Patrick Barkham: 850 Year Old Middlesex Village In Heathrow's Path

Roundup: Talking About History

Elm trees hugged the main street in Sipson when Jack Clark earned his weekly 3s 9d on Thomas Wild's farm. Fields, he recalls, were lined with hummocks of strawberries. Grapes and peaches grew in glasshouses. Plums dangled over the walls of orchards. There was a pump for spring water. A mile-and-a-half down the road was a small cluster of cottages called Heathrow. The only grey objects in the sky above the market gardens of Middlesex were Clark's pigeons.

Jack Clark is 94 and still keeps pigeons at the bottom of his cottage garden in Sipson. Around him, however, is a landscape utterly transformed. At night, he stands in his dressing gown and watches a line of eight aircraft, lights ablaze, hanging in the sky like Christmas lights as they make their descent into the world's busiest international airport. A field away, a satellite dish whirs round and round. The red lights of a control tower blink over the rooftops. Sipson, a village of 700 homes, is marooned between the M4, the M25 and Heathrow.

Where he would bird-nest as a boy, a boxy Holiday Inn now squats. Where he once played cricket on the street, people carriers stack up. And yet, against all logic, a small community survives in Sipson. You will see it if you look to your right seconds before touching down from your sunshine break in Barbados. Americans exclaim at it. There is a paddock of horses, the low beams of the King William IV pub, a primary school, a (converted) Baptist church, the post office and the butcher's, mock-Tudor houses, crescents of pale-bricked semis from the 70s. A village, a recognisable village.

This year, 855 years after the first surviving records of a settlement called Sibwineston, the people of Sipson expect to be wiped off the map. From Gordon Brown downwards, the government, supported by airlines and the aviation industry, says that Heathrow must have a third runway. At Stansted, plans for a second runway will swallow two small hamlets, but not since wartime has such a large village been threatened. Sipson's 700 homes, shops, pubs, small businesses and school will by buried under taxiways, terminals, concourses and car parks by 2020 if this year's government review of its 2003 aviation white paper approves R3, as the aviation industry calls it. And, as BAA, Heathrow's owners, acknowledge, it is not an either/or choice. A third runway at Heathrow will not halt the need to expand other airports. Our insatiable appetite for cheap foreign travel means that the struggle to save Sipson will mirror other battles across the country in years to come.

A sickly image recurs on the streets of Sipson. "I've lived here for more than 30 years and just rubbed along with the airport," says Christine Shilling, whose house is 200 yards from the proposed taxiway just outside Sipson. "Now I see it like a cancer, spreading across the landscape." Bryan Sobey stands in his front room next to three wistful oil paintings of trains. "Heathrow used to be what I called a 'friendly-advantage' place. It supplied work. It was a bit of a family, in a way. It is now a cancer just about to become malignant." He and his wife Ann bought their house in 1959. Coming from Devon, they had seen entire villages sacrificed for military camps during the second world war. "But this is so that someone can go to Malaga," says Sobey.

Heathrow was born in the war. A small aerodrome with a grass runway was built by Fairey Aviation to test aircraft in 1929. According to local historian Philip Sherwood - like every resident, drawn into the campaign to save Sipson - the air ministry knew that an airport so near west London would never be approved under normal planning laws. The second world war intervened, Fairey was evicted and Heathrow became a military airfield. "It was a ruse," says Sherwood. "They didn't start work on building the airport until May '44. Within a year, the war was over." The people of Sipson have a motto for Heathrow: "Deception since its inception."

This year, Sipson celebrates an inauspicious anniversary: 60 years of having been earmarked for destruction. Plans from 1946 show five runways and no Sipson, but money ran out. Heathrow remained a bucolic collection of marquees. "They had only just pulled down the tents when I arrived. The terminals were Nissan huts," says Sobey. In his early days as a customs officer intercepting smuggled diamonds, all the "bucket and spade" flights departed from other (now defunct) small airports nearby. He never imagined Heathrow's remorseless expansion. When Terminal 4 arrived in 1978, residents were assured there would never be a 5, 6 or 7. But by the early 1990s, with T5 on the statute book, a third runway was mooted to serve Terminals 6 and 7. Rejected in 1995, the plans for R3 were quietly resuscitated at the century's end.

Three developments make 2006 a potentially fatal year for Sipson. Buried in the chancellor's pre-budget report in November last year was an announcement of "extensive" research on pollution problems at Heathrow "aimed at identifying solutions that would allow construction of a third runway to take place within relevant air quality limits". Then there is the government's own review of Britain's transport infrastructure by Rod Eddington, the former British Airways chief executive. It is widely expected to streamline the planning process for major infrastructure, making it harder for Sipson to block the runway. Finally, at the end of the year, the government will review its 2003 white paper. It had said Heathrow's expansion would be delayed because of noise and pollution problems. Lobby groups are now pushing for a positive decision on R3; the chancellor's activity suggests they will get it.

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Peter Kirsopp - 1/16/2009

Sorry to have taken so long. My enquiry was sparked by a mention in an account of Alexander Davison in the book Nelson's purse by Martyn Downer Page 104.
Yours Peter

Chris Wild - 10/24/2007

I would be interested to know your sources for the ownership of Sipson house. My family were market gardeners in Sipson for hundreds of years, the Thomas Wild referred to in this article was my Great grandfather. Family records show that Sipson house was owned by my 5th great grandfather William Wild (b1744 d1814) who in turn left it to his daughter Mary (b1780 d1856)who married Richard Weekly. Their son Richard then sold it to a John Cooper whose daughter Mary Ann later married my 3rd great grandfather Thomas Wild. In the 20th century the house was owned by the Philp family. Richard Weekly who sold the house to the Coopers' married an Elizabeth Philp.

Peter Kirsopp - 10/14/2006

Alexander Davison, Nelson's banker swho used Sipson House as his summer residence after 1790, acquired it from a Mrs Barnsley. Could this be the affluent Mrs Elizabeth Barnsley, aged 31 noted card sharp and descendant of highwaymen who was sent to Botany Bay on the Lady Juliana? Sipton is adjacent to Hounslow Heath haunt of highwaymen, and her husband Thomas was sent to the same place for stealing from the Bristol coach near Maidenhead