Today sees the arrival of a friend from abroad who is spending the weekend at mine. Since I knew he was coming, I have indeed baked a cake, but I sense that I should also make an offering to Luton Airport, since it is only my extreme proximity to an international airport that makes it viable – even easy, inexpensive – to hop over to Luton for a weekend of cake, conversation and Rolfing.
Luton Airport (or London Luton Airport, to give it its correct title) is oddly maligned by the media and the public at large. I really can’t see why. ‘London’ Luton (30 miles from central London, and 20 minutes on a fast train from St Pancras) is no more absurd than ‘London’ Stansted (35 miles) or ‘London’ Gatwick (30 miles) and a good deal less ridiculous than ‘London’ Southend (40 miles). Over the years I’ve noticed that a number of my London friends believe Luton is much further north than it really is: reckoning by their reactions, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Luton is actually somewhere in north Lincolnshire.
I used to live in Brighton, and had no problems in tempting friends down for a full weekend of sea and (occasional) sunshine, and for events such as the annual Pride festival. It’s been a harder sell in Luton, to say the least, cake or no cake. More often than not, they stay for only ‘half a night’ (not even a full overnight stay!) so as to catch whichever early flight they are getting in the morning (if this comes across as tragic, fret not: I have recently been succeeding in tempting increasing numbers of London friends round to mine for various practice bodywork sessions).
Luton Airport is sometimes (quite erroneously) held to lack a certain ‘pedigree’, by dint of its size, or age, or the kinds of destinations it serves. First built in 1938, Luton Airport is only 9 years younger than Heathrow, and around 5 years younger than Gatwick, and carries somewhere in the region of 10 million passengers per year to (direct flight) destinations as different as Zurich and Sharm El Sheikh. In the 1970s, it was undoubtedly package holiday central, and indeed the means by which tens of thousands of working-class Britons were enabled to ‘go abroad’ for the first time in their lives.
For me, it’s been incredibly useful to have such a straightforward, easy-to-use airport almost on my doorstep. I used to work on a European project which necessitated a good deal of travel to the continent, and it is with considerable affection that I remember getting first flights out to Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague, among others. Five minutes in a taxi, and generally (not officially!) safe to turn up only 45mins before departure (so long as you buy a Priority Lane ticket for £4: the best £4 you’ll ever spend when you stroll past the queues of holidaymakers, believe me). It’s a small but perfectly formed airport: once you know the drill, you can be through to the departure lounge in under 10 minutes, just in time to grab a just-baked croissant and a cup of coffee before heading over to the tarmac.
While it has flirted with transatlantic flights in the past, Luton Airport is not in the business of long-haul, but it serves the European mainland and the ‘new’ (eastern) Europe very solidly in addition to the usual sun-soaked holiday destinations as far as Turkey, Egypt and the Canary Islands. And there’s the rub: Luton Airport has for years been stereotyped as a primarily ‘package holiday’ airport, but with the rise of the low-cost airlines, that’s no longer primarily the case. LTN is very much a working airport, a business airport, even: alongside the holidaymakers there are many people (like myself) travelling for work between the UK and the European mainland.
It’s small enough to be easily navigable (no shuttles between terminals! no endless walkways and travelators!), and still large enough to have a decent selection of shops and restaurants. And when I come back, I can (if I am so minded, and haven’t got too much luggage) actually walk home from the airport (it’s about 2km from my house).
As for noise and (local, visible) pollution: for me, there is none, though I should note that there are people in the town who are set against any further expansion of the airport, on precisely those grounds. Very occasionally I hear an airplane overhead, but it’s really uncommon. But you see them, and in fact it’s one of my favourite, most hopeful Luton sights: the sturdy soaring of a tail wing (often orange: EasyJet readily describes Luton Airport as its ‘spiritual home‘) over the Chiltern Hills and towards the horizon. And that’s the only sad thing: when friends who come to stay finally have to go home.
[Read the first part of ‘Luton: It’s Easy to Leave’ here.]