comments iconDay 1: The Heart of the Matter


Today walked: 11.30 miles 

Raised fund: £200.00

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

― Martin Luther King Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches

It was an early start–the alarm went at 6AM but we had only got to bed at 1AM as Xuelin, Harry and I had been signing and packing our ‘begging letters’ for the walk and the UK Solidarity Fund into the early morning. We used up all 250 letters we had printed and then collapsed into bed. Xuelin has so much energy she could have kept going through the night, but not me.

Next morning I was giving an important keynote address on disaster emergency response at an international conference in London in my capacity as Minister of State at the Department of International Development. I then had a huge number of letters and parliamentary questions to answer before the House rose for the summer recess. I then had a number of meetings in the House of Commons and the House of Lords to make sure that everything was in place before I went off.

I arrived back at the flat and Xuelin is organising the traditional send off by the Chinese community the next morning. I rush in and start rummaging through draws trying to find a t-shirt that will fit me. I had really let myself go since returning from our four month 1880 mile walk across South America last September. I must have put on 20 pounds (9 kilos).

I had been concerned that given the recent attack at the mosque they might get a little concerned about someone seeking to start a walk from outside so I called in advance and spoke to Fatima who was temporarily volunteering in the office at the mosque. She was so positive about what we were doing and said we would be most welcome to visit the mosque before setting off. We arrived at the modern building which has capacity for over 2000 worshippers and Fatima was there to meet us with her father, Dr Mohammed Said.

We were given the honour of being able to visit the main prayer room where prayers take place. There was a digital clock on the wall stating the five times of daily prayer. As an Anglican who can sometimes struggle to get himself up and out to the Abbey for 10AM Matins once a week on a Sunday I was impressed by the devotion of the Muslim faithful. I did have to question Dr Said on what happened with the prayer that was suppose to take place between 1:15AM and 1:30AM he replied ‘we get up, pray and go back to bed’.

Dr Said then explained about Ramadan and the month of fasting that takes place each year. The fast is broken when the sun goes down following prayer with a communal meal called an Iftar. After the attack they organised a street Iftar for the community to come together and stand together in solidarity against the hatred of the terrorist. On the railings of the mosque was a banner produced by the local community speaking of love and with hearts.

On finding out more about Islam I wasn’t sure whether I was more surprised at the high level of devotion required by its devotees or the low level of devotion required by many Christians. Either way I understood more about their faith. Religion is part of who we are as humans–we are body, mind and soul. Religion gives people meaning, a sense of why we are here, our purpose, it comforts us during the bad times, it gives us a moral code to live by, it can give us a sense of forgiveness when we do things that are wrong and it inspires us to serve those in need.

Dr Said & Fatima were wonderful and gracious examples of the Muslim faith. My parents are wonderful and gracious examples of the Christian faith yet I am left pondering:

The more I travel and meet people of different faiths to my own I am more convinced that our religion is our language of the soul. I am born in England to Christian parents and hey presto I speak English and go to church. Dr Said was born in Saudi Arabia, spoke Arabic and went to the Mosque. Xuelin was born to devout Communist parents in China at the time of the Cultural Revolution when religious practice was banned so she spoke Mandarin Chinese and didn’t go to church or the mosque:

Perhaps it is not our mother tongue we should celebrated as much as the universal human desire to communicate and express our inner most feelings to each other. Likewise, perhaps it is not the religious path which should celebrated as much as the innate desire within humans to communicate with god. Such a thought should not devalue or threaten our ‘mother faith’ but rather enhance it; opening our eyes from the black and white of prejudice to the astonishingly beautiful spectrum of colour contained in the Light of Faith. Discuss?

From there I set off down past another ‘place of worship’ The Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal Football Club. I then saw a site I recognised, the gothic tower of St Pancras Station which was the right direction–I walked for about 30 minutes towards it before realising when I arrived it was  not St Pancras Station but Union Chapel, Islington. I had added 3 unnecessary miles to my journey.

My battery was running low and I hadn’t brought a battery charger with me. I wasn’t sure whether it was worth buying a replacement cable and charger for the final five miles–I called into the O2 shop and found they would be £45! That answered that question eloquently. I then came across a wonderful garden maintained in the ruins of an old church, Christchurch Grey friars just beside St Paul’s Cathedral. I sat there and rested for a while.

Then it was down Cheapside and across London Bridge and down into Borough Market. The market was heaving with people which is testament to the resilience of Londoner’s–these people did roll over for Hitler in the Blitz and they certainly weren’t going to be intimidated by the tyranny of the terrorist. As I got closer I noticed that there were banners on the railings of Southwark Cathedral which had clearly been placed there following the attack–just like the mosque at Finsbury Park the messages were of love and the symbol chosen to depict it was a heart.

I continued along the south bank and I was getting messages from Xuelin asking when I was going to arrive in Parliament Square as a group from the Red Cross had arrived to welcome me. My phone was just about dead so I sent a message to say 7:30PM and quickened my pace.

I walked past Shakespeare’s Globe theatre and noticed the letters ‘L-O-V-E’ have been erected on the side of the building.

Arriving into Parliament Square it was fantastic to see Anna Reaich who had been my contact at the Red Cross with Kate, Lindsay, Meera, Marieke and Jessica. They made so much noise with their paper rattles and dressed in ‘UK Solidarity Fund’ t-shirts I thought I had finished the entire walk not just the first half-day. I was struck that the logo for the Solidarity Fund was a heart. We spent time talking about walking and fundraising and taking pictures. It was a great encouragement to Xuelin and I to know that the British Red Cross were giving us so much support.

We got back to the flat exhausted again and immediately set down to more work doing emails and sending out more begging letters. Harry (Xuelin’s son and my wonderful step-son) went out to Boots to get me some ‘Shapers Lemonade’ my favourite drink and came back with two beautiful slices of cake from Patisserie Valerie–in case we forgot–this was our wedding anniversary and it is written in love and symbolised by a heart.