It is that all important “first ride of 2014 post”. Weather has been pretty bad each weekend since Christmas and having spent the week on the Highway in the wind and rain to and from work each day has meant not being up for the same treatment at the weekend. I have been planning routes though which I hope to undertake over the year. One such route being a ride around the perimeter of Gatwick airport. When I was growing up we lived quite near Gatwick and I remember fondly the times we used to go and watch the large planes taking off. I picture us standing at the end of a dead end watching through a metal wire gate, hearing the roar of the engines as they started down the runway and seeing them pass at great speed. I don’t suppose we did that often, but to me it is a memory that stays with me and one that I enjoyed. In an attempt to replicate that with my own children I have many times looked it to work out where that location was and it wasn’t hard to find at all. Unfortunately, in an era of everyone being a terrorist and wanting to spy on airports (so we are told), the gate at the end of the road still exists but it is now boarded over and a further boarded up gate a few yards after that. You can just about see plans whizzing down the runway if you look down through the crack down the side, but you have to make your way through the crowed of serious plane spotters to get there. Hardly a family trip out anymore and a bit of a shame. When Gatwick was first built it had purpose made viewing platforms on the roof of the terminal, things were different back then it seemed, people did not used to carry surface to air missile launchers in their pockets like we all do today. I had a search on the Internet only to find further bad news. It seems out of all international airports in the UK, Gatwick is the worst if you wish to watch the planes. There are only a small selection of possible viewing points around the airport, all of which you are likely to get moved on by security if you even think about stopping with your camera and flask of hot orange squash. Not to be deterred, I decided to find out for myself, on my bike. Touring by bike is always best, be it a motorbike (Long Way Round stylee) or a push bike. You are part of the environment you are travelling through instead of being enclosed in a metal box. You can get to areas you would not, or even know about, if you were to be in a car. You can stop more often, go off road, and generally explore more. My aim here then would be to bike around the whole perimeter of the airport and find those view places that none of the world’s plane spotting websites had yet discovered. A task that I knew I would fail on as I am sure the world’s plan spotters have tried everything around Gatwick, but even so…. Route planned, I left the house in the dark early Sunday morning on my first 2014 trip. My plan was to go regardless of the weather and I was nicely presented with a cold but still morning, plus no rain. Everything was dark and quiet as I made my way through a smaller but a lot older airport which sits right next to us here. Shoreham airport has been there since 1911 which makes it one of the oldest working airports and terminal buildings in the country, featured on various films such as Poirot and The Da Vinci Code. We have gone to watch the small planes many times, its very open and nothing like Gatwick! Unfortunately it seems to have been neglected greatly probably in the hope to run it into the ground and sell the land off for housing, something which I’m surprised has not happened yet but it is clearly on the cards at some time. A shame as if they improved their restaurant which is located with full sized windows looking out over the airfield, it could make a name for itself just for that (a restaurant with an airport attached!).
I made my way through Small Dole and Woodmancote, quickly discarding my fleece to my panniers, it’s amazing how quickly you warm up. Still not many cars as although it was pretty much daylight it was still early.
I reached the A272 and Bolney and made my way up the first real hills of the trip, it is mostly an uphill trend all the way to Handcross. I had picked unclassified roads which being so rural showed signs of the relentless rain since Christmas, being covered in leaves and bits of tree. The uphill was made more enjoyable as the sun had cleared the early morning cloud and mist creating some really nice early morning winter shadows in the trees.
A sense of achievement to reach Handcross and to cross the A23. On the bridge I caught the tail end of the roadworks from the three year long road improvements that are taking place on Handcross hill. This is a scheme that has been talked about for years as it had remained the only remaining stretch of bendy road left on the A23 and a favorite place for hold ups (going up the hill) and crashes (going down the hill). It’s a shame for it to loose its character, it still incldued some pretty old junctions only minor unclassified roads which looked quite quaint but were clearly unsuitable for modern day traffic. While a dual carriage way, it had numerous bends and trees splitting the two directions. For locals, you knew that keeping at 70mph on the downhill was fine in order to get passed the bends, but for those not so used to it they would slow down too much. With that and the winter sun, crashes happened constantly and while quaint and a bit of a landmark to say you were nearly home, it was clear they would upgrade it at some point. It was delayed for many years, but now it is in the middle of completion and the area looks completely different.
After crossing the current A23 I joined the old A23, now demoted to a quiet country road and little used apart from residents of villages that have been by-passed. It is also used by cycle route 20, the main route from Brighton to London (or London to Brighton if you like). I would stick on this route all the way to the airport.
I was a bit suprised to find out that Route 20 suddenly comes to a flight of steep steps as you get into Crawley. The sign asks me to dismount (never something you want to see), and they are not kidding as they are pretty steep steps. They have nicely put a small slope to wheel your bike down or up, but I was fortunate I did not have full touring kit on the back the bike as the only way would had been to unload and reload at the bottom. Something to keep in mind if you are ever on Route 20.
