One bright day in early July, I walked through the meadows – past a wheatfield enamoured of summer – to the High Street of the ancient village of Harmondsworth.
Drinkers made the most of the sunshine outside the Five Bells, and gazed across to the impeccably tended flowers on the green.
Five minutes later I was sitting inside a cabin that had been installed within the village hall. Through a headset and earphones, I was watching – and, more importantly, hearing – a succession of aircraft of different varieties virtually approaching Britain’s busiest airport.
Airbus A380s and Boeing 787s drifted down, notionally on approach to runways 1, 2 and, crucially, 3. Welcome to the Heathrow Airport Expansion Consultation.
As a roadshow, the mobile extravaganza that has just started doing the rounds in west and southwest London may not have the glamour of a rock tour. But here in Harmondsworth, the airport’s Master Plan for expansion is rousing similarly strong emotions.
For anyone who has somehow neglected to follow the tortuous debate about building extra runway capacity in southeast England over the past four decades, a brief reminder about where we are.
Heathrow and Gatwick, London’s two main airports, are respectively the busiest two-runway and single-runway airports in the world. Airlines are desperate for more capacity.
In the 2010 election, David Cameron took over as prime minister with a promise not to expand Heathrow: “No ifs, no buts, no third runway.”
Within a couple of years he set the wheels in motion for expansion by setting up Airports Commission – though with an instruction not to report before the 2015 general election.
Sir Howard Davies and his team considered a wide range of options, including the so-called “Boris Island” in the Thames Estuary, and unanimously recommended an additional runway at Heathrow. After yet more procrastination the government approved the choice.
Heathrow has already run two consultations. The latest presents the preferred Master Plan in exhaustive detail to the communities affected by expansion.
In most locations, the primary concern is noise from planes flying overhead. But Harmondsworth would see half its homes – and the primary school – demolished to make way for the third runway to the south, while the A4 trunk road, diverted by the expansion plan, would encroach from the north.
Justine Bayley has lived in the village for 25 years. “The airport is a close neighbour and we accept it where it is,” she says.
“We’re not trying to close it down. We just don’t want it a kilometre closer than it is at the moment.
“I’d probably have to put on ear defenders every time I opened the front door, because the runway would be 100 yards away.”
Ms Bayley is also treasurer of the pressure group Stop Heathrow Expansion, which is handing out flyers headed “Heathrow’s Preferred Disaster Plan.”
She insists the airport’s owners have already made their minds up, and that this is a shallow PR exercise.
“I tend to use the word ‘consult’ to mean I’m waiting for people’s opinions.
”They’re just telling us what they want to do, and to me that isn’t a consultation.”
But Rob Gray, Heathrow’s director of community and stakeholder relations, rejects the assertion: “Every week, myself and my team are spending a lot of time within the local communities, here at Harmondsworth and in the surrounding villages as well, getting to know the residents, hearing their concerns about this whatever their views. There are a whole range of views, and we want to hear them.
“We definitely can improve and nuance our plans and help people where we’re impacting them the most.”
The consultation will continue until 13 September. Well before that, the new prime minister is likely to be a man who vowed to lie down in front of the bulldozers to prevent a third runway.
Yet Boris Johnson, MP for nearby Uxbridge, has been strangely silent on the subject since his promise – and even engineered a visit to Afghanistan while foreign secretary on the day of the crucial parliamentary vote, in which expansion was approved overwhelmingly.
For farmer Roy Barwick, whose family has lived in leafy, soon-to-be-concretey Harmondsworth for five generations, no amount of nuance, virtual reality or cash compensation can alleviate his fears for the future: “To be threatened with eviction is a trauma second only to bereavement.”