Adjacent to the nation’s busiest airport is a community living entirely off-grid. Flanked on one side by a runway and on the other a Holiday Inn, this is not the most obvious location for an ecological project to thrive.
But Grow Heathrow is more than an eco-village. Established in 2010 it was set up as a direct protest against the expansion of Heathrow Airport. The proposed third runway would cut through local villages, graveyards, wildlife habitat and irreplaceable biodiversity, as well as increase the air pollution, noise pollution and climate change emissions from the airport.
In the summer of 2017, when I arrived at Grow Heathrow, my first impressions were of a captivating mosaic of raised vegetable beds, greenhouses and hand-built wooden cabins, all woven together with bramble bushes, graffiti and winding pathways. The community spent its days gathering waste fruit and vegetables from a nearby wholesale market, playing chess, carrying out repairs or extensions to the shelters, or breaking pallets for firewood. At night, light pollution from the airport and central London meant the sky glowed a sulphurous yellow, and it was possible to read outside.
I lived as a guest in a treehouse, helped to distribute campaign leaflets throughout the villages that would be demolished for the runway, and went wild-swimming in a nearby lake with the community. It felt like a refuge, the right place to be in relation to a world which polluted and consumed, and it was more than anything else a magical environment.
As well as resisting the third runway, for me Grow Heathrow was about offering and experiencing a different way of being in the world: slower, simpler, closer to the earth and to people. We weren’t totally separate to society – we paid a water bill to Thames Water, we used local buses and foraged in local markets – but we had sidestepped it, able to observe it with a new perspective from our treehouses and solar-panel towers. The individuals I met there were as diverse as the wildlife, the historic buildings and the human histories we sought to protect with our occupation of the land. What united us was a shared understanding that we disliked the way modern life was unfolding, and we wanted to live differently.
"For me, Grow Heathrow was about experiencing a slower, simpler way of being in the world."
The winter that I lived at Grow Heathrow was a cold one. Snow fell and lay across all of London and the South West. Left out in my sub-zero cabin overnight, my boots would take fifteen minutes to soften and become flexible when I put them on in the mornings. The water in the pipes and in the kitchen washing up bowls froze, meaning the community at last had a genuine reason not to do the washing up. Looking at the leafless trees and withered bramble bushes, it was incredible to observe the ways in which my outdoor home had visually changed with the seasons. The midsummer harvest festivals and the glut of summer tomatoes felt another world away.
Just when it seemed that the skies had forever been grey and sleet-filled, and the nights deep and impenetrable, spring came. It was a special experience to feel and understand its arrival not by the turning of the calendar page, but by the heightening of sun and the light green buds emerging around the site.
During the years 2010-2018 plans for a third runway were proposed (2010), cancelled (2012), re-proposed (2013), and approved by Parliament (2018). In early 2020 the approval was ruled as unlawful by the Court of Appeal, in light of the UK’s commitment to the Paris Climate Agreements. Later that year the ruling was overturned by the Supreme Court.
Throughout all of this, local people and the constantly changing community of Grow Heathrow fought tirelessly to raise awareness of the impact that the runway would have on human and other ecologies in the areas surrounding the airport and beyond. Seeing the decision to go ahead makes me even more passionately committed to anti-aviation campaigning. We cannot give the green light to such carbon intensive projects given the environmental predicament of our planet and ourselves.
"We cannot give the green light to such carbon intensive projects as the Heathrow third runway given our environmental predicament."
But the most profound part for me was that, in the process of opposing the airport, Grow Heathrow demonstrated that a more sustainable, slower and richer way of being is possible and liveable. People were constantly coming and going, but there were still defined ‘generations’ of community members, within which invaluable connections and relationships were formed. I feel blessed for each day that I lived there.
We often travel far and wide as a means to connect with ourselves and nature. But the beauty of these things is in the earth where we stand, far below the flight-paths, among the bramble bushes.
Pictures: Jonathan Goldberg
Words: Kirsty M Moyse and Jonathan Goldberg