PROPERTY / How to break the sound barrier: Houses under a flightpath or next to a busy railway line may be noisy but they do have some advantages, Mary Wilson reports

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The Independent Culture
AT FIRST it seemed like junk-mail marketing gone mad. Householders in Sussex were sent a questionnaire, asking not only if they were car owners but whether they had access to a tractor, bulldozer, fork-lift truck or chainsaw. Was there a ladder or rope in the house? Did the householders have any special skills, such as catering or first aid?

But this penetrating research was not the work of the direct mailing departments of Halfords, Texas Homecare, or even Massey-Ferguson. What the recipients had in common wasn't their socio-economic group but the location of their homes: directly under the flightpath of planes approaching Gatwick airport. Should there be a serious aviation disaster, the rescue services would know immediately what resources were at hand.

In the last 20 years there have been only four serious air crashes in Britain, but owners of properties near airports are still worried by the risk. 'It's always in the back of our minds that a plane might crash,' says Susan Lalli, who lives in Waye Avenue near Heathrow with her two children aged four and eight. 'It would wipe out the whole avenue.'

Flightpath dwellers face more immediate, if less dramatic, problems every day. Foremost among them are noise pollution and the so-called 'vortex effect' - currents of air from passing aircraft which can cause damage to houses. 'The roof tiles just lift off and come crashing down,' Mrs Lalli says. 'We've lost quite a few. And when Concorde comes over, the house really rattles.'

Even as we speak, planes roar deafeningly overhead at one-minute intervals. Standing in the street, I feel a strong urge to duck as a British Airways jet in its dark-blue livery casts its shadow over Waye Avenue. How can anybody stand living here?

According to estate agents Knight, Frank & Rutley, one reason is that it is cheap. Living next to an airport, motorway or railway line can devalue a property by up to 30 per cent. 'But interestingly,' says the company's Rupert Sweeting, 'if you suffered from all three negatives, the total decrease in value would possibly be only 35 per cent.'

Most people who live in these noise-bound areas do so for the most obvious reason - affordability. All the homes in Waye Avenue are occupied, mostly by British and Asian families and groups of youngsters sharing. A three-bedroom terrace house here costs around pounds 67,000, between 10 and 15 per cent less than comparable homes away from the direct flightpath.

Digby Jacks bought his one-bedroom maisonette in East Bedfont, on the south-easterly approach to Heathrow, six years ago. He believes that living near an airport can even have its pleasures. Perhaps because he works for the MSF (Manufacturing, Science and Finance trade union), he finds the airport - and the planes - fascinating. 'I think it is wonderful how much money the airport generates for the UK - and the number of people it employs, around 55,000, more than compensates for the noise aggravation.'

But even he admits that the noise 'can be bad on a hot and humid day'. The peace of a Sunday morning is shattered by two Concorde flights, one at 10am and the other at midday. Air traffic starts to decline around 9pm and there are not many flights between 2am and 4am.

'They go over at a height of about 600-700ft, and I can tell from their logos where they are going,' Mr Jacks says. 'The worst offender is a fully laden jumbo taking off. That can be a bit of a pain.'

For those who fall victim to noise and the vortex effect, there is a financial incentive. Heathrow has been compensating householders for years, by installing double glazing and insulation to deaden the noise. Survey results published in January show that 16,000 homes are at risk from aircraft damage, and pounds 5m has been made available for repairs and strengthening of roof tiles.

With proposals afoot to allow more jets to use Heathrow and Gatwick, property damage and noise pollution are bound to increase. But according to Rupert Sweeting of Knight, Frank & Rutley, it is remarkable how quickly people get used to noise of any kind. 'It may put off a prospective purchaser, but it does enable someone to buy a five-bedroom house instead of a three-bedder in a quieter position.' Buying a house next to an airport could be the bargain of a lifetime.

The same is true of properties next to motorways. In Chiswick, west London, a three-bedroom detached house with garden next to the M4 can be bought for pounds 125,000. Away from the motorway, a similar house costs pounds 160,000-pounds 170,000 - a premium of 25 per cent. Many families who are well-heeled, but not super-rich, see this as a way of getting their children into local schools which are among the best in London.

The building of a new motorway may affect people who didn't choose to live beside one in the first place. But even the worst scenario - having a main road bulldozed through your land - need not be the disaster some people think it is. One family living near Warwick was delighted to have the new M40 built, in effect, at the bottom of their garden. The horses they owned didn't mind the noise, and the compensation received has kept the family laughing all the way to the bank.

Kay Fagence, the estate agent dealing with a new housing development next to the M3, says the motorway's proximity has little effect on sales. 'Most people who buy here are either local, and are used to the noise, or they come from London and imagine they are living in the countryside. They think it's jolly quiet. If we reduced the prices of properties nearest to the road, it would just draw attention to the problem.'

Even Tony Langdown, mayor of the Royal Borough of Maidenhead and Ascot, lives in a three-bedroom semi-detached house about 25 yards from the A423(M), the M4 sliproad leading to Maidenhead. 'My wife Rosemary doesn't like the cars whizzing by, but I don't mind at all. At first it was a little daunting, but we double-glazed the windows at the back. We sit out in the summer and we just ignore it.'

The same kind of tolerance can be observed in the Gemmells, who blithely chat above the din of freight trains thundering past their window. Eight years ago, they bought five old railway carriages and had them moved to Shipton-by-Beningbrough in Yorkshire, next to the main London to Newcastle line. The Sidings Hotel, as the carriages are now called, attracts three sorts of clientele. 'Some are looking for something different and come once or twice,' Brian Gemmell says. 'Then there are people who like the romance of the railways. The rest are clearly unadulterated railway buffs.'

During the night the hotel is fairly quiet, though freight trains still rattle by. During the day, between 6am and midnight, a train of some description hurtles past every 20 minutes. 'There are passenger trains going to Newcastle and Edinburgh,' Mr Gemmell says, 'and freight trains carrying chemicals, oil and coal. There's even one that goes past regularly on its way up to Scotland, packed with pet food.'

You don't have to be train-crazy to live here, but if you are it helps. Mr Gemmell used to work for the railways, as did his father before him, so he has a natural enthusiasm for rolling stock. 'I have had a passion for trains since I was a child,' he confides. 'My wife is very patient; she likes travelling by train.'

The Gemmells have four children - three girls and a boy, aged between 10 and 16. 'Timothy, the youngest is as keen as I am,' Brian says. 'We light up the tracks at night, and he will sit in the conservatory - about eight or 10 feet from the line - patiently waiting for the trains until he is forced to go to bed.'

But doesn't his father lie awake all night, worrying about his property being devalued? He shouldn't, according to estate agents. As far as house prices are concerned, you can do far worse than live next to a railway line. Like live next to an airport or motorway, for instance?-

(Photograph omitted)

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