Silver lining: volcanic ash means clear skies
Updated on 16 April 2010
Residents on major flight paths have been experiencing an eerie calm as a result of the Icelandic ash cloud. John Stewart, chair of the anti-airport expansion campaign HACAN Clear Skies - who lives in southwest London - says it's an ill wind that blows no one any good.
In three decades of living in London, it has never been like this. Two days of real peace and quiet. No planes. No prospect of planes. The volcanic ash from Iceland has changed everything.
The difference could not be more stark. Usually we live under a sky of sound. A plane every ninety seconds. It's like living beneath a busy motorway. But yesterday the motorway closed. It has remained shut today. Suddenly the noise has gone.
We no longer need to think about whether we open our windows. We can put the rubbish out, talk to our neighbours, walk to the local shops without the constant drone of planes overhead.
Normal life has returned. So this is how other people live! Each decision is not ruled by the noise of the planes. We sometimes get quiet days in London when the wind changes direction. But this time it is different. There is no prospect of the noise returning because there are no planes in the sky. It’s that fact which brings real peace of mind.
The last two days have been astonishing in that people under the Heathrow flight path have been emailing each other, and their counterparts at other airports, gleefully sharing the good news. I'm ashamed to say none of the emails have once mentioned the damage the volcano might have done to Iceland or elsewhere! They've talked about nothing except the peace and quiet they are experiencing.
Psychologists and academics won't be surprised at this. They've have been telling us for a long time what a debilitating effect constant, intrusive noise can have on people. It can lead to stress, ill-health, poor performance at work and school and a diminished quality of life. Their research shows this happens even when people say they have got used to the noise.
There is a message to the political parties fighting the General Election in this volcanic cloud of ash. Peace and quiet matters to people.
But for those of us under the flight path, today is probably not a time for thinking about research or politics. We are savouring every moment of our new quiet world. People have emailed me to say they are actually enjoying hearing sounds like bird song for the first time in ages. I don't think they mean they have never heard the birds singing in amongst the roar of the jets.
What they are getting at is that, without the thought that yet another plane will be over in a minute or two, they are able to linger over the sounds of nature in the way not possible before.
Every cloud, they say, brings a silver lining. The cloud of ash from Iceland has brought undreamt of peace and quiet to the three and a half million people disturbed by aircraft noise in the UK.