Forgotten buildings: the West London Air Terminal

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.

WLAT vehicle entrance

[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.

WLAT K61-474 first terminal

This is a truly forgotten building, barely recalled at all I should think except by those who used it.

WLAT K61-475 first terminal showing Cromwell Curve

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:

WLAT first terminal 1957 K61-476

The first terminal’s time was limited. In a few years the new version was under construction.

WLAT K63-924 construction

The new tower rose and the platform was extended to accommodate a second entrance.

WLAT K64-13 east 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.

WLAT K64-183 west entrance

Inside was a modern concourse with flight information displayed on actual television sets.

WLAT K64-8 interior

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.

WLAT K64-9 interior - resturant

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.

WLAT K64-12 interior

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.

WLAT K64-10 interior

They even had a baggage carousel, with uniformed porters on hand to help. It doesn’t look too busy.

Copy of WLAT K64-11 interior

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.

WLAT pedestrian entrance

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:

WLAT K65-108 aerial view 1965

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.


57 responses to “Forgotten buildings: the West London Air Terminal

  • Robin Greeley

    Fantastic! Is this the air terminal that appears in an episode of The Avengers, in which John Steed returns from holiday to find Mrs. Peel kidnapped by a set of art thieves?

  • William

    Hi Dave
    This one brings back memories. My wife worked at BOAC (Buck Pal Rd) as a booking officer in the mid sixties and we used the west London air terminal several times as we got to travel at only 10% of the fares, and sometimes had free accommodation at the other end. This was magic for us as we lived in a garret in Redcliffe Sq. I remember buying a book at the WLAT to read on one journey – a recently de-banned thick PB volume by Frank Harris ‘My Life and Loves’, which makes that trip 1966. Strange, I recall the book but not the trip!
    Great work.
    William

  • Hasenschneck

    It was the (to me) helter skelter-like ramp that caught my imagination as a child.

  • Giblets

    I actually live in the building, wanted to know a little bit of the history, didn’t realise it used the same structure (I assumed it was entirely new build), but you can still see the round columns when you are in the apartments now!
    The lift tower contains the exclusive penthouses
    It is now known as ‘Point West’ 116 Cromwell Rd.
    Image of it today:

    • Dave Walker

      It’s good to hear from an actual resident. So can you tell me if the light well in the middle is used for anything now – it would make an interesting hidden space if there was a garden or something there. Or are you going to tell me it’s just a roof for whatever’s undeerneath?
      Dave

  • Russell Tait

    this building was designed by my father, Gordon Tait of Burnet Tait and Ptnrs.
    Is it possible to obtain copies of the photos?
    Many thanks

  • Giblets

    Hi, there is a David Lloyd gym in the building on the ground floor. The ‘courtyard’ is open down to that level where there is a glass roof over the running machines, not very exciting am afraid.

  • Ian Todd

    Hi, I used to work in this building from 1977-1985 when it housed part of BA’s IT department including a data centre, and Telephone Sales. It was a great place to work and featured an iconic bar in the basement called the ‘Comet Club’. This place was so liked that that we recently had a reunion to celebrate the place and the friendships it spawned. We even have a Comet club group on facebook. It was a sad day when the building was sold off in BA’s asset stripping prior to privatisation and we were all farmed off to the desert that is Hatton Cross.

  • Sydney25

    Hi Dave, I am also a resident of Point West so it has been with extra interest and enthusiasm that I have been reading you blog on the history of this fascinating building. There is very little about it online so I thank you for your blog. I live in that light well and as my fellow resident says it looks down on the David Lloyd Gym. You can see people sweating it out on the cross trainers and treadmills through the glass window. I am also a member of the gym and so I get both views. I have vague memories of the terminal as a boy but remember it being redeveloped in the 1990s. Thank you once again for sharing this fascinating piece of history. I am really enjoying your blog.

    Best wishes

    William

  • Tony C

    Hello, everyone.

    I worked in reservations from April 1974 to October 1977; originally on the 4th floor, on Univac unisets connected to BEACON and later, downstairs on the 2nd floor on VDU’s connected to the BEACON replacement, called BABS.
    Very high-tec for its day.

    We answered between 14,000 and 19,000 calls a day!

    24-hour shifts, lots of friends, fun and good memories, but BEA were taken over by BOAC who only had one way of doing anything – theirs!

    All downhill from there, I’m afraid….

    Tony C.

  • charles stuart

    Great article thank you. In the 60s and 70s I used to pass it a lot. Now I just passed daisies on a 74 bus and wondered whether or not the whole thing went. Didn’t know it say on top of the tube junction which I travel through most days. Very interesting. .. Thanks.

