When Somewhere is Nowhere At All

I just came across a piece in the Guardian examining the work and life of the British writer Ian Nairn and thought it appropriate to write a bit about some of my time in England last year. Nairn wrote in the 50’s and 60’s, at the height of the modernism boom, on the loss of character he was witnessing spreading across the towns and cities of Britain. He coined the term subtopia to describe this utter sameness he saw as enveloping his country,

“The Outrage is that the whole land surface is becoming covered by the creeping mildew that already circumscribes all of our towns … Subtopia is the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern.”

The prescient Nairn was writing 50 years ago, and modern Britain is full of this phenomenon. The most famous example might be Milton Keynes, situated about 50 miles northwest of London. Milton Keynes is a ‘New Town’, planned and built after the war on modern guidelines, either from scratch or around a very minimal existing settlement.

As a traveler, I have a strange fascination with these kinds of places. While on the one hand they are often dull and monotonous, there is something liberating about being ‘nowhere’. The loss of the character of a place lends itself to a corresponding personal anonymity. Although  There is also the fact that getting to the bottom of a place like Milton Keynes feels like more of a challenge. Anyone can enjoy Venice, but seeing past the stereotypical postmodern tediousness of the reputation of Milton Keynes is something a true traveler should be up for. Or maybe I’m just a little strange.

Either way, any town that inspires a blog with this title deserves a visit in person. So, taking advantage of a nice spring day, I hop on a train from London’s Euston Station to Milton Keynes one Sunday morning. We pass some recognizable landmarks (Camden Town, Wembley Stadium) before entering the pleasant green English countryside. The journey only takes about 30 minutes and I arrive to find Milton Keynes station sparsely populated.

The information desk is closed, and I look to a sign over the exit for guidance. It gives me two options: head left for the ‘National Hockey Stadium; or go straight to ‘Milton Keynes Shopping Centre’. So shopping and field hockey must be the two main pastimes of a Milton Keyneser. Upon closer inspection I find a map that confirms that the town ‘centre’ is also straight ahead, indistinguishable from the shopping centre the sign pointed me to.

I step outside and walk out onto a large concrete plaza. The station complex is a large U shaped glass monolith facing northeast, towards the centre, but from here there is not much to see. A taxi stand, some bus stops, and the plaza, with a strange stone sculpture sitting in the middle. In the distance are some small trees and office buildings.

Milton Keynes was planned in the 1960’s, when the ideal modern life was one where everyone traveled in a car. Because of this the city has a reputation of not being pedestrian friendly, and I encounter this right away. I clear the station’s plaza (heading NE) and reach an intersection with a small roundabout in the middle. I look to the left, to the right, yet find there is neither any marked crosswalk nor any instructions on how or where to cross. It takes me a minute to realize my mistake: I backtrack and find there are separate pedestrian paths running underneath the road, parallel to the main boulevard that cuts through the centre.

It’s name, Midsummer Boulevard, evokes an idyllic English village. The name of the cross street, Elder Gate brings to mind another world long gone, that of the Danish Kings who ruled much of England a millenium ago (the root is the Danish word for street, gade). Around me I can hear the muffled sound of cars driving by, the noise being softened by the green shrubs around the sunken pedestrian way. I also make out the the clatter of skateboards. All that open space and concrete, an eyesore to some, must surely be paradise for a young skater.

I encounter my first piece Milton Keynes architecture apart from the station. It looks quite new, and turns out to be an Indian restaurant. Further on I see a set of also new-looking apartment buildings. They appear Scandinavian, for lack of a better explanation: hip and stylish, yet not flashy. The kind of tasteful but not too exciting condos that are popping up all over the world.

At various points along this road there are large black four posted coverings. Again recalling a Scandinavian motif, they look like the cheap Ikea tables I bought during my university days to put beside my bed. My guess is they are to protect pedestrians during the rain, while they wait for cars to pass by. And wait they must, for as the sign clearly states, “pedestrians do not have priority” in Milton Keynes.

I turn back towards Midsummer Blvd., leaving behind the spicy smells of the Indian restaurant, and find my first real signs of life around another brand new looking apartment complex, this one called ‘The Hub’. According to the marketing posters I see, The Hub is more than a place to live, it’s ‘a lifestyle choice’. Right away I remark that the glamorous lifestyle includes exotic cuisine, as The Hub boasts diverse restaurants like Zizzi, La Rouge, Bon Viveur, Las Iguanas and an oriental cafe. They all face on a large courtyard inside the complex, which also holds a fountain and a few large potted trees.

So far everything above ground looks new and shiny, quite contrary to my expectations of beaten down 1970’s apartment blocks (too much time spend in the former USSR, perhaps). But the ground itself is another story. The asphalt is worn and uneven, concrete tiles have come loose. The grass is green and thick, but with an abundance of dandelions. It feels like a nice, manicured house whose owner has gone away for vacation and hasn’t bothered to have someone come to take care of their yard.

