This is the fourth in a series of monthly columns written exclusively for this newspaper by Tunbridge Wells MP Greg Clark, in which he offers his own unedited thoughts and opinions.
Royal Wootton Bassett, Royal Leamington Spa and Royal Tunbridge Wells. No prizes for guessing what those three towns have in common. In fact, they’re the only three towns in Britain to be honoured with the royal prefix.
Though our town has enjoyed the patronage of kings and queens since its foundation, it wasn’t until 1909 that it was granted its full title by Edward VII. 107 years later, we celebrate his great granddaughter’s 90th birthday.
Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II was born on the 21 April 1926, but this weekend we mark her official birthday. The June date was chosen (by Edward VII as it happens) to maximise the chance of good weather for outdoor events – the most famous of which is the Trooping of the Colour. Not quite so famous, but splendid nonetheless, is the celebratory picnic that our town will hold on Sunday (June 12) in Grosvenor and Hilbert Park starting at 2 o’clock. Other celebrations are taking place this weekend throughout the town and borough.
I’m sure the picnic will be a fantastic event, not least because of the wonderful work that has been done by the Friends group, the Council and other community groups and residents to revive the park and restore it to its heyday. If you were to be transported back to 1926, this park and much of our town would be instantly recognisable. There have been many changes and some painful losses (like the Decimus Burton terrace that once stood on the site of the town hall); but we’re fortunate to have so many common reference points – buildings and landmarks that have survived world wars, not to mention the 20th century enthusiasm for the bulldozer and the wrecking ball.
Winston Churchill once said that “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us”. I believe that to be true of our town – and, in fact, our country. Of course, without a peaceful and stable society fewer buildings would survive through the decades and centuries. But as Churchill reminds us it also works the other way round – ancient churches, historic monuments and familiar streetscapes remind us of where we’ve come from and who we are, thereby strengthening society.
This doesn’t mean that we have to preserve everything like an exhibit in a museum. Rather, it’s about keeping a core of stability around which other things can grow and flourish.
Looking at old photographs of Tunbridge Wells, you realise just how much does change despite the enduring architecture. People are made of less enduring stuff than buildings. Even those who provide common reference points for the nation as a whole – such as entertainers, sports people and, yes, politicians – will be yesterday’s news before long and all but forgotten in a decade or two.
That’s why the few – the very few – who stay part of our lives across the generations are so precious. How amazing, that in 2016, our Queen, who waved to the crowds on VE Day, is still with us – serving her country and the Commonwealth into her tenth decade. As a living example of continuity, of identity and of public duty, it is truly remarkable.
Greg Clark was elected to Parliament as a representative of Tunbridge Wells in 2005. The Conservative MP has since held a number of positions in government and currently sits as a member of the Cabinet in his capacity as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government: www.gregclark.org