its pure sweet air of antiquity, in interest it is unapproachable in the land.’
These words were written in the 1930s, about the spot where Heathrow Airport is now, by historian James George Joseph Penderel-brodhurst, when Hounslow Heath was beautiful and interesting.
Nor is it bereft of such qualities today. Rural and architectural miracles of survival remain around the entire perimeter of the airport.
One is bang in its midst. Mere yards from the runways, hard by a galvanised, chicken-wire fence, you find a George III cannon, marking the first inch measured for the Ordnance Survey map, on 17th August, 1784. The inaugural ceremony, with the king himself
coming to marvel, was one of the great spectacles of the day.
Within spitting distance of the world’s busiest international airport, there are five villages, with 15th to 19th century buildings, all of them complete with their ancient churches.
Harlington’s St Peter and St Paul has a humdinger of a Norman doorway, with zigzags emblazoned with cats’ heads. They are all also peopled, as is the airport itself, with a rich roll-call of ghosts. What a sight and a half it would make if they were all to assemble together on the tarmac.
It was here that Jonathan Swift first read Gulliver’s Travels to his friends Alexander Pope, John Dryden and John Gay; a pleasing scene that took place in Lord Bolingbroke’s Dawley Farm, which stood only yards away from the runway.
The house, remodelled in the early 1700s by James Gibbs, was a pretty, red-brick building, where Bolingbroke was ‘ostentatiously engrossed in rustic pursuits’. The hall’s walls were painted with rakes and spades, and ‘prongs and other implements of husbandry, as one might see arms in a general’s hall’.
Nicholas Hilliard, the great 17th century miniaturist, could also magically join the party. He lived to the west, at Poyle Manor, with lawns of ‘living velvet’. To the north at Harmondsworth, Richard Cox, who propagated the first Orange Pippin, lies buried. His potting shed survives to this day, in a car park behind a block of flats. What, too, about Sir John Suckling, who invented cribbage and who lived on Hounslow Heath?
Eustace Burnaby, who patented the first white writing paper in 1675, lived at Stanwell; Isambard Kingdom Brunel lived at Cranford.
The ghostly assembly grows to many thousands, including legions of Romans who settled on the heath and built a temple on what is now the main runway.
What, too, about Oliver Cromwell, with his 20,000 men, who waited on Hounslow Heath before marching to London to take over the King, Parliament and country?
As a final huzzah, Lord Knyvett, who foiled the Gunpowder Plot, lies in St Mary the Virgin, Stanwell, beneath a marble monument, conceived in 1619 by the sculptor Nicholas Stone. Its alabaster skulls with primrose wreathes (pictured) have great charm.
The 14th-century church, with its twisted-with-time, wooden, tiled spire, can be spotted and relished as a beacon of these enticing survivals whenever you fly in and out of Heathrow.
The memorial to Lord and Lady Knyvett (detail below), at Stanwell Church. Thomas Knyvett helped foil the Gunpowder Plot