For as long as I’ve lived in London, I’ve lived under the flight path.
That’s not saying much, of course – most of central, west and south-west London is affected by plane noise, as they circle over the suburbs, make a languid turn over Tower bridge and then approach to Heathrow along the Thames.
I remember standing on the school playing fields (when I should undoubtedly have been chasing a hockey ball or hustling to class) and looking up at planes not so far overhead, trying to identify the airline from the tail fin design. Alitalia. BA. Pan Am. SAS. Lufthansa. Countries in the sky.
For most of the last decade, I’ve lived directly under the flight path, in Mortlake by the river, which is the point where the wheels come down on the landing approach.
When we first moved here, I was hyper-aware of the planes. I’d wake up as the first flight droned overhead around 04.30, before dropping off again. And then, throughout the day and evening, every thirty seconds, they’d rumble over on their way to landing: loud enough that you’d miss a few seconds of important dialogue in the film you were watching, or have to pause your conversation for a spell. Before Concorde stopped flying, the air would be thunderous for nearly a minute as it slid overhead.
Yet most of the time, I didn’t mind the planes. They reminded me that up above, people were about three minutes from landing – homecomings, holidays, greetings and meetings. Three minutes before landing, everything is put away and switched off. There’s nothing to do but look out of the window at the huge expanse of London below and anticipate the moment when you’ll touch down. It’s nice to sit in my study, or in the back garden, or lie in bed and think of people in a suspended, anticipatory, excited state above, just moments from an arrival.
And I’ve been in those planes, too. I purposefully sit by the window when returning to London, usually on the right of the plane, so I can drink in the sparkling city. And what a welcome home.
Greenwich. Tower bridge. Cannon Street. Waterloo. Green Park. Hyde Park and the Royal Albert Hall. The Empress building. Queen’s Club. Hammersmith bridge. Leg o’mutton nature reserve at Barnes. My house, by the bend in the river. Dukes Meadows driving range. Brentford. Hounslow. Heathrow. Home.
In the months after September 11, 2001, the sound of planes took on a different edge. More menacing. Despite the fact that they were still just tootling along toward the landing runway, sometimes the noise sounded surprisingly loud – Too loud? Too low?
And there were other concerns, too – we can’t shop in our local Sainsbury’s without thinking of the tragic tale of the man who fell to earth – a story that sounds apocryphal, but horrifyingly, happened. More than once. Knowing that certainly lends an edge to doing your weekly shop. We glance nervously at the passing planes sometimes, too.
I woke yesterday morning to the sound of birds in the trees outside the window, and wondered what was missing. It took a while to realise the absence of planes made this place feel different.
It’s been a strange combination of eerie and delightful these last few days having no plane noise at all.
No contrails. No regular rumble overhead. Because there are no planes.
The atmosphere over most of Europe, they tell us, is full of dangerous ash. And yet the skies seem so beautifully, strangely empty.