  • Angelina

    Hi Dave

    Many thanks for the article. How fascinating! Being a resident at Point West, I was intrigued to find out more about the building when recently I came across a short article on this building in the British Airways in flight magazine High Life. (http://www.bahighlife.com/News-And-Blogs/To-Fly-To-Serve-Blog/Time-Travel-Town-Flyer-1956.html)

    In the magazine (sadly not on the online version), it shows the inside of the terminal with passengers checking in as well as the routemasters with luggage trailers.

    Is there any chance those additional photos from BA magazine are added to here so that this article here holds the most comprehensive archive of the building as the West Terminal.

    Thanks again for safekeeping this piece of interesting history.

    Angelina

    • Dave Walker

      Angelina
      Thanks for your comment. It’s good to hear from another modern resident of the building.
      In almost all cases the images on the blog are from the Local Studies collection or books in the Library. I try to present pictures that are unfamiliar or not available elsewhere. I imagine BA has its own archive of images for which they hold the copyright image rights.
      Dave

  • Alexandra Arad

    Hi Dave,

    Do you happen to know when was the present sainsbury’s built? I’m an architecture student and currently doing a project on this site so any information would be very much appreciated. Also thank you for this post, very good insight on the history of the place.

    Alexandra

  • Peter Warden

    As a prep-school boy in the 1960s with parents living in Spain I had several trips from this terminal, usually meeting up with my sisters who were at another school in Kent. On the first occasion I was supposed to meet a Universal Aunt at Victoria Station…I gave her the slip and made my own way to Cromwell Road. There I made the acquaintance of another boy and his sister who had their own Universal Aunt….Due to dense fog at Heathrow my flight was postponed and I was billeted with this 2nd U. A….because the original one, who by then had found me ..was not able to put me up ( more likely she wanted nothing to do with such an ill-behaved charge! ). My sisters , however, had no such recourse to lodgings in the capital and had to be driven back to school for the night ( by a very accommodating school taximan ), returning next day for the successful flight !

  • Linda Shore (Wheeler)

    I worked at the terminal from 1970 until 1978 and had a great time working as a Passenger Service Assistant. We worked shifts and moved around the different venues. Most of us were in our twenties, so the social life was good and we often met in the Comet Club for a few glasses of wine in our lunch break. The men probably enjoyed themselves too as the majority of staff were female and some the girls including me ended up marrying one of their colleagues. I am still married to him after 41 years and we share a great love of the place we met.

  • Phil

    I worked there from 69 through 72 as a programmer on what were then very powerful mainframes, see http://philmayes.com/work/univac494.htm for arcane machine details. It was a great job. I would walk down Cromwell Road at lunch hour and spend time in the then free museums staring at Tielke guitars and parts of Babbages’ calculating machine.

  • Martin

    Very interesting! I found this blog after searching for info on the Cromwell Road terminal because it features briefly in the book I am currently reading – Michael Crichton’s recently republished “Scratch One” copyright 1967. The protagonist flies to Nice via Air France. Having been a Londoner for 16 years and visited that area several times but never heard of the terminal my curiosity was piqued. Thanks!

    Incidentally to follow Phil’s comment above, the museums are still free, at least for the moment.

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  • Mark.

    A character in Agatha Christie’s novel _At Bertram’s Hotel_ (1965) goes to the terminal only to find his flight was the day before. I’d never heard of it and was greatly pleased to see this site. Nowadays it’s airport car-rental facilities that are sometimes far from the airport, notoriously so in for instance Phoenix, Arizona.

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  • Percy Boon

    You can see Kensington Air Station in the 1949 Margaret Lockwood film, Madness Of The Heart, at about five minutes in. The film is currently availabe on YouTube.

  • Geoff

    I used to do an odd shift there sometime after the BOAC/BEA merger in the mid 70s. My normal workplace was network control at Heathrow, SAUDIA had a contract with BA to provide IT and I believe it was originally serviced from the WLAT.

  • Chris D

    You can read an article about the first terminal (with pictures) here: http://www.flightglobal.com/pdfarchive/view/1957/1957%20-%201421.html

  • Garrett

    Excellent article. I was curious about it because I was reading Agatha Christie’s “At Bertram’s Hotel”, and I’d never heard about any air terminal in Kensington. So it was interesting to read about the terminal and its history.

    But sometimes old ideas return – a few years ago Vienna opened its City Air Terminal in the city centre, with a rail link leading directly to the airport, and check-in desks at the city terminal. I think as airports get busier and more crowded, this idea is becoming practical again.

