I am very slowly walking my way around the LOOP – the London Outer Orbital Path. By the end of last year, I had made it from Erith to Hatton Cross. A few days ago I set off to tackle the next stretch. It didn’t start well, as the path beside the River Crane was impassably flooded. I invented a diversion which took me along streets with houses almost as close as it is possible to get to the end of the runway at Heathrow, with planes seemingly scraping their wheels on the television aerials every couple of minutes.
We’ve all seen pictures of what that looks like, they are a feature of every story about new runways and new airports, and there’s been no shortage of those recently. Somehow the planes look bigger in their pictures than they seemed at the time (though somehow planes always look smaller in my pictures than they seemed at the time). But what the pictures can’t show is the smell. Across the width of the flight path, there is a constant low level tang of lightly roasted hyrdrocarbons. Most of the time, even there, there is not a plane to be seen. Some of the time, not a plane can be heard. But the smell is constant, refreshed every couple of minutes, just as it might otherwise start to fade.
Smell is in many ways the most evocative of senses, but is the one our multi-megapixel surround sound hi-res 3D media world doesn’t even attempt to transmit (technological dead ends such as Smell-O-Vision notwithstanding). Pictures of planes against clear blue skies tell you some of the story, but can’t tell you what’s missing from it. For that, there’s still no substitute for walking and breathing.