Day out:Milton Keynes Once upon a time, in toppermost Buckinghamshire, there was a small medieval village called Milton Keynes. Then one day the government came along and said "verily, let us transform twenty-two thousand acres of surrounding countryside into the biggest new city England has ever seen." And so it came to pass that a grid of vertical and horizontal roads criss-crossed the landscape, and various housing estates popped up in the gaps inbetween, and the overspill of the southeast did move in lock stock and barrel. Not somewhere you might think to go for a sightseeing day out, but then I never did pick obvious places to visit. Report follows. » MK Web(official website, both useful and very detailed) » Destination Milton Keynes(glib froth aimed at cappuccino tourists) » Discover Milton Keynes(newly established preservers of local heritage) » interactive Milton Keynes map quiz(how well do you know your neighbourhoods?)
Central Milton Keynes Non car-drivers usually arrive in MK at the station. It's not the most delightful introduction to the city. Stepping out into the windswept piazza I'm always reminded of a Communist square bounded by blank office blocks - not a place to hang around. Taxis queue expectantly outside, hoping you'll ignore public transport and ride with them to your far-flung neighbourhood destination. The bus station's no better . It's an echoing concrete monstrosity, no longer used for public service but somewhere for drivers to park up their minibuses and wolf down a fry-up in the cafe inside. Avoid... unless you're a teenageskateboarder, in which case it's a well wicked hangout for blading and tricks innit.
If it's the shops you're heading for, be brave and start walking uphill through the business district. It won't take more than 15 minutes, and there are a few interesting mini-parks and water features along the way. Parking spaces line every roadside, and planners have recently decided that some of these might make better foundations for new buildings. Various high-rises are going up in the surrounding area in an attempt to give MK a skyline, although nothing especially huge . One such recent development is The Hub, which describes itself as "the venue of choice" with "spectacular water features and pavement cafes", although I thought it looked like a dull square with fountains where empty people go to drink coffee. More spiritually fulfilling is the mouthfully-named Church of Christ the Cornerstone, Britain's first purpose-built ecumenical city church. Think of it as the sustainable future of urban religion, topped off with a striking dome half the height of St Paul's Cathedral .
I never quite got the hang of walking in Milton Keynes. There are separate walk/cycleways called Redways all across the town, threaded above and below the road system, designed to keep us undrivers safe. But I kept trying to take the most direct route between places, across verges and up embankments and over undesignated crossings, often finding myself in the path of non-stopping traffic. Not a major problem, cars and pedestrians seem to coexist in MK far better than in the majority of unplanned UK conurbations . The best view of the town's public art was on foot (or on two wheels). There are scores of sculptures all over the central district, some realistic , most uncompromisinglyabstract. They make a bold and innovative addition to the town, and if only I'd thought to print out the Art Trail before I arrived I might have enjoyed a few more of them.
The shoppingmall's the part of Milton Keynes I know best. I've spent many a December Saturday here attempting to buy gifts the rest of my family wouldn't stick in a January cupboard, and I'd still far rather shop here than Brent Cross or Westfield. Centre:MK is one of the UK's oldest American-style malls, opened in 1979, and also probably the longest. The external design is pleasantly minimalist, and the two interior streets are airy, tree-filled and daylit. Part of the secret of its success is being single-storey, there was no need to build upwards when land was freely available. When expansion was required they built the decidedly non-retroMidsummer Place to the south, blocking off the central spine road to through traffic. The famous concrete cows can be found here, in OakCourt, although as I later discovered these are just counterfeit imitations for the benefit of lazy shoppers . Just outside is The Point, MK's unique pyramidalcinema and the first multi-screen multiplex in the country . It's had a rough economic time of late, and it shows, but seemingly survives as an unwelcoming Odeon.
The Point's commercial nemesis looms on the horizon to the southeast - an enclosed skislope and entertainment complex called Xscape. It's solarge that it takes up one entire city block, a long silverridge poking up out of the earth and an alluring magnet for the town's youth. They throng in large numbers to scoff, bowl and glide, and it's not unusual to see a snowboard stuffed under the arm of a warm padded jacket. The changing area's at the back, and here less daring souls can drink and dine whilst staring at the downhill action through a long glass wall. There are proper ski-lifts in there, and icy gradients, and padded red cushions on every supporting pillar in case you come a cropper and tumble on the way down. It looks a load of fun, if you like that sort of thing, and so much more convenient than flying off to the Alps once a year.
Close by, and rather less well frequented, is the Milton Keynes Gallery. It's outer walls are decorated to reflect the exhibition inside, which can mean plastered posters or overbearing pinkness, but currently involves a sticking-out canoe. The interior's not big, just three over-staffed galleries, although I enjoyed a few minutes with Gilberto Zorio's giant stellate installations. One in particular mutated suddenly into an intense stroboscopic lightshow - goodness knows how the friendly gallery attendant puts up with that throughout the day. I escaped, intent on seeing more of the non-central bits of town, of which more tomorrow.