The Conservative MP on his passion for pounding the streets of the City and Westminster
My selection in the final month of the last millennium for the Cities of London and Westminster seat commenced a 10 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.
A London economic migrant myself (I first arrived here at 23 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 hankerchiefsized courtyards of the City's 47 places of worship. Further afield you will be engulfed in any one of London's many 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 train about once a month to a farflung suburb and wend my way 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. Two churches today stand side-by-side. The original Norman establishment lies redundant, though it 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, however, expanded eight-fold between 1901 and 1939 as the Doomsday Book settlement was swallowed up by Metroland. Suddenly demand for a church reemerged and the imposing Wells Street building was moved, brick by brick, to the thriving suburbs. It was to be the first and only parish to conduct such an experiment.
To walk through London is to be in communion with a place that has been witness to the nation's 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.
Mark Field is the Conservative MP for Cities of London and Westminster