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The Happy Commuter

Not many people can say that they enjoy their daily commute with any degree of truth.

I am an exception to this rule.

Yesterday morning, I softly shut the front door, and swiftly double locked it. As I walked briskly to the car, I noticed that it was cloaked with water droplets from the previous night’s heavy rain, and they shimmered in the alabaster cold moonlight, ruffled gently by the almost imperceptible breeze.

I looked up the field, and could just about make out the old farmhouse through the light mist. The sky overhead was as black as tarmac, and the stars glittered like shards of broken glass.

I smiled to myself.

It was 0445, and I was about to drive from rural Hampshire to Heathrow Airport for my early shift.

The car was chilled as I started it up, and I decided to be very self-indulgent, and switch on the heated seats, as it was only 0.5°C. By the time I reached the tiny hamlet of Bramshott, the warmth was permeating my back nicely.

The back lanes had treated me like royalty this morning. First, an unscheduled stop to enable a family of Muntjac deer to slowly amble from one side of the road, to the nature reserve on the other.

A Muntjac deer, Shy and beautiful. Photo courtesy J J Harrison

A few minutes later, I found myself driving parallel with a barn owl, sweeping effortlessly along the field to my right.

Photo courtesy Peter K Buriam. Barn Owl in flight.

Fantastic!

Accelerating up the slip road to join the A3, a quick glance in the mirror showed that there was no evidence of other vehicles heading north – not even a headlight beam.

Once the car was comfortably at the legal limit, I engaged the cruise control, tuned in my favourite radio station (Greatest Hits Radio) and took a sip of coffee.

Oh, the joy of fast cruising on an empty highway. No vehicles, and just the occasional truck heading south to Portsmouth to dip my headlights for.

The tarmac was damp, but not slippery, and I managed to get all the way to Guildford, some 17 miles before I spotted another vehicle heading north.

By Ripley, his headlights were just bright dots in the mirror.

The M25 was equally quiet, relatively speaking. Busy with articulated lorries, many bound for the airport, and some diving off down the M3 to head to the docks at Southampton.

In some respects, this was a bit eerie. In the past, even at this early hour, the western segment of the M25 would be busy with cars; airport workers and passengers, all heading for the terminals.

Lockdown was having a huge effect. The airport was just about surviving, but with so few movements, staff were either on furlough, or redundant. On the upside, air pollution was significantly reduced, and my journey time was reduced by twenty minutes.

Once off the motorway, my drive takes me through Staines, Ashford, and Bedfont, all of which are pretty deserted.

At this time of day, the lunatics and muppets are not about – still asleep I guess. Most of those that I encounter are driving safely, at the limit, and are courteous and helpful.

This doesn’t happen at 0445 on the A3… All the loons are in bed.

I pass through the security checkpoint at work very quickly.

Well, to be fair, I am the only vehicle in the queue.

My shift start time is conveniently placed between the end of one shift and the beginning of another, so there is rarely a wait before driving through the massive security gates, and onwards to the staff car park.

Early shifts are a pleasure. Definitely the best time of the day.

According to my mother, I have been an early riser since I was an infant.

I went through a phase as a grumpy teenager when I would sleep in until lunchtime, but that was more as a result of imbibing vast quantities of alcohol with my friends, until late in the evening every Friday.

I would get home, and crash out, on many occasions still fully dressed, not to be seen again until the sun was very much over the yard arm.

Despite the amount of beer taken on board, I was lucky to have never had a hangover either!

Leaving my teenage years behind, I became an early riser once more.

Working in the aviation industry, for a major airline I was a shift worker, and enjoyed a variety of start times, varying from 0500 to 2200 starts, and other shift starts between these two extremes.

0500 starts have always been my favourite though.

Summer “early-earlies” would see me quietly leaving the house, walking down the garden path in the pre-dawn glow of a brand-new day.

At the time, I was living in West London, about 5 miles from the centre of London Heathrow Airport, so it was a short drive to the staff car park.

In Spring, I would revel in the cool stillness of the morning. The sun would be shyly peeking over the gardens to the east, gilding the slate roofs of Bedfont with a golden glow, doing far more for the houses than a complete renovation would achieve.

Summer would offer somnolent dawns, warm, dappled and filled with birdsong and I would drive the deserted roads around the perimeter of the airport, usually not seeing another vehicle until I was within the airport restricted area.

Standing at the staff car park bus stop, it always surprised me that so many of us early shifters looked so tired, disengaged and sleepy.

I was, and still am, one of those awful people that are immediately ready for the day ahead as soon as their eyes are open.

