Milton Keynes: first impressions

I’ve just moved to Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, UK, about 70km northwest of London. Planned and built in the 1970s, it’s a new town in English terms, making it pretty interesting and innovative. Writing about it has the dual purpose of helping me learn about my new home, and telling curious family/friends/colleagues a bit about it.

Milton Keynes (MK) was conceived in the 60s to relieve housing pressure on London and now has a population of about 250,000.  It was designed as a regional centre, centrally located between Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham, Leicester and London. When built, it incorporated existing towns of Bletchley (where Alan Turing cracked the Enigma code, featured recently in the movie The Imitation Game), Wolverton, Stony Stratford and fifteen other villages including a village called Milton Keynes. This means that there is mixture of new and old buildings and you never know what you will find around the next corner – from medieval fishponds to an electric vehicle carpark.

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Sunset on Lake Tongwell on my first evening and a view over the town from Campbell Park in the city centre.

Milton Keynes is laid out on a grid system, with a series of main transit roads forming rough squares, inside which quieter and more circuitous roads form the suburbs (not unlike Canberra). The main roads are about 1km apart, but not painfully straight as they curve around lakes and follow rivers. The roughly N-S roads are named V(vertical)1-11, and roughly E-W roads named H(horizontal)1-8 as well has having normal names. Intersections of these main roads are predominantly at roundabouts, of which there are many! It is a very green town with many parks and lakes. In fact the town is apparently designated as a forest in European terms because of the density of trees, with over 20 million planted here!

I’ve walked around Tongwell and Walton lakes, and they are very pleasant with lots of seating and the latter with a bird-hide and signs about local plants and animals. I also visited Linford Wood, the oldest woodland remnant, which was first protected by Baron Von Pippard in 1264, damaged substantially to provide timber, particularly in WW1, but carefully restored more recently. I saw carpets of bluebells and some early purple orchids! I didn’t spot the badgers, deer nor green woodpeckers that inhabit the wood, but look forward to seeing these in time.

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A whitebell in a sea of bluebells, and an early purple orchid in Linford Wood.

MK receives about 660mm rain each year. The River Great Ouse (what a name!) runs to the north of the town, with the River Ouzel branching off and traversing the length of Milton Keynes. The Grand Union Canal (which flows from London to Birmingham) runs S-N through MK and with only one lock in 16km, is testimony to the flatness of this region. I cycled (it’s flat!) along part of the canal to The Open University and enjoyed seeing the many long boats with pot plants and bikes perched on their roofs. According to my map, the canal crosses the River Great Ouse via the Iron Trunk Aqueduct – I’ve got to see that! Both the river and the canal are edged with linear parks of managed trees and lawns.

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A longboat on the Grand Union Canal and another seen through one of the many bridges that span the canal.

There is a massive network of walking paths both in the suburbs and the parks in MK. There is also the redway network, which is over 250km of wider paths across the town paved in red bitumen (hence the name). These paths are designed for pedestrians and cyclists and generally go under and over, rather than across, main roads and offer a fantastic way to access most of the city on foot or wheels. Redways are lined with trees and I saw many birds and squirrels along these routes, including a very aggressive goose guarding its goslings and encouraging me to explore a different route!  I was surprised not to see more commuters using them though – perhaps because there are tree roots, leaves and horse poo regularly interrupting the surface and lots of dog walkers and multi-path intersections?  As a fairly slow and new rider, it should suit me well!

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The redways are lovely paths with much greenery and interesting things to see such as the restored brick kilns on the right.

Milton Keynes seems to invite exploration, within and further afield. There is a good bus system (predominantly electric Arriva buses) with the main 8 routes radiating outwards from the town centre. The National Express Coach terminal on the eastern edge of town has easy access to the M1 (a main N-S highway in England) and very conveniently has a direct bus to my friend’s small town in the north! A train station on the western edge of town, offers a fast, 35 minute service into London (Euston) as well as lines to many other places. There are buses directly to Luton and Heathrow airports, and the X5 goes to Oxford and Cambridge.

MK’s most famous icons are arguably the Concrete Cows which have been compared to MK itself, being concrete-dominated, non-traditional and new. The extraordinary 1978 sculptures by Liz Leyh were initially located in Stacy Hill Farm, Wolverton, but now reside in pride of place in the massive downtown shopping centre in MK. The cows have “suffered several indignities” (according to Wikipedia) over the years with adjustments, additions and repaintings. I suspect MK has a bit of a love-hate relationship with these beasts as they have been ridiculed, just like MK itself is all too often, but are also rather endearing as is Milton Keynes. I really like them.

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What? There’s something behind me? As long as it isn’t one of those pesky concrete cows. Also, a solar-powered parking meter.

I can’t wait to go the theatre in a couple of weeks. It is a very flexible space, with a ceiling that can be lowered to close off the third tier, thereby creating a smaller, more intimate venue.  Milton Keynes has several other crazy attractions that I look forward to exploring in time – including indoor skydiving, a labyrinth, tree cathedral, Willen Lake (think both real and giant white swans, automated wake boarding etc), Pirate min-golf, and indoor ski slope. There are also many historic sites including estates, mills, abbeys and dells as well as more lakes and woods to explore.  Not far away is Harry Potter World and Bletchley Park, as well beautiful Oxford, Cambridge and many other little villages.

My first impression is that Milton Keynes is a very friendly and innovative town.  As I rode into work for the first time, whenever I paused to get my bearings or to check which way I should go, someone would stop and help me. My airBnB hosts are super helpful, and everyone I’ve encountered has been patient and kind. As a relatively new town it seems to attract interesting people who are keen to try new things. There are lots of solar panels on houses and parking meters, wind turbines on hilltops, and the novel ideas about town planning seem to work pretty well.  The Open University, where I will be working, is a distance education university that was way ahead of its time and a still very much a leader in this form of education.  I’ll write a post about the Open University later, when I know more about how it works!  But for now I’m having fun exploring Milton Keynes.

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