I entered Crawley and as a result of it being a New Town, the many mazes of cycle paths going under and around roads. I had it all programmed into the GPS and so did not get lost to often, although I was glad to be back on the road again.
I could tell I was near an airport, I cycled through the endless industrial estates where the industry on offer was all about cleaning and meals. I could now hear distant airplanes and the land looked flat. My next port of call would be Gatwick’s original terminal building, now listed and at the time something pretty revolutionary as the world’s first integrated airport building. It was build quite a way from the runway but close to the railway, giving good customer service for visitors and their luggage from London. It is circular (and looks a bit like a Beehive, a name it now uses) which was done on purpose in order to use the most efficient use of space, getting passengers to where they need to be quickly and safely, planes were able to stop at piers coming off the circle. It was completly new way of thinking in the 1930s, and the design concepts are used in all airports now. In the middle was the control tower. From old photos it shows this building sitting in the country side with a runway some way off. After the war, when the government decided to turn Gatwick into London’s second international airport, the whole area would change completly, which included the Beehive. Villages were knocked down, roads rerouted, new terminal buildings created. The Beehive, the revolutionary building that it was, was left out of it all, cut off by the re-routed A23 and no longer had anything to do with the airport. Fortunately, and strange for the time, it was not demolished and now this listed building is part of a business park where people pass it all day and probably do not even notice it. A bit of a shame, but progress, again, cannot be stopped.
I was now in airport territory and ready to start my trip around the perimeter, starting off by keeping to the cycle route which means you don’t have to join the busy A23 that goes under the terminal buildings. The path followed a small river which seems pretty fast running and full of water, but the tide marks higher up on bank and on the overhanging branches of the trees showed that days previous it had been a lot higher. The river, cycle path, and A23 all skirt along the side of the airport and past the end of the run way. A possible good place to watch planes flying over the top of you, although at the time it was still early on a Sunday morning and only the odd plane was landing now and then. I loitered around the landing lights for a while, but after no planes landing I moved on. A possible good place to bring the boys, but where to park?
The path follows along side the A23 and under the terminal buildings where you leave the roadside and venture into a bit of Gatwick airport. A little Gatwick haven between the railway station and the terminal, pretty tatty and probably not seen by many, probably just the odd cyclist on their way to London maybe. A sharp right turn and you are out of airport backstreet land, under the Gatwick light railway and soon along a small lakeside path. It felt a bit strange to be in parkland with a lake complete with ducks where just over the other side of the trees was a massive big airport. A bit of green between the airport and the houses of Horley. Initially part of Horley common before Gatwick race course came along followed then by the airport which gobbled up the racecourse but gave back the common to the community. Now part of a flood plain and a little bit of green in what is mostly a mass of concrete, in theory it should stay this way.
The cycle path had done a good job of keeping me near the side of the airport but off the busy A23, but I had to leave and head West along the top of the airport and into Surrey. There are big plans for Gatwick, for an international airport it is strange to think it only has one runway. Currently there is lots in the news about all of London’s airports, we are told one or some of them need to expand, infact an extra airport has even been considered too. It is then big news around Gatwick and there are a couple of plans proposed if/when the second runway comes to town. It may be South of the airport or North. The South is very built up with mostly industrial estates and so removing these would not be a huge loss, although would mean rerouting the A23 once again (this time underground) and removing the Beehive which seems a bit bad. The other solution is North of the airport of which there seems to be a mostly flat number of fields and farmland, a more likely solution but would mean runways quite a distance apart and the loss of farms and villages. It seems like the 1950s all over again. A road runs North along the airport and seems quite rural, as I biked along I thought one day in the future this will all be gone.
On the map I noticed off this road there was a footpath which skirts alongside the River Mole and is pretty much in the airport grounds. I soon found it and getting off my bike I started to walk along. The River Mole was greatly affected by Crawley new town and Gatwick airport with large sections rerouted with concrete channels, mostly making it a “lost river”. The other year the environment agency rerouted the River once again away from the runway and along a more natural path with not a bit of concrete of covering in sight. This has formed a little riverside walk seperated from the road by small woods and from the airport by a big bank of earth. Once again you find yourself in the middle of the country side but with the airport just meters away the other side, the only way of knowing being the low aeroplanes as they take off every minute or so. I had been stopping quite a bit, taking photos and moving on, the day had progressed and Gatwick was now getting busy which meant the frequent planes in the distance taking off. Time to stop and get out my airband radio to listen into air traffic control and get a feeling of just what planes I would witness. A clear for take off, a distance roar and then low to the ground a little bit off the planes came into view, getting higher and then gone, ready for the next one. Listening in showed just how busy it all way, planes landing as planes took off, planes queuing and taking turns, instructions given to squeeze an extra plane in now and then. Every 30 minutes or so (or maybe an hour) the controller’s view would change as they shared shifts. I wonder what they do if they need a wee inbetween?
With all the recent rain it was very hard going and I soon had to give up and head back to the road. A pity, it must be a favorite walk in dryer times, although with no way to park a car anywhere near I’m not too sure how you would get there. Maybe part of the reason why I met no-one that day.
