Isabel Huggan’s piece (Footloose) about living in London in 1966 and travelling around the Continent mentioned the West London Air Terminal. Because no rail connection to Heathrow was built until 1977, the air terminal on Cromwell Road was the point of departure for passengers leaving from London on British European Airways, unless they were flying out of Croyden. The terminal was built over the period from 1955 to 1963, beginning with a concrete platform over rails and a short-life prefab building clad with mahogany panels. This two-storey building was later (1962-1963) either joined or replaced by a ten-storey one, built on stilts over London Transport’s Gloucester Road Underground junction. The new building was also the headquarters of British European Airways. Officially opened on 6 November 1963, it was the main London terminal until 1973. Before it was finished, however, the West London Air Terminal had up to 25,000 passengers passing through daily by 1960.
I gleaned this information from a heavy book at the local history section of my library: Survey of London Volume XLII, pages 337-338. The author went on to talk about tourism and hotels. South Kensington had had an increase in private boarding houses and residential hotels during the period between the world wars. At least one of these was demolished for the construction of the air terminal. But the rest benefitted from the presence of all those tourists passing through. According to the Survey, the Development of Tourism Act of 1969 gave hoteliers a subsidy per bedroom for new accommodations. So old hotels were revived and new ones built. The London Tara hotel and the London International hotel were built on railway land; the latter was completed in 1972 with room for 850.
Are you wondering how the air passengers got from Cromwell Road to Heathrow? By bus. Coaches with 37 seats were replaced in 1965 by double deckers that sat 57 and had trailers behind for the luggage. And what else did this wave of tourism require? A new road. The M4 motorway was completed at the end of 1964.
The terminal was terminated (not sure of the exact date it was closed completely). British European Airways was absorbed by British Airways in 1974. British Airways occupied the upper floors of the terminal building until 1985. In 1983 the grocery store chain Sainsbury’s opened in the western half of the terminal building. There is still a Sainsbury’s at the corner of Cromwell Road and Gloucester Road.
Today, those departing from central London can get to Heathrow by the London Underground, by the Express train from Paddington, or by the National Express coach from Victoria station.
I am not mad keen on transport hubs or architectural history. But for this I make an exception, wondering how many Canadian writers came and went this way. Did Richler and Laurence come into central London to depart or did they find other ways to the airport? How many other young writers arrived via the Cromwell Road and stayed in cheap digs nearby? And before air travel, which dock did our Canadian writers sail from?
I couldn’t find a picture of the cafe mentioned by Huggan, but I found this poor quality photo of the terminal restaurant with long tables, in the library’s ephemera file.
A much better article than mine: Forgotten Buildings: the West London Air Terminal by Dave Walker of the RBKC library (rbkclocalstudies)
Air Travel in the 60s (retrowow)
And now for your listening pleasure, the British Airways theme tune Lakme (once on the Howard Blake page, click on LakmeFull to listen)