I live right next to the southeast corner of Heathrow airport. My house is in a cul-de-sac, immediately next to a park, and if you stand outside not only can you see a runway but you can read the signs on it. That’s how close it is. Most people assume the drawback to living here is noise – and it’s true that sometimes it can be hard to hear yourself talk over the noise of the engines. But our biggest problem is plane spotters.
Some weekends there will be between 70 and 100 of them in the park, watching the planes come in. The hardcore people arrive at about 8am in the morning and stay until 6 or 7 o’clock in the evening. Some are here three full days a week, especially if the weather’s sunny and landings are happening on this side of the airport.
The majority of the spotters are men in their forties, although a few of them are in their twenties. You do see women, but they only come as wives or girlfriends. I don’t know how they cope. The guys bring all this gadgetry – radio scanners so they can listen in to the control tower, and laptops with radar-style software, tracking all the different flights. They use high-strength binoculars and take photographs, checking the serial number against the aircraft model in little books. I guess it’s like going to a safari park and trying to take pictures and identify the animals.
It’s a strange hobby. Before I moved to London I lived in the Punjab region of India, about 300 miles north of Delhi. I never saw plane spotters there. The regulations just wouldn’t allow it, you can’t even take photographs of planes because they say it’s a security risk.
The plane spotters here are a quiet bunch, but there’s too many of them. They leave rubbish all over the park – plastic bottles, tissues. And they urinate in the bushes, because there are no public toilets. If you’re sitting by your window or in your garden on a nice warm day, that’s the last thing you want to see. I’ve asked the plane spotters not to once or twice, but they’re not bothered. “What do you expect me to do?” they say. It’s a shame – I don’t feel like letting my son play in the park, because I’m worried it’s unhygienic.
But by far the biggest problem is the street parking. If you don’t have a driveway, it can be impossible to find somewhere to leave your car. And even if you do, the plane spotters will park on both sides of the street or in front of a dropped kerb, so you’re blocked in or forced to do lots of tiny turns and inch your way out. My parents live with me and my wife Amrit – they have a disabled badge clearly visible on their car in the driveway, but plane spotters still park right across it. They don’t care or don’t pay attention, so you have to be vigilant. Recently an ambulance arrived for an emergency and it struggled to get out of the street. When the dump-truck comes to collect the rubbish, it has to enter in reverse, because there’s no space to turn around.
If they build a third runway at Heathrow, it won’t affect us very much – but I feel sorry for the people who live on the other side of the airport, and who will have to deal with all those plane spotters.
There is an upside, though: we feel safer with people in the park. There’s always someone roaming around, which deters robbers and means there would be a witness if anything happened. We’d probably miss the plane spotters if they weren’t here. When the airlines cancelled flights during the volcanic ash cloud in 2010, I got a call from my sister, who lives across the street. “Can somebody come and sit with me for an hour or so? It’s so quiet and deserted that I feel scared.”