This forgotten building still exists, at least in its physical manifestation as a 1960s tower block overlooking the Cromwell Road. In all other respects it is forgotten and when I wander around the extensive interior of Sainsbury’s Gloucester Road I never think of what was there before, or of the original purpose of this strangely sited structure. Because this building served a purpose which could now be regarded as obscure and archaic. It was British European Airways’ West London Air Terminal.
[A Rover 3.5 litre coupe, a car much favoured by managers in the 60s heads to the car park bypassing the ramp to the departures area on the first floor.]
The idea of an air terminal away from the actual airport it served goes back to the days when Croydon was London’s Airport. It had a remote terminal at Waterloo Station. In the period after the war Heathrow was in the ascendant so the search was on for a site in West London. The airport authorities settled on an area in Kensington already occupied by another form of transport: the Cromwell Curve where the District and Circle lines came together and tube trains from Gloucester Road, High Street Kensington and Earls Court passed each other. It was decided to build a concrete raft over the train lines and construct the new terminal above them.
The need for the terminal was so great that they couldn’t wait to build a full scale versionl. A temporary two storey terminal was completed in 1957.
This is a truly forgotten building, barely recalled at all I should think except by those who used it.
This picture has something for everyone: some unusual buses, a glimpse of one of the demolished towers of the Imperial Institute and a view of the Cromwell Curve still in the open air, before the concrete platform reached its full extent. Although temporary, the first terminal was celebrated in print as this cutaway diagram from the Illustrated London News shows:
The first terminal’s time was limited. In a few years the new version was under construction.
The new tower rose and the platform was extended to accommodate a second entrance.
This view of the east entrance shows the other end of the ramp and the lift tower. That lone pedestrian looks like he’s taking his life in his hands.
Here at the west entrance an early photo shows some minimal signage for BEA.
Inside was a modern concourse with flight information displayed on actual television sets.
It looks a little under-populated but that may be what the photographer was asked to produce.
Down in the restaurant it looks lively enough with people sitting around some bar style tables.
At this point I have to ban the word modern from any further use.
The idea in case I haven’t spelt it out was that you checked in for your flight here and then you and your luggage were transported to Heathrow in special airline buses.
I tried to explain to a younger person why this might have been thought to be a good idea but I didn’t succeed. It is enough to say that for many years the airline and its passengers agreed that it was.
The Cromwell Road location, a short convenient distance up the road from Gloucester Road Station meant that when the time came to fly you could put on your sheepskin coat, walk down some stairs, put your case in the coach and be on your way. On the way back the airline deposited you back in Central London.
They even had a baggage carousel, with uniformed porters on hand to help. It doesn’t look too busy.
I suspect the whole arrangement was something to do with the relative novelty of regular air travel and once people were used to the idea of going to airports, and there were plenty of options for getting there, it was just as easy to make your own way.
So the exciting days of air travel were over.
Nice dress, Madam.
And as I said the actual building, now remodelled under the name Point West is still with us. Look at this aerial view:
The curling ramps are gone and the building is clad in an inoffensive colour.
As always with aerial photos you can spot some interesting detail you can’t see from below. That light well in the centre for example. What does it look down on these days? An ornamental garden, or a sports field?
Next time you travel on the tube between Gloucester Road and High Street Kensington you can look for the steel girders holding up the concrete platform you are travelling beneath. You can also look all the way up, and wonder what the view all the way down looks like to residents.