Poor SWMBO, with whom I have shared my life for over 30 years, is a night owl, and doesn’t function correctly until the correct number of coffees have been emptied into her!

So, I would bask in the sunshine, waiting for the bus, whilst the others round me were slumped against the glass walls of the shelter.

The buses back then were a climate activist’s nightmare. Operated by the British Airports Authority, they were probably ten years old and to be frank, were knackered. Originally painted in bright traffic yellow, they were battered and grimy, both inside and out.

They rattled, creaked and generated more diesel smoke than an ocean liner, and would grind their way round the airport perimeter road, making only one stop at the staff bus stop in the central area.

I would then enjoy a brisk walk to Terminal 3 check in for work.

Autumn 0500s were enjoyable too, but in a more melancholy way. I would still leave the house at 0430, but now the sun was reluctant to welcome the day, and I would walk through the crispy leaves to the car in the half light, now needing to wear my light bomber jacket, thoughtfully provided by American Airlines.

As the seasons marched on, I would have to leave the house at 0420, to give me sufficient time clear the ice or snow from the windscreen.

Whilst I used a de-icing spray in the hardest weather, I often had to scrape the ice from the car, and the sounds would be amplified throughout the quiet residential street, reverberating and bouncing off the houses, and shattering the stillness.

I used to feel guilty about this, until I realised that most of my neighbours were shift workers as well, and we all took it in our stride.

I stopped working at the airport in 1997. I had been lucky enough whilst working with American Airlines to see many aspects of airline operations, Passenger Services, Passenger Security, Special Services, and Flight Operations.

I had sat in a deserted ops room, watching the flights departing the US, and plotted their arrival times, and planned the parking stands for the day.

I had sat with my heart in my mouth in the early hours of July 18th 1996, after hearing reports that an American aircraft had crashed into the Atlantic off the coast near New York.

It turned out to be TWA flight 800, and not one of “my” flights, but still a tragic loss of 230 human beings.

I had searched aircraft, operated security equipment, and interviewed suspect passengers.

I had escorted celebrities and VIP as they transited both Heathrow and Stansted airports.

Flight operations was my element though. It was what I was trained for, what I enjoyed, and what I understood.

However, promotion in the Flight Operations sector normally requires the transfer to a job that is no longer practical and hands on, but is more of a specialist desk job.

So, after many years with the mighty American Airlines, I started work with British Airways, working out of the fantastic Compass Centre.

The design of Compass Centre makes use of curved glass external walls on the south side, which overlooks the airfield. Curved glass walls were chosen as glass does not present a large radar signature, and the curved walls reflect radar energy onto the ground.

This reduces the building’s radar reflection on the ground movements radar used at the airport. The building is also thermally efficient, and summer afternoons caused the air conditioning to run at full power, despite the floor to ceiling blinds.

I was very privileged, as my department occupied the middle floor of the eastern-most block, and overlooked the runway. My desk was three feet from the glass windows, so my viewpoint was superb.

Compass Centre, My office was the middle floor of the module nearest the camera.

My job was now a standard day job, with working hours of 0800-1600. I now had to drive on roads that were filled with other commuters, some of whom appeared to have forgotten the most basic driving skills.

Luckily, this didn’t last too long, and I soon transferred to the Flight Training School, where I began working as a Flight Crew Instructor. Not only was the job hugely enjoyable, but luckily, I was back on a shift roster.

My office… I could never be an accountant!

Most of the instructors weren’t keen on early starts, so I happily swapped out their earlies, and off-loaded my late shifts. Every day was an 0630 arrival, so I was normally out of the doors at 1430, and was able to use the rest of the day for my pleasure when the rest of the world were slaving away in their offices.

I am now getting towards my personal Top of Descent, and I am thinking more and more about retirement.

If you ask people what they like most about their retirement, the most common response is “Not having to do the daily commute”.

I think that I will miss my enforced dawn patrols, when the day is new, and you can smell the freshness of the dawn.

What about you?

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COVID 19 – Lockdown and Walking with Nature

I’m sitting here in the early evening enjoying my back garden, listening to the birds as I mull over this article. My terrace is bathed in warm, golden sunlight, as Sol starts to dip majestically behind the trees lining the nature reserve.

I am so very fortunate. I have managed to make the right decisions – either by luck, intuititon, or skill, that have resulted in me living in a beautiful part of the UK. Or it could be SWMBO’s excellent judgement.

I don’t question SWMBO’s judgement – she is, after all, with me, so her decision making and judgement skills are refined.

I live in Hampshire which, like most of the UK, has a timeline of civilisation that extends 14,000 years into the past.

