I'm extending midsummer by one day to complete my walk along MIDSUMMER BOULEVARD, the solstice-aligned spine road at the heart of Milton Keynes. Yesterday I walked from the station up to the shopping centre at the city's highest point, and today I'm continuing towards Campbell Park. [map][aerial shots]
Milton Keynes Shopping Centre
The largest building in town, and undoubtedly the longest, the Shopping Centre opened for business in 1979. Officially it's now called thecentre:mk, but let's pretend it isn't. It comprises two half-mile-long parallel arcades, intermittently linked, with M&S as the anchor tenant at one end and John Lewis at the other. House of Fraser will be moving out early next year. The centre's big strength is that everything's at ground floor level, larger department stores notwithstanding, with delivery access hidden away on the first floor. I used to come here in the 1990s to do my Christmas shopping - two circuits and I'd hopefully be done. The light and airy arcades still look much the same, although some of the tropical planting and bench seating has been whipped out to be replaced by stalls selling mobile phone cases and churros.
My favourite spot was Queen's Court, the outdoor enclave officially opened by Her Majesty, as an inscribed plaque near the sliding doors attests. It also shows the direction of sunrise and sunset at the two solstices, confirming the solar backstory of the fledgling city, as well as aspects of public realm since deleted to create a food court in the space instead. The original pergola, podium and lawn are now empty space, the enormous fountainpool has been reduced to a thin water feature, and the Vox Pop statue has been shunted into a corner where Carluccio's and Cafe Rouge don't need seating. The whole place smells of bratwurst. But the centre's still a popular destination, kept fresh by incremental reinvention, and I did a full circuit for old times' sake.
Before 1985 the UK had no multiplex cinemas, this being the first, the brainchild of US entertainment magnate Stanley Durwood. It looked amazing too, a red steel ziggurat in a prime location mid-Midsummer Boulevard, and it thrived. But then the Xscape entertainment complex opened up a block behind, with a wider choice of films (as well as the country's largest ski slope). The Point attempted to reinvent itself, including a brief period as the UK's only Easycinema, but the final curtain fell in 2015. A developer has long had plans for demolition, but coming up with a replacement scheme the council approves of is proving tricky, their last attempt being described as "garish retail shed". In the meantime a few stalwarts still disappear underneath for bingo, and the shiny pinnacle slowly decays.
Milton Keynes Market
Some councils like their markets, whereas Milton Keynes shoves its into a grubby space beneath a concrete overpass. A cluster of brightly spangled stalls clings on, selling the usual fruit and veg, foam cushions and rolls of binbags. You won't get your phone unlocked in the main shopping centre, nor is there a wool trader selling Wendy, Robin and Sirdar, but it's hard to avoid the feeling you're walking round an afterthought undercroft and the unwanted corner of a car park.
The Food Centre
It seemed like a good idea at the time, to place Central Milton Keynes supermarket offering into a separate building on the opposite side of Midsummer Boulevard. I remember how sparkling it was when it opened, and how vastly amazing the Waitrose was, and my word how things change. Sainsbury's vacated in 2010, with Waitrose shifting in 2013 to a much bigger site in the suburbs, where it was easier to drive and park. Both units are still empty, the Food Centre now little more than a cheap multi-storey flanked by two overblown arcades, whose few occupied units are 'specialist stores' catering for immigrant communities. 25 years from boom to bust, that's all it takes.
MK Gallery and Theatre
It was 1999 before large-scale culture arrived in Milton Keynes, on the final block before Midsummer Boulevard's roadway gives out. The theatre's big enough to cope with West End transfers, whereas the art gallery dumped out front was always on the small side, and looked more like a box dropped underneath a monorail. That'll be why it's currently closed for a doubling in size, and the addition of "a welcoming new café bar", which means full-on building site ambience at present.
Midsummer Boulevard ends very differently for vehicles and pedestrians. Cars and buses get to drive up to a roundabout on Marlborough Gate, then weave off to join the main city network, whereas the pavement dips down between the carriageways to duck underneath. This, if it needs restating, is another reason why coming to watch the solstice sunrise from anywhere along Midsummer Boulevard is intrinsically pointless. But pass beyond the concrete pillars, and the sheltered row of tents for the homeless, and the path suddenly filters out across the dual carriageway via a long footbridge and whoosh, you're in Campbell Park.
Campbell Park is brilliant, as if the city's founding fathers picked a block on the map and said we will never build here, we'll plant trees and wild flowers and create an undulating landscape to be proud of. The park's now under the control of The Parks Trust, an independent body spun out of the original corporation when it was wound down, and they have over 5000 verdant acres elsewhere to keep an eye on too. Campbell Park's probably the centrepiece, and the 'ley line' of Midsummer Boulevard continues straight on as a central path, first hitting this impressive circular bowl.
This is the Milton Keynes Rose, a cluster of 106 granite pillars of varying heights, positioned at intersections on a grid of overlapping circles. Created just three years ago, the pillars feature inscriptions marking an eclectic selection of locally important dates. One is 21 June, the Summer Solstice, obviously, but the others include 7 March (World Maths Day), 23 April 1969 (the day the Open University gained its Royal Charter) and 3 September 1978 (the day the concrete cows were unveiled). My personal favourite is 5 July 1953 (First Tea Bag Day), a manufacturing claim to fame from Bletchley, closely followed by an unnamed date in June (Knit In Public Day). You can see the full list here, and 42 pillars remain blank awaiting future dedications.
If you continue past the cattle grid, the path eventually peters out on an artificial peak called The Belvedere. This used to be empty, with only the panoramic view to sustain interest, but in 2012 a 'Light Pyramid' was added, comprising five white triangles rising to a central peak. It's occasionally illuminated at times of special celebration, and its pure colour allows local art critics to graffiti the flanks with expletive reviews. This, officially, is where Midsummer Boulevard terminates, but a desire line path slips down the mound for those who wish to continue through the meadow.
I continued. It's hard to follow the alignment from this point onwards, as it crosses a stream, a fenced-off cricket pitch, the Grand Union Canal and the mini-roundabout at the heart of the David Lloyd Health Club car park. But there is one last symbolic spot, the Milton Keynes Tree Cathedral, whose nave follows precisely the same line we've been traversing since the station. It was planted in 1986, using hornbeam and lime for the nave, cherry for the side chapels and evergreens for the central tower, and is laid out as an exact copy of Norwich Cathedral. You can have your ashes scattered here, if mystic symbolism is your thing, in the peace and quiet of a highly imaginative city.