Memories of lost village bulldozed in name of flight

Lowfield Heath c1905. Picture courtesy West Sussex Past Pictures

Lowfield Heath c1905. Picture courtesy West Sussex Past Pictures

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To most people, Lowfield Heath is nothing more than a point on the map which you pass through on the way to Gatwick.

To others it was the home which was bulldozed from beneath them to make way for an international airport.

Percy Bish at County Oak Service Station 1933

Percy Bish at County Oak Service Station 1933

Only the seemingly incongruous French Gothic St Michael and All Angels Church remains to give a hint as to the area’s former life – and, if Gatwick’s expansion dreams go to plan, that too will soon disappear into the pages of history.

There can’t be many people left who remember Lowfield Heath not only before the airport but before the Second World War.

Percy Bish was 71 years old when he shared his memories of his childhood in the idyllic village with the Crawley Observer in 1981.

Mr Bish’s family connection with Lowfield Heath was a long one. His father was born in 1871 in an oak-beamed farmhouse which was demolished when the aerodrome expanded to become the Gatwick Airport we know today, its foundations laying beneath a British Airways hanger.

I cannot forget the experience when we moved from the village and I watched them bring in heavy machinery and raze everything to the ground

Percy Bish, speaking in 1981

His mother was born at County Oak but went to school in Lowfield Heath, where she later served as a teacher. His grandfather Henry Cheal built much of the village from his brickyard.

With such a strong family connection to the area, Mr Bish would have been forgiven for detesting the airport.

Not a bit of it.

According to the 1981 report: “Mr Bish loves planes and flying. He watched the first Royal Flying Corps planes land in the Gatwick field, and tried to be first there when balloonists ran out of air.”

Lowfield Heath c1906. Picture courtesy of West Sussex Past Pictures

Lowfield Heath c1906. Picture courtesy of West Sussex Past Pictures

He had 20 minutes in a biplane when the first Gatwick Flying Club was formed and flew at twice the speed of sound on Concorde when the supersonic passenger jet was at the airport in 1980.

While embracing the brave new world thrust upon Lowfield Heath, Mr Bish did grieve for the loss of the landmarks of his childhood, such as the blacksmith’s, the wheelwright’s and his school, which later became the village hall.

Those landmarks also included the White Lion pub and JF Mitchell’s shop, in London Road.

Then, of course, there was the windmill, which was first recorded on a map of Surrey in 1762, when it was owned by James Constable.

Lowfield Heath School c1955. Picture courtesy of West Sussex Past Pictures

Lowfield Heath School c1955. Picture courtesy of West Sussex Past Pictures

When Mr Bish was a lad, the mill was little more than a tumbledown shell of its former self and, in 1957, it was wrecked in a storm.

Unlike the rest of the village, though, the mill was saved when it was restored and moved to Charlwood.

Recalling the day his village life ended, Mr Bish told the Observer: “I cannot forget the experience when we moved from the village and I watched them bring in heavy machinery and raze everything to the ground.

“A whole community was split up and scattered. It’s difficult to pinpoint the place where one’s home stood.”

As a child, young Percy used the roads as his playground, rolling hoops made by the blacksmith and playing cricket with his friends.

Their wicket was just a cardboard box and the youngsters rarely had to move it out of the road unless a farm cart or herd of cattle was passing.

Traffic would be much more of an issue today, as the A23 has since ploughed through their former playgrounds.

When he was a very small boy, between 1916 and 1918, Gatwick Racecourse was used to host the Racecourse Association Steeple Chase – a substitution for the Grand National, which had been cancelled as Aintree Racecourse had been taken over by the War Office.

Adulthood saw Mr Bish become a building contractor.

He later courted his wife, Violet, along the winding footpaths of Lowfield Heath.

Next time you are at the airport, take a look out at the sprawl of hangers, warehouses and runway and imagine a young couple, hand-in-hand, planning their lives in an idyllic spot which has faded from history.

Mr and Mrs Bish lived in Ifield Green and he was president of the Lowfield Heath branch of the British Legion.

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