London: In Search of Croydon

Posted by in Culture, Transport, Travel

The signs to the present past and terminal building at Croydon


My new home base lies somewhere between Heathrow and Gatwick; the two busiest hubs for aviation in the UK. However before those two got off the ground so to speak, the main London airport lay not far up the road just outside of Croydon perched by Purley Way.

It is kind of what Templehoff is to Berlin. It’s a further walk from Croydon’s economic centre than I thought. Nonetheless as it was a glorious and strangely mild winter day, why not?

The first sign is one of those brown ones assigned to notify you (and me – the visitor) there is something of historic interest not far off and it is the ‘Croydon Airport Visitor Centre’ established in 2000.

This is good news, the bad news is it’s run exclusively by volunteers and is hence only open on the first Sunday of every month, so you’ll have to fall very lucky with your timing if you don’t live in London or around.

A disabled DeHavilland Heron, forever in flight yet grounded.


This in turn makes it all the more alluring, a truly exclusive museum to see and hopefully to remember. Fortunately I only had 12 days to wait. Meanwhile was the more taxing task of locating it.

Around the corner from the Hilton and the brown sign is the crown jewel, that is the original terminal standing there in brilliant bedazzling white with the De Havilland Heron perched – literally – outside its entrance. 

What I don’t know is that the visitor centre is within that very building. I was under the impression it was purely a business centre and besides the roadside ‘brown’ signs there is nothing to say this is it, enter. So I walk all around it looking for what is already in front of me.

There is like many existing airports no shortage of hotels to choose from, though why they are there at all is a mystery; it is after all a dead aerodrome and I can’t see why anyone visiting an industrial estate would need a four star residence; though they must do a roaring trade! 

Modern nostalgia; the creature comforts of KFC and Costa opposite the still standing Aerodrome Hotel.


So what are the hotels? Well firstly are the Hilton and Premier Inn (across the road from the former terminal) with the adjoining Colonnades Business park jostling between them. This in turn includes the most exquisite KFC I have ever seen! (See image above). Plus a rather futurist Costa drive thru.

In keeping with the aviation theme of the area is the Gypsy Moth pub and carvery. The Hallmark’s Aerodrome Hotel (which was a hotel even in the days of the airport) is very nice and that’s just the lobby and bar! While tucked behind it in the somewhat surreal surrounds of said industrial estate is the Grand Sapphire – as white as said airport terminal or house as it’s now known, the doors of which await.

Croydon Terminal interior; skylight and Imperial wings (nothing to do with Paul McCartney)

It’s within that I discover the reception of what was the terminal and a glimpse of a bygone era and the earliest days of commercial air travel. A genuine temple, one of the first purpose built for passengers which is incredible and right here in the UK. Better still it’s a listed building preserved for all to see in the way Cardiff’s Pengam Moor isn’t. The wings were the insignia of Imperial Airways – now British Airways.


It’s not the only discovery. The control tower is still intact only this time I don’t get a sneak preview as was the case in Guangzhou. The plot thickens in that the original location for Croydon was in fact at Plough Lane until 1928 when it moved to the Purley Way site opening in May the same year until 1959 when the fledgling Heathrow took over.

The terminal was not the only innovation (inward and outward passenger flow), so too was the art of air traffic control hitherto an after thought or not really thought of at all.

All of this occurred when Britain was in a very progressive state. There is however a sense of absence. I have no idea what the planes that would have used Croydon sounded like compared to Heathrow where I can recall the Trident’s, the VC-10’s and even Concorde and all of those were loud!

Croydon lasted for 31 years during which Heathrow began to take the reins which made Croydon a precursor of today’s Gatwick.

With it’s thunder well and truly stolen Croydon’s final fling with the sky was on September 30 1959. A flight to Rotterdam by… a De Havilland Heron but the airport reached its heyday long before that in the 1930s when the airlines of the day flew in: Imperial (BA), Air France, Lufthansa, KLM, Swissair and Czech Airways to name a few.

The latter years were merely for charter airlines like Morton who flew the last flight. A sense of irony in that ‘morte’ is death and the pilot was Captain Last.

The future of LHR and the past on the grass of Croydon.


Now Heathrow itself is over stretched with little room for expansion but that’s another story and a very British one; so stoic are we that we would rather throw money at a dead duck than build a new airport from scratch. The very reason Hong Kong, Guangzhou and Athens were closed was that there was no possible way to expand them.

Only their respective governments took action for the future. Something we just don’t do in Britain; planning! I am by no means a fan of our present leader (here in the UK) but he was right about the airport. Move it way out of London but his words fell on unwilling ears and minds. It would be sad to see Heathrow gone but nothing lasts forever. 

The fact is Britain is no longer the hotbed of innovation it was in the days when Croydon was at the cutting edge of aviation. Now a long distant memory, at best preserved. History is more or less all we have left that’s homegrown and one can only wonder how the hell Britain came to be the mess it is today and more so, how we are still an economic power!

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Before we head back to Croydon, there is one other bit of info I discover and that is the Sainsbury’s supermarket on Cromwell Road – near the Silver Fern that was – used to be a BEA city check-in centre so if you think that’s new think again. It was news to me!

A short walk south on the Purley Way is a field in which remains the last part of either a taxi way or a runway and I wonder if in years to come someone will be doing similar at Heathrow. That however will be a different writer in a very different time.

With a brand new terminal and so much infrastructure at LHR I can’t see it closing for at least 30 years and quite possibly a long while after my own final destination – whenever and wherever that might be.


I awake at 7:47 and return on the first Sunday of the month to find the museum open as planned. I go expecting nothing to what I’ve already seen but thankfully I was about to eat humble pie, it’s well worth a visit!

My tour guide is Norman who is both amiable and knowledgeable and has time to answer my questions. Much of the story is military which is of zero interest to me but still important in the airport’s history.

Shades of Old Baiyun; the former Control Tower and Apron (now a car park).

Unlike my previous sortie the weather is not with me (note above shots) but considering it’s mid-winter at least it wasn’t raining or snowing and most of the tour is inside, save for the exterior view of the control tower. Again in keeping with Old Baiyun in Guangzhou, the apron is now a car park.

Through the double doors and there in the corridor is a row of old photos as well as the sign to HALT. From there it’s up to the control tower interior. There is a whole host of material available from old timetables to the speed-bird logo, the airport perimeter light and models of the planes (I especially like the Air France and KLM Dakotas).

I don’t want to include all the images here as it would defeat the objective of going there, so no more spoilers from me. Back home and I’m editing the photos to find I have 767 (not just of the airport). So the day starts at 747 and ends at 767, if that isn’t a sign of an avgeek what is?
Bus 119 from East Croydon bus and rail stations or 289 from West Croydon.
*if you’ve not been to Croydon before both the east and west stations are more of less central though east is the bigger of the two. You could walk it but allow a good half an hour.


Thanks for reading here, should you be interested in my work; principally writing, photography, and teaching, check out the MEDIA page, and/or the UNIVERSITY page for my teaching ethos.

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Balthus Bemused by Colour (from Music for Films III) – Harold Budd (mix by Brian Eno)
*although this song is named after an artist known for somewhat voyeuristic works, for me it has always symbolised flight or flying.
Somebody Up There Likes You (from New Gold Dream) – Simple Minds
In Dark Trees (from Another Green World) – Brian Eno

Photo credits: KH