  • joseph

    Can also be seen in Billion Dollar Brain, ultimate part of the Harry Palmer trilogy with my name is Michael Caine.

  • chasbaz

    I worked there for BEA IT from 1968-77. Happy days!

  • joanna walsh

    Is this the terminal that burned sometime around 1960? We watched that from our flat a few blocks away.

    • Dave Walker

      Joanna
      As far as I’m aware, the original two-storey building didn’t burn down. The current building was constructed in 1962-3 and was in use as an air terminal until the early 70s. I’d be very interested to hear more about a fire in the area.
      Dave

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  • Maria Mercer

    I worked for BEA in the West London Air Terminal in 1971 as a clerk typist for a Systems Analyst for about 3 months. I was on a working holiday to UK, coming from Brisbane Australia. I walked to this building each day from Cranley Place, South Kensington where I lived in a bed sit which was rather primitive then with only a tiny gas operated hot plate for a cooker costing one shilling an hour. No refrigerator, we used the windowsill to keep milk and butter cold ha! Still we loved it, as it was a great adventure for 22 year old girls then. I remember getting stuck in the lift one Friday around 5pm, it was scary, could see myself there for the week end ha! I kept my finger on the emergency button, until a male voice said over the intercom “take your finger off the button” I called out, “please get me out of this lift”. I was in the lift for an hour or so when the doors were prised open with a crowbar by the two men. From then on I walked down the ramp inside the building every day after work. I thought the old BEA terminal building was demolished, but just discovered today it is now residential apartments called Point West. Wish I knew this when I was last in UK in 2013, I could have walked in my old footsteps to revisit my old workplace when revisiting the old bed-sit at 12 Cranley Place, (it was £5 each a week then. Can you imagine the cost today??) something to put on my visit list for next time. Those were the days!

  • Tony Crampton

    Hi, everyone.
    Search on-line for a short film entitled ‘Clear to Land’, about BEA in its hey-day.
    Included is a sequence shot in the West London Air Terminal, showing the 4th floor reservation hall in the late 1960’s, and Univac Unisets in use on BEACON ASRS 4.

  • Gerry

    Hi, I lived in Kensington until moving to Ireland in 1975. I used the West London Air Terminal several times flying BEA to Dublin. It was a magical building which I recall with fond memories of Sunday afternoons walking round to soak up the ‘airport’ atmosphere. There were lifts that had fascinating (for a young boy) with buttons that lit up when you touched the clear plastic surrounds – they didn’t move in or out but lit when simply touched.
    Can anyone please tell me when the coaches changed colour to/from blue to/from red? The trailers that carried the luggage were fab🙂
    Gerry (now working in Dublin Airport over 36 years!)

  • Karen

    Just been watching a 1958 film ‘Nowhere to go’ starring George Nader and Maggie Smith. Some wonderful ‘old’ London locations including ‘Kensington Air Terminal’.

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  • Basia Korzeniowska

    i used to live in South Kensington until 1971, and the first time i went to Spain by myself in 1970 (I was 17) my mother took me to this terminal – our local one, and off I went. it was very easy and pleasant and near. once you got to the airport you didn’t have to worry abut anything! it was a great shame when it fell into disuse!

  • Basia Korzeniowska

    I lived there till 1974 actually. I can’t work out how to edit my previous comment!

  • mrsredboots

    I worked in an au pair agency in France in the early 1970s, and almost all the families to whom we sent girls said that they would meet them at the WLAT – in the days before the Piccadilly Line and Heathrow Express, it was the only practical way of getting to and from Heathrow by public transport. I used it myself a time or two, and also the Gatwick Airport terminal at Victoria Station (not Waterloo, surely?). So much more pleasant not to have to negotiate public transport with a heavy case, but, alas, impractical in these days of heightened security.

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  • Pierre L'Allier

    When I moved to the UK in 1975, my future wife (Margaret) lived on the Cromwell Road about a block away from the WLAT. She used to work as a programmer, but I don’t remember which system she was on. She used to go home for lunch!

  • woofbarkyap

    I loved the long sloping corridor that went all round the tower and one of my treats was to go up in the lift and run all the way down whilst mum sensibly went back down in the lift to meet me at the bottom!
    You didn’t mention the IRA bomb that took a huge chunk from the tower sometime in the mid 70s, I was in the Osten mews across the tracks and my mum picked me up and threw me behind her smashing my face open on the pebble dash. Many a school teacher still cowering in corners will agree that my mum was infinitely scarier than the IRA!

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