Emerging from The Hub, I can see large commercial buildings to my right (towards the centre) while the opposite side of the street seems to contain small nondescript office buildings. The next building I enter is almost empty, and is uncomfortably humid. Run by a spa/beauty company, it turns out to have an enclosed green house with a small stream and exotic plants. A little piece of the tropics right here in England.

Across the street and behind an office building I see a large silver dome. Thinking the middle of an office park a strange place to put a church I go to investigate. It’s a church. A brief tour acquaints me with The Church of Christ the Cornerstone, established only in 1992. Taking on Milton Keynes’ own open ideology, it is an ecumenical church, meaning it is open to Christians of all kinds. There was no Catholic/Protestant split here, no divisions, no fights, in short: no history. Inside the decor is clean and minimal. White walls complement soft light wooden floors. The round central hall is complemented by a beautiful small chapel, open to the public for prayer or meditation. This small, round room had a few chairs around against the wall, a small table in the middle, and a medium sized, but very thin cross on the wall (they don’t want to be overbearing to non-Christians, my guide told me). He does not give me time to meditate any more on the symbolism of this, however, as they are closing up shop.

Finally I reach the true ‘centre’ of Milton Keynes, which is the an aptly named mall  thecentre:mk. The city and commerce blend together here, as if it’s the town’s creation had the sole purpose to attract consumers to this spot. The entrance is a massive sheltered plaza, with a stylishly curve roof and clear glass facade. Here customers can relax and choose from Starbucks, Quizno’s, Burger King and other American fast food joints before continuing with their shopping.

To the right is another public space, an open rotunda with a large severely trimmed tree in the middle. Looking much older than 40 years Milton Keynes has been around, it is presumably ‘original’ inhabitant of the landscape, preserved and incorporated into the building design like a Roman ruin. To the left is the main shopping complex, a series of connected buildings containing hundreds of shops.

In the mall I find the same pink advertising board as in the train station, and examine it more closely. I find out that I am in ‘the core’ of Milton Keynes. The centre of the centre. The board is full of buzz words like ‘expansion’, ‘improvement’ and ‘growth’, all promoting the vitality of Milton Keynes. The core, while sprawling, is actually only a tiny part of the city, which extends out in all directions.

I spend the next two hours wandering the massive halls of this sprawling complex, which also includes a small informal outdoor market. It is bright, clean and welcoming, with computerized kiosks around to help guide you find your choice from the bounty of stores within.

Finally I leave the mall, and walking further northeast I reach Campbell Park. The park entrance is not much: a small gate overlooks a circular fountain surrounded by trees. From this peaceful spot you walk up to another gate, which leads up out onto a huge hill. Or to be more precise, the path continues straight while the surrounding land slopes down around you. The effect is like a little bit like walking out onto a pier. In the park some couples sit, families play and enjoy picnics, yet it is relatively empty on this pleasant Sunday. Looking out I can see the rest of the town beyond the park. It is very green and from a distance seamlessly blends into countryside on the horizon.

I turn back to begin my return to the station, I pass another gigantic shopping mall called Xscape. I find that it’s more than a mall, Xscape offers indoor skiing, reverse bungee jumping, and a wide array of sporting goods shops. The exterior shape mirrors the gentle ski slope it must house inside.

I turn off the main ‘core’ boulevards, and walk through some a simple residential area. These 1-2 story row houses look quite older than anything in the core. Like most London homes, they have fenced in back yards, but curiously, no windows in the front.

Just past the houses, I find my way into a network of green paths. The paths are a parallel current running alongside the boulevards (NE<->SW), immersed in green. The trees are much taller than those in the centre, some are about 30 feet high, and the trees and bushes isolate the pedestrians and bikes, at least visually, from the bustle of the surrounding town.

Milton Keynes is far from the concrete blur it is made out to be. The biggest surprise I found was the conscious effort of the planners to make the city green. This is, in itself not unusual for England, but the ‘new’ aspect of the town allowed for greater integrated green space within the centre. Nature is not separated from civilization, neither exotic nor romantic, but utilitarian. The effect is occasionally bland, although the once the many young trees grow and cover up the office buildings it may not be so bad.

Because of the design of the planners, a proper analysis of Milton Keynes would include not just walking, but also driving. I got the sense that there were two completely different flows in the town. Spaces for the traffic of cars and humans are deliberately and clearly divided, often not being within sight of each other. The green often coincides with the paths for pedestrians, while the grey concrete for the cars.Sometimes, taking for granted that there would be a sidewalk, I often ended up just walking on the side of the road, with no clear space for me.

At the same time, Milton Keynes does contain the subtopia Nairn raged against 50 years ago. The shops are the exact same you find on any other British High Street. The buildings are sterile and monotonous, even the new condominiums are hip in a vague way. But what should we make of this? A building itself does not make a city. One needs to look at the interactions of the people and their experiences living in the particular place. Certainly a different lifestyle has developed in Milton Keynes as a result of its unique planning, for example one that places more priority on having a car.


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