Sunday, September 25, 2011

London Lethargy

I wanted to write about the London airports, but there was so little to write about. I postponed and postponed, a year went by, weed was growing everywhere on this blog, and there is still little to write about. London has five airports; to be fair, I only know four of them, but it seems unlikely that the little city thingy can save London's airport face. London is a gigantic airport hiking fail.

But it wasn't easy to accept this. I don't have an exact record of my visits to London airports, but I certainly spent more time on London airports than in London itself. This sounds sad, but it's not, really, because initially, in the early London years, I had high hopes, particularly for Heathrow. Such a big, massive, complex thing, there must be lots of potential. Must. Be. Originally, as you can see here, the plan was clearly to build an airport shaped like the Star of David, but nowadays it looks more like the inside of an octopus womb, plus Terminals 4 and 5 placed inconviently somewhere way off. Do octopuses actually have wombs?

But then reality hits. Terminals 1-3 are just too much stuff at the same place, it's not even funny. Good for a few quick minutes to get the circulation going in the legs and maybe a peaceful moment in front of St. Georges chapel, but that's it, as far as I can see. 4 and 5 are too far away for most stopovers. If you really want to walk from the new terminals to 1-3, it must be more than 10 miles. Still, this is an option for extreme airport hiking and someone will do it, some day, it might even be me. If there is one thing I learned over the last years, there is always someone out there doing the things I consider to be too extreme for the moment.

I'm not going to say anything about Gatwick and Luton, other than 'been there, done that'. The thing with these smallish airports in the UK: They look so similar that you really need a clear, distinctive feature to remember them, like the tower in Edinburgh. Gatwick and Luton have nothing like that. I wouldn't even buy a T shirt there.

The consolation price then is Stansted. It's the Ryanair airport, so you expect exactly nothing, but this is slightly too little. Stansted is in fact an okay hiking airport. This year alone I spent about 20 hours there and it wasn't boring, which means a lot. The terminal building itself is charmingly unoriginal, just a large, transparent block. I imagine it was 4pm on a Friday afternoon, the architect has spent the whole week playing Angry Birds, and he still has to come up with this airport design, and at some point he goes 'fuck it' and 'block'. It's the perfect way to save the weekend.

The other good thing about it is its size. Big is good. Spring nights, like all nights, can be fairly unpleasant in England, and it's always good to be able to do long rounds in the warm, dry terminal, watching the sleepers, marvelling at the imagination these people use to find vaguely comfortable sleeping positions on an airport bench. Or, conversely, at the fuck-it-all mentality of those people just lying flat on the ground somewhere in the middle of the huge hall.

Spring days, on the other hand, like all days, can be quite pleasant in England. From the terminal building it's just a short walk past the Radisson or across the parking lot to reach open land. With this type of airport (Edinburgh or Stockholm Skavsta are other examples) it's not easy to define what airport hiking is all about. Because they merge with the countryside, ordinary airport hiking quickly becomes ordinary rambling. Is the cow meadow ten minutes down the road still the airport? Can I claim the next village, too? The airport becomes bigger and bigger and ultimately the world is an airport.

Another fun game: Catching the wireless internet while walking around the Stansted bus station in front of the terminal. Since the internet is driving around with the buses, this requires to watch buses and switch between various wifi stations which all have the same name, while checking emails. With other words, it's a nightmare.