Roman Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in AD 43 and shortly thereafter (in the larger scale of things), Winchester became the County Town of Hampshire.

For those of you that are unfamiliar with the British concept of county towns – a county town was the ancient equivalent of of a capital city, but at county level. Traditionally, a county town is the most important or significant town in a county.

Winchester is not only the county town of Hampshire, but also a city in the truest sense of the definition.

In the UK, most people use the term “city” to describe any large town, but the status of a city was traditionally only given to towns that had a Cathedral – King Henry the Eighth establishing the first ones during his reign. To this day, the UK’s monarch has to grant city status to any town.

Winchester cathedral was consecrated in 1093, and is a wonderful old building, which seems to have history seeping out of its walls and emanating from its very fabric.

The opulence of Winchester Cathedral

Winchester is about 24 miles west of where I live. It is a beautiful old city. It is where the ancient English King, Alfred had his royal seat.

King Alfred the Great – Still watching for marauding Vikings…

The old part of the city, in which the ancient cathedral sits, is a maze of tiny cobbled streets and lanes.

Winchester City centre. Disney or Universal take note…

I digress.

The area in which I live is also historic. There has been a human settlement here at least since the 14th Century; the Roman army crossed the River Wey at Lindford, about 1 mile away, whilst en-route to battle in the west of the county in the early part of the the last millenium. The crossing over the local stream has been here since 1350, but the current bridge was refurbished in 2008.

So, we are in Lockdown.

According to Her Majesty’s Government (HMG), we are allowed to exercise once a day. So, this last Sunday, SWMBO and I decided that we would partake of some gentle exercise in the form a walk through the Deadwater Valley Nature Reserve.

It was a beautiful afternoon, with a light zephyr tousling the crowns of the trees as we left the house. A six minute walk up the hill took us to the entrance of the nature trail.

The trail is cool, the smell of damp sphagnum moss mixed with that wonderful, rich, loamy, peaty aroma. The sunlight pierced the canopy with spears of golden light, impaling the shy bluebells and forget-me-nots hiding on the floor of the woods.

Quiet – and with no risk of bears or vampires…

We continue wandering, sowly, drinking in the scents of the woodland. The information board informs me that this is a home to Stag Beetles, Slow Worms, Sparrowhawks, Red Admiral butterflies, Nuthatches and Goldfinches – together with the occassional Roe or Muncjac deer.

We plod on, hand in hand, humbled by the sheer abundance of plants, insects and wildlife.

The Deadwater Sream, slowly meandering its way towards the River Wey…

We see few people on the trail; those that we do are keen to ensure that we all comply with the two metre separation. Sometimes, we yield to walkers coming towards us, standing in the undergrowth so tha they may pass. Natural selection seems to ensure that next time we meet fellow walkers, they hold back for us to pass.

However, the social niceties are maintained, with many “good afternoons”. “please”, “thank you” and “have a good one” as we contine our walk.

The trail isn’t crowded by any means; we are in solitude for most of it – just us, walking, talking, laughing. Soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying nature.

Bluebells carpet the walk – just about everywhere. I love Spring – my favorite season

We continued on, walking generally north until we reached the exit point, where the new housing estate starts.

Not wanting to just return on the same route, we decide to wander through the small town suburbia and re-enter the reserve a little further down.

It’s a relief to leave the road once more, lined as it is, with high density housing, and populated with bus stops, garage blocks and parking bays.

We re-enter the reserve, skirting the sticky muddy morass near the stile, and test the waterproof capabilities of our footwear as we stride on through the silty puddles that surround the more glutinous mud.

Looking at the tracks in the earth, I immediately deduce that the trail is used by mountain bikers, hikers, walkers, children and dogs.

Eat your heart out Sherlock Holmes. Go back to your flat Hercule Poirot.

Whilst the nature reserve isn’t large, we have never visited before, so I was happy that I had a fully paid up account with the Ordnance Survey, and had access to excellent charts.

Using the app, we quickly planned how we would return to the end of the park nearest our home.

Our route back took us past a picturesque pond, which, according to the information board, was home to Toads, Frogs, Herons and Dragonflies.

The pond, basking in the sunshine, as it has done for over 100 years.

Sadly, we didn’t see any of them, but it has given me an excuse to come back again to check it out more regularly.

I would not necessarily have discovered this wonderful place if I hadn’t been on lockdown – so something good has come about as a result of COVID19.

My day today has been filled with catching up on various tasks around the house, so maybe tomorrow I will dig my bike out, and go and explore in a bit more detail.

A great way to do an hours exercise without having to go to the gym, which I find abhorrent at the best of times.

Go Well…