Back on the road and back into Sussex and another 90 degree turn for the next side of the airport, I would soon meet the end of the runway. Before this though I would pass Gatwick aviation museum, unfortunately closed until the Spring, maybe next time. The road looked like perfect plane spotting territory, a fact not lost by officals who had put no parking signs up at regular intervals. According to websites, this road is your only chance if you come by car, but be warned as you will be moved on. Indeed, I’m sure I spotted CCTV cameras in the airport side of the fence pointing outwards. I could see why it would be such place as planes soon came overhead over and over, pretty low behind climbing up high. Being on a bike of course, I could stop. Listening on the radio for their clearance to take off and then moments later watching them go overhead.
I came to a gate where I met my first plane spotter complete with massive camera. The gate was clad in metal sheeting which meant his camera lens peered through the small gap at the edge, I took the other edge and did likewise. Once again, signs telling you not to even think about stopping, I could see regular patrols moving people on here. There was not much to see without a zoom lens, it was better when the planes came overhead. A prime plane watching location then, but no where to stop in a car.
A carried on in order to get the end of the perimeter trip before I headed back into Crawley, getting to Lowfield Heath which itself was a place of interest. This was the place of childhood memories, it was the location of that gate that I remembered as a child watching the planes thunder down the runway and off into the air. It is also one of Englands many lost villages, a village which before the airport was an important stopping place for travellers to and from London.
Lowfield Heath, sitting at a cross roads on the A23, it once had houses, churches, shops and schools. It was an important location on the long road to London, even when Gatwick opened it remained miles away with most activity located to the East at the Beehive and railway. The end soon came about in the 1950s when the airport was expanded, parts lost by the airport expansion but even worse the village loosing its importance when the A23 was rerouted around the airport with Lowfield Heath losing its purpose and trade, it seemed a pointless village at that point. By 1974 the last people had moved away leaving Lowfield Heath nothing more than an industrial estate leaving behind only its church.
The gate I remember so well that I used to watch planes is infact a gate cutting off the all important old A23, the clue is in the name of the road, “Old Brighton Road” and on a map you can clearly see the road now going round the edge. The all important gate shows the lose of a village and community, the airport not only destroyed all that, but changed travel to and from London for good. You always see Lowfield Heath church as you come in to land.
The gate is now clad with metal sheeting just like the other one, and while there was a small collection of plane spotters there seemed little to be seen any more.
It was lunch time and time to say goodbye to airports and start my way back home. I had some Halfords tokens from Christmas and had included Halfords into my GPS route, which it took me straight to the door. I always find it strange the Halfords, a large store selling bikes, never have anywhere to lock up and leave bikes outside, instead I found a lamppost nearby. My mission would be to use my Christmas token to replace my cheap multi-tool which has the habit of working loose and falling to pieces with an Alien II multitool from Topeak. This multi-tool is actually two tools in one, they fit together or you can slide them apart. Twenty billion tools in one handy device, making a swiss army knife look a bit limiting. Pricey (although I would of course not be paying) but reviews had been good. Includes all the allan keys, screw drivers, spanners, chain tool, knife and tyre lever. It even includes an emergency spanner to do up pedals, by clipping various bits into each other the whole tool transforms into the spanner which while no way strong enough to remove pedals, it would be suitable to get you home if your pedals were to drop off.
After a lunch stop at McDonalds (mobile internet coming to my aid and finding three McDonalds all within 2 minutes of me) I pointed my bike southwards and started the journey home. I expected this to be an uneventful part so I put my head down and peddled into the head wind blowing from the South. I was overtaken by someone on a clean looking road bike and I thought nothing of it until later on down the road I saw him stopped and working on his bike. I stopped and asked if all was ok and it turned out he was having problems with his gears, I took a look. It seemed there was nothing that I could see wrong at which point it turned out it was a brand new bike and this was its first trip out, a regular mountain bike but the first time on a road bike and the first time using gears located on the brakes. I showed him how to change down gear, it’s not obvious if its the first time, and we got chatting while he accompanied me for a while. I forget his name but he stayed with my for a number of miles until we went are separate ways, I took one direction (which turned out to be the wrong way) while he continued on. Upon correcting myself (the GPS soon showed my error) I was suprised to see the same cyclist at the side of the road a bit further on. This time the problem was more serious, a flat tyre and I couldn’t help this time. With my touring bike having Schrader valves and his having thinner Presta valves I had no pump to help, being his first trip out he had no spares or pump either. We chatted for a while longer, swapping mobile numbers in order to maybe meet up in the future for some shared cycling. Time was getting on and I wanted to get home in daylight so we bid farewell, him turning back and walking back towards Horsham.
After that unexpected and pleasant meet up, I got my head down and made my way back home, uneventful apart from the odd flooded field alongside. After the pre-dawn start I got home early afternoon.
Number of miles: 69
Number of airpots: 3(‘ish)
Number of suitable plane spotting locations: none