I HAD the impression that after various security clampdowns the spectating area at Heathrow airport had long since been closed. Besides, kids these days are probably too busy trying to get on to Level Seven of Sonic the Hedgehog to be bothered with a Look and Learn activity such as plane-spotting.

I was right about my second hypothesis - wrong about the first. The spectating area at the Queens Building survives: it is not as smart and alluring as I remember from a visit as a five-year-old in 1959, four years after it opened, but that it should be there at all must count as a marvel.

It is the one part of Heathrow where time has stood still: no themed decor, no McDonald's, no overpriced boutiques. The area (between Terminal One and Terminal Two) is badly signposted and hard to reach (via 72 steps, so you need to be relatively fit). It is huge, with plenty of seats offering an excellent vantage point from which to enjoy the frequent take-offs and landings. (I get a particular pleasure from seeing a 747 lumbering into the skies.)

There is a cafeteria - the Take Off cafe (open 9am to 5pm seven days a week) - which appears to operate as a homage to the transport caff of the Fifties: squashed flies on the menu in the window, surly service ('gerroff my floor, I jus' washed it'), carbohydrate-packed menu ('pork pie 65p, microwave chips 65p'); but you can get a decent cup of tea for 30p. (They stopped serving just cups of tea in the terminal buildings long ago - it is a pot or nothing nowadays.)

Next to the cafe is a souvenir shop with the dustiest, least adequate choice of gifts ever put on sale. But it is this artlessness that makes the whole place such a refreshing contrast to the overblown commercialism of the terminals.

The spectating area is the hangout of hardcore plane-spotters. Not a callow youth in sight (all at home stuck on Sonic the Hedgehog, as I had guessed) - the spotters were men aged about 25 to 35 loaded with kit: flasks, binoculars, cameras and radios. The spotters are as interesting as the planes. What brings them? What do they listen to on their radios? What do they jot down in their notebooks?

If you are looking for an outing on a Sunday afternoon, it makes a good trip. If coming by car, short-term parking costs pounds 1.70 an hour. The top level of the Terminal Two car park is the place to head for - from here you can watch the planes without even getting out of the car.