Sunday 20 October 2013

Simple question, tough answer

Whilst visiting family in the North East of England last weekend, we spent a pleasant evening in the company of my brother and his wife. Their two daughters and partners also put in an appearance, and we had our first chance to meet Noah, the youngest member of the clan, at four months old.

During the evening, my brother innocently asked what memories I would take with me from our time in Milton Keynes. There was a huge pause, before I mumbled a bland reply about there being too many to contemplate, and that we would be looking for a few souvenirs before leaving. However, the simple truth was that the enormity of the question, or at least the answer, was something I hadn't even begun to think about. Where to start?

Whilst I still haven't devoted sufficient time to the subject, I have certainly given it some thought in the few quiet moments there has been this past week, so here goes.

We have lived in Milton Keynes for twenty three years. We came here after a spell in Germany (actually, West Germany, as it was then!), where we had been impressed by the open space of the towns and the amount of green places available within an urban setting.

So it was little surprise that when I found work in the South Midlands, Milton Keynes was the stand out candidate for a place to settle down. A new town, a self-proclaimed city, based on a grid systems where the main roads and the places where people lived were separated as much as practicable, so that few folk had to have traffic thundering by their front doors. In fact, I think that this probably led to one of the criticisms of the place, that it was soulless, you could drive through it, a conurbation of over 250,000 people, and not see anyone. This misses the point that you can drive through it with relative ease and 250,000 folk are safe from being mown down.

And there were roundabouts. Lots of them. Which has led to a bit of leg-pulling. And a few concrete cows, which has led to an awful lot of mickey-taking. And several huge dinosaurs, which no-one ever mentions.

But in amongst all the infrastructure were also green spaces. Linear parks along rivers, brooks and a canal, old woodlands, lakes, formal parks, wild places, fields and paddocks. Life-enhancing greenery, full of birds, mammals, insects, flowers and trees. The cows may have been concrete, but within yards of the excellent regional shopping centre you could find sheep grazing in Campbell Park.

During our time here, we have lived in three different areas: Fishermead, near the city centre, with Campbell Park as the go-to greenery; Heelands, north of the centre, adjacent to the mature majesty of Linford Wood; and Giffard Park, in the north east corner of the city, sandwiched between the M1 motorway and the Grand Union Canal, but with Hanson Environmental Study Centre just a stone's throw away.

I've also worked for three different firms, each with a very different commute. From incessant motorway snarls to a pleasant country drive, via a spell where I could cycle or walk if I so chose (only if it was warm and sunny!).

As befits a new town, only begun in 1967, Milton Keynes is a young and vibrant place, with modern facilities and an excellent approach to recycling. Yet, tucked away amongst the grid roads, it is possible to find traces of several pre-existing rural villages, so that every now and then you can feel like the clock has turned back and you're standing in a time warp of thatched roofs, village greens and manor houses. This is just one instance of the expectation-challenging character of MK.

But to have all of the above, plus some stunning wildlife and then an extra helping of close up nature watching too, is why Milton Keynes will stay in our hearts.

I can take you to the tree where I saw my first (and so far only) Turtle Dove. About 25 yards from there, the whole family witnessed a young Badger cub foraging in broad daylight, from less than 6 feet away. I vividly remember First Born and I sitting in a field, watching as a Brown Hare ran straight towards us and passed with a few yards of our mesmerised, hardly-daring-to-breath, amazed selves. And a similar experience with Second Born and a Barn Owl. There are orchids, an occasional Osprey, grass snakes, water shrews, all manner of wildlife. And, of course, it was in MK that I fell hopelessly and completely in love with dragonflies.

And there's the clue to what Milton Keynes means to Our Lass and I. It is the place where our children grew up, where they inherited the new millennium and the future of the planet, where they appreciated not only 21st Century living, but also the natural world in all its many guises.

MK has been a great place to live, but this chapter of my life is now drawing to a close. From being as far inland as it's possible to be in the UK, Our Lass and I are moving much closer to the coast. Much, much closer. To Orkney, with its ancient history, its windswept beauty, a completely different biota and half a dozen ways to produce renewable energy. I suspect it will be as expectation-challenging as Milton Keynes. Stand by for comparisons and quirky juxtapositions!


Martin said...

Looking forward to the new viewpoint.
Milton Keynes sounds like it has done you well, and certainly from visiting I can appreciate the positives of New Towns as well as the original negatives I had seen as a child/geography student.

Imperfect and Tense said...

That'll be you and Bill Bryson with the same opinion then!