When MiltonKeynes was on the drawing board, its planners famously nudged the city grid so that its main street aligned with the summer solstice sunrise. They called it MIDSUMMER BOULEVARD, and compounded the prehistoric illusion by naming the parallel boulevards Avebury and Silbury. I didn't visit at quarter to five on Thursday morning, because there'd have been nothing to see, but I did take a walk down the full length of Midsummer Boulevard in broad daylight. All in all about a mile, starting at the station. [map][aerial photo]
Milton Keynes Central station
Wedged between the A5 and the city centre, this busy station was only added to the West Coast Main Line in 1982. More functional than inspirational, it only springs to life as you step out from the ticket hall into Station Square, which is where the low-density skyline of Milton Keynes first hits. Three sides are bounded by a huge C-shaped office block, and the other is wide open, with Midsummer Boulevard stretching off beyond. The office blocks appear to be fully constructed from oblongs of glass, so reflect the clouds dazzlingly on a fluffy cumulus day.
The Canal and River Trust are ensconced on one side of the entrance, with Santander a little further down, while other doors around the perimeter lead to echoing foyers below acres of empty desk space. Look more closely and all the usual little shops are here, from a Greggs to a bookies, while the homeless appear to have moved in beneath one convenient overhang. Station Square itself is vast, its piazza sliced by drop-off zones, bike racks and taxi ranks. It once doubled up as the front of the UN in the film Superman IV, and a certain sense of spectacle still pervades.
The Old Bus Station
The town's original bus station was built on the far side of Station Square, a distance which proved a little too far to be practical. Buses now pull into generic stands either side of the main station entrance, and the old freestanding concrete pavilion stands empty. It still looks amazing, with its deep-slung canopy and exposed steel girders, hence the Grade II listing, but that's made the interior hard to let. They've tried using it as a nightclub and cultural centre, but today only the skateboarders cavorting outside bring the place to life, and the surrounding tarmac (ironically) has become just another MK car park.
Milton's Keynes' famous network of segregated shared-use paths covers the city. One dips beneath the start of Midsummer Boulevard, just past Elder Gate, accessed via the briefest of subways. The idea is that you can walk or cycle anywhere in consummate safety, although the distances involved make cycling the more sensible option. Santander Cycles are in town, with a less chunky bike than that used in London, and docking stations somewhat irregularly scattered. That said, the prime rule of Redway etiquette is that users must always give way to road users, because in Milton Keynes the car remains very much king.
You can tell cars rule because pedestrians aren't supposed to walk up Midsummer Boulevard, only to follow the pavements some distance to each side. The dual carriageway does have a central reservation, shielded between two lines of lush identikit trees, but it's not for walking up, only across. The official crossing points are marked by large black canopies - officially porte-cochères - with just enough low metal barriers elsewhere to prevent joyriders driving up onto the grass. I walked up the middle, obviously.
To either side is MK's CBD - a motley assortment of office blocks, some rebuilt taller than was originally permitted. Staff pop out for a smoke, or to collect their lunch from the M&S sandwich van, then wave their lanyards before disappearing back inside. And parking is easy, indeed a lot of central Milton Keynes looks like a car park, because that's how the place was designed. Parking costs 50p an hour (or £2 an hour if you slip into one of the premium zones to keep the walk to the shops down).
Beneath one of the newer blocks, looking more Minecraft than most, lies a shopping arcade called Midsummer Walk. It's in the heart of the hotel zone, so was established with a leisure and lifestyle vibe in mind. The odd posh nailbar survives, and the Chinese restaurant out front looks like it still pulls them in. But the interior mall is essentially dead, like some ghostly walkway on the wrong side of a Middle Eastern airport, fronted by shops to let, a lonely dentist, and one of those studios waiting for anybody to pop in for a Group Photo Experience.
Milton Keynes isn't averse to a bit of public art, and here's a piece making a particularly relevant nod to Midsummer. Sam Jacob has created a full-size foam replica of a sarsen stone from Avebury, painted it in iridescent purple and plonked it on top of one of the porte-cochères. "Both ancient in its references and modern in its appearance", he says, before waffling on about sculpture as a fragment of the landscape and losing it somewhat. Millennial MK-ers probably prefer the selfie-friendly hall of mirrors in the subway under Saxon Gate instead.
Church of Christ the Cornerstone
Modern housing developments don't usually bother with churches any more. Milton Keynes waited until 1991 before completing this, the UK's first city centre ecumenical church. Christ the Cornerstone is shared between Church of England, Roman Catholic, Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed, which helps avoid redundant usage. I turned up during Prayers for Peace, so went and sat in Fred Roche Gardens instead, and mused over quite what the spiky red sculpture was intended to represent.
And then Midsummer Boulevard suddenly stops. It used to carry on, across the city's highest point, but in 2000 the famous shopping centre was extended to the south, blocking the street with a lofty enclosed plaza, part-filled with inconsequential kiosks. All the extra shops are off to one side round a bland loop, and the open circus where the concrete cows used to graze around an ancient oak tree has become depressingly wildlifeless. These days they call the place intu Milton Keynes, which is just as out of character as the building itself.
And this intrusive shopping centre is just one of the reasons why standing on Midsummer Boulevard to watch the solstice sunrise would have been entirely pointless. That and the multitude of trees down the central reservation, not to mention the porte-cochères, and the fact that a road pointing uphill affords no view whatsoever of the key point on the horizon. Perhaps there'll be more luck on the other side of intu Milton Keynes, as Midsummer Boulevard continues... in what'll be Part Two tomorrow.