For much of the last two and a bit years, I’ve been trawling the Centre for Cities database, looking for stories to tell about Britain’s cities. In that time I’ve learnt that the north-south divide is way worse than I thought. I’ve learnt that the rich south east is actually the rich south middle. And I’ve learned that, whatever way you cut it, Sheffield is stuffed.
Throughout this experience, though, the name of one city kept popping up in strange places. Milton Keynes has among the best paid workers in the South East, outside London:
Wages in the cities of Greater South East, excluding London. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.
Yet it has surprisingly affordable housing:
House prices as a multiple of wages in the cities of Greater South East, excluding London. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.
All of which means that – in a country where most of us are forced to choose between a city where we can have a well-paying job, and a city where we can afford a house – Milton Keynes, remarkably, may be able to offer you both.
It’s possibly both a cause of and result of this that the city has roughly doubled in population since 1981, making it by far the fastest growing city in the region:
Population growth in the cities of Greater South East, excluding London. Click to expand. Image: Centre for Cities.
What was this land of milk and honey?
I’ve never been to Milton Keynes. I decided it was time to correct this oversight.
On arriving at the station (just 30 minutes by train from London Euston, fact fans) the first thing I noticed was an enormous plaza, surrounded by office buildings on three sides. You’d think the sense of space this creates would be nice, but for reasons I have never quite understood, wide open spaces in cities often feel desolate rather than spacious, and this was no exception.
The second thing I noticed was that none of the trains to London were running because of a nasty incident at Bletchley, and that it was possible that I lived here now.
Luckily, I also spotted this sign, reassuring me that – whatever I may have heard – there are plenty of things to do in Milton Keynes.
There was also this slightly confusing map, warning me that the commercial centre was a good 15-20 minutes’ walk away.
I decided to set off up Midsummer Boulevard, a name which I fear was rather overselling the reality. It’s a wide multi-lane highway, wih a tree-lined central section. On either side, there there are office blocks, with a sea of cars before them.
Oh, lovely. Image: Google Maps.
The whole thing felt oddly un-British to me: everywhere you turn in central Milton Keynes (“CMK”, as the maps and signs brand it, for some reason) there are hotels and office blocks and restaurants, set behind seas of cars. These commercial plazas are a sight common along the suburban highways of most American cities, but which looks strange and alien when transposed to a city a few dozen miles from London.
There should be a bagel bakery in one of these, surely.
This sense of a vaguely American form of urbanism was only increased by the shopping district, which is built around a covered-but-open mall. Here’s the central square, back when it had a tree:
Image: Chris Nyborn/Wikimedia Commons.
And here’s one of the side... what do we even call this? It’s not a side road. A side alley?
Then there are the street names, and the smaller entertainment districts, which in one case combine to form this:
city hall – no sorry that's Christ the Cornerstone Church, my bad, thanks to Tom Ryan – and the park-like path leading up to it, looked like something which would fit right in in upstate New York.
Sorry about the thumb.
The most striking building in CMK (honestly, guys, that’s not a place, it’s a brand of perfume) is The Point, an entertainment complex shaped like a pyramid. It used to be a cinema, but is now a bingo hall, and frankly, it’s seen better days:
Sadly, Historic England has refused to list it on the grounds that it is “in essence, a light industrial shed”. Spoilsports.
One thing to be said for Milton Keynes is that it has good facilities for pedestrians: an entire system of protected paths paralleling the street, which drop into subways so that you never have to cross a road. One thing to be said against it is that everything is bloody miles away from everything else: it had taken me an infuriatingly long time to get this far and I felt like I’d barely seen anything.
Luckily, despite the fact it’s obviously been built around the needs of the car, Milton Keynes is also a surprisingly good city for cycling in. It has a 273km system of shared cycling/walking paths called “red-routes”:
A map of Milton Keynes cycle routes. The red routes, confusingly, are not all in red. Image: Wikimedia Commons/Open Street Map.
It also has a system of hire bikes. So, to cover more ground, I hired one, and went off into the residential bit.
And suddenly, I could see the appeal. Most of Milton Keynes is made up of quiet, pleasant streets, with lots of different architectural styles and plenty of green space.
There’s a nice big park, Campbell Park, right next to the city centre, where you’ll find this view:
There’s even an old bit. Milton Keynes was formed by the merger of three existing towns (Bletchley, Wolverton and Stony Stratford) and a bunch of villages. It’s from one of these which the city took its name, and Milton Keynes Village is still surprisingly pretty:
I know, I know, thumb again.
Oh – and it’s still building houses
None of this was my thing, exactly. I prefer cities to suburbs; I don’t live in central London because of all the clean air or space it offers. But I could see why it might appeal. In Milton Keynes, you can get a decent size house with a garden and streets your kids will be safe playing in, at a relatively affordable price. Of course there’s a market for that.
It was only after I’d abandoned my bike by the Xscape indoor skiing and skydiving centre (yep, really) and gone back to the station, that it hit me. The thing I’d liked about Milton Keynes and the thing I’d hated came from exactly the same place. It has a horrible, spread out city centre full of bland offices and parking lots. But it also offers big houses in quiet suburban streets with lots of neat parks. It’s basically a midsized American city – Lexington, Kentucky, perhaps or Akron, Ohio – dropped into the landscape of southern England.
It’s not my thing. But I can see why it’s other people’s.
I managed to fight my way onto a train doing its best impression of the last flight out of Saigon, so I didn’t have to live there after all. If I did, though, I think I’d choose to live in the district of Monkston Park. No reason.
If you’d like me to come and poke aimlessly around your city, for some reason, drop me a line.
All uncredited images courtesy of the author.