Total Politics – Hinterland

Mark wrote about his passion for urban walking in this month’s Total Politics:

My selection in the final month of the last millennium for the Cities of London and Westminster seat commenced a ten year (and counting) love affair with the political, cultural and financial heart of the world’s most exciting city. It also sparked in me a passion for historical reading and urban walking. As recently as 1800 London was still a collection of villages and its built-up area measured five miles by three. By the end of that century the arrival of the railway had helped London become a vast metropolis recognisable today. Shaped by waves of migration from the English countryside, then from Western Europe and, by the latter half of the twentieth century, from every corner of the globe, London’s success has made it a magnet for those seeking their fortunes.

A London economic migrant myself (I first arrived here at twenty-three as a fresh faced trainee solicitor), I cannot now conceive of living outside its boundaries or tiring of city centre living. This is much to the concern of my wife who warns that at some stage we may need a ‘proper garden’ round which our young son can hurtle (sadly St James’s Park doesn’t count)! To me, the city is our garden and it is in exploring its green spaces together, walking its streets and learning about its history that I love to spend my time.

I have enjoyed countless hours in my walking boots wandering through the capital’s central districts and suburbs. I never fail to be fascinated by the inexhaustible variety of London’s districts, streets and buildings. Travel on the tube, whizz along in a taxi or stick to the main drag and you will not be taken into London’s confidence. You will perhaps instead be struck by a brash and unforgiving place with apparently hostile and impatient inhabitants. But take time to gaze at its historic buildings, wander down its alleyways, stumble upon its ancient villages (often swallowed up, but not entirely drowned by suburbanisation), give some thought to its street names and London will unfold its hidden secrets to you. In my constituency you may come upon the Dickensian shop fronts of that booklovers’ paradise, Cecil Court. Or dip into the hankerchief-sized courtyards of the City’s forty-seven places of worship. Further afield you will find yourself engulfed in any one of London’s many ancient street markets. In plumbing this rich variety, each and every one of us can find a home.

Beyond the seven square miles of my constituency, I travel by tube or overground about once a month to a farflung suburb and wend my back home through areas of the capital that very few outsiders ever see. Taking four to five hours at a time, my walks can sweep away anxieties, freshen thoughts and open my eyes to all that London has to offer. It is rare that anyone takes a leisure trip to the Barkings, Crayfords or Dollis Hills of this world, but the furthest tentacles of our tireless capital can tell the visitor so much about modern British life and its people.

For one, the pace of demographic change is staggering. Many of my walks also reveal neglected, rather shabby surburban districts that have seen better days and appear to have been passed over by the glitzy visions and projects of urban planners keen to revive more central areas of our city. But I find treasures too. Wrapped in ring roads or peeking above a grey urban swirl, one can often discover – as if they had been lost forever – beautiful, centuries-old little churches that stand as timeless reminders of the small village communities that went before.

Take the parish of St Andrew’s in Kingsbury, one of many with a tale to tell. Two churches today stand side-by-side. The original Norman establishment lies redundant, though has been lovingly restored as a museum by the local Wembley conservation society. It also contains the oldest bell in Middlesex, harking back to the 1340s. The current church, however, was originally anchored in the heart of my constituency in Wells Street, Fitzrovia. As the West End morphed from a residential to commercial district in Edwardian times, its congregation died off. Kingsbury’s population, on the other hand, expanded eightfold between 1901 and the outbreak of World War Two as the Doomsday Book settlement was swallowed up as part of Metroland. Suddenly the demand for a church re-emerged and the imposing Wells Street building was moved, brick by brick, from the bustling centre to the thriving suburbs. It was to be the first and only parish to conduct such an experiment.

To me London is a living organism. It grows, has personal crises and fosters very individual relationships with each of its inhabitants. I shall never know it completely –therein lies its joy. But London also has a great capacity to unite its people both past and present. While my constituency is ever changing, common threads run through the ages that lend me a welcome sense of perspective in troubled times. To walk through London is to be in communion with a place that has been witness to the nation’s political and financial crises and the troubled plight or personal joy of people from all walks of life. Whatever fate throws at it, the city has always marched forward.