‘Respect the robots!’ and nine other unwritten rules of Milton Keynes

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

From landmarks to local lingo, these 10 unwritten rules will help you get the most out of a trip to Milton Keynes.

If you thought all there was to do in Milton Keynes was to spin your way through its 130 roundabouts, then a trip to the UK’s youngest town would make for a dizzying pilgrimage – but you’d be missing out on the real fun to be had in the city centre (we’ll get to that later) and the thousands of acres of verdant parkland that surround it.

Affectionately known as MK to its 248,000 residents, this 52-year-old settlement has a lot to show off about. It was born from the collective efforts of a team of inspired and forward-thinking town planners and architects whose legacy lives on in MK’s wide-open spaces and Midsummer Boulevard, which was designed to follow Stonehenge and frame the rising sun of the summer solstice.

Even the roads are more interesting than you might think: its beautifully logical grid system has roads labelled “H” and “V” – indicating whether they travel horizontally or vertically across the map. Navigating MK might be easy, but it’s even easier once you familiarise yourself with a few of these unwritten rules.

Honour its roots as a pop culture epicentre
When Cliff Richard chose to shoot the video for his 1981 single Wired for Sound in MK, it was likely that he was after a location that would convey his new, contemporary sound. While the song hasn’t aged too well, the clip remains oddly compelling and – as Richard scoots about on rollerskates in the newly built shopping centre (now a listed building) – iconic in its naffness, reaching its zenith as Sir Cliff plugs in a Sony Walkman, which back then was as eye-popping to the average Brit as roundabouts would have been to the Romans.

And if that wasn’t enough, when the time came to make a fourth Superman film in 1987, there was only one choice for recreating the futuristic Metropolis on a budget – Milton Keynes. The town, barely in its 20s, became the setting for the final film of Christopher Reeve’s tenure as the Man of Steel.

Get the beers (and cheese) in
Milton Keynes boasts scores of chain restaurants and bars in its downtown Hub district, but if you’re looking for something a little more unique – and love beer – then you’re in luck. There are no fewer than four breweries in the area, and the MK Biergarten can be relied upon for a huge selection of local and craft beers, as well as the best cheeses to pair them with.

Respect the robots!
Fast forward to 2019 and it’s not Cliff Richard you need to keep an eye out for when crossing the road. It’s robots.

Laden down with groceries from the Co-op or a takeaway from Just Eat, these futuristic delivery machines are big enough to hold two carrier bags of shopping. It’s not uncommon to see one trundling along the pavement, making the most of MK’s famous grid system.

As they’re tracked by GPS and can only be unlocked with a code sent direct to the customer, they’re more than able to make from A to B without interruption from would-be grocery robbers.

Scientists are now planning to unleash driverless cars on the town, too. But hopefully they’ll stay off the pavements.

Learn the lingo
Milton Keynes was conceived in 1967 as a way to relocate a huge chunk of London’s population. While the town lacks the grandeur of the capital, it does have its own cockney rhyming slang nickname: Milk ‘n’ Beans. Speaking of breakfasts, Fourth & Fifth is a Milton Keynes institution … and it does a vegan fry-up, too.

We’re all Friesian fine
Perhaps in homage to its farmland origins, Milton Keynes is home to a small herd of concrete cows. The three cows and their calves were created by Canadian artist Liz Leyh with the help of some local schoolchildren in 1978, and are actually scrap metal encased in concrete.

After decades grazing on roundabouts, they currently call the MK Museum home.

Join generation zen
The first peace pagoda to be constructed in the western hemisphere, Minoru Okha and Tom Hancock’s 1980 design was built by the monks and nuns of the Nipponzan Myohoji, a pacifist Buddhist sect established in 1917. It’s flanked by 1,000 cherry and cedar trees, to commemorate victims of all wars – make sure you seek out the Memory Tree.

If your idea of peace and tranquillity is a train journey with no beeping noises, then upgrade to first class on London Northwestern Railway journeys for just £15 at weekends and enjoy quiet zones, extra leg room and charging points – nothing kills a vibe more than a dead battery.

Pretend it has a city centre
Despite the initial plans, and all the signs referring to the town centre as the “city centre” MK is, in fact, a town – despite the presence of a cathedral. MK’s cathedral, just north of gorgeous Campbell park, is an outline of a floor plan of a cathedral planted in trees – and is a place to scatter or inter loved ones’ ashes.

With more than 22m different trees planted around the 119 square miles of the district of Milton Keynes, it’s no surprise that they had to come up with some unusual ideas to use them all up.

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It’s a culture vulture’s dream
The MK Gallery’s newly opened two-storey stainless steel extension cost £12m and took 18 months to build – and would have had the directors of both Superman IV and Wired for Sound foaming at the mouth.

Officially, the design “recalls the rigorous grid that underpins the city”, but it definitely doubles up as good content for your Instagram feed. The caption? “Visiting the future brb” seems appropriate.

There are also around 220 pieces of public art scattered around the town, including Bill Billing’s Triceratops (1979); Lillian Lijn’s Light Pyramid (2012) at the heart of Campbell park; and along the Grand Union canal, stainless steel sculpture Reaching Forward (2012) by Martin Heron.

You’re in the ‘Venice of England’
Milton Keynes boasts a bigger shoreline than the island of Jersey, although don’t expect any sea views, it’s due to its many lakes and the 11 miles of canals criss-crossing its 2,400 hectares (6,000 acres) of parkland.

Back in 2010 the town’s PR department tried to rebrand MK as the “romance capital of Britain” due to the fact it has more bridges than La Serenissima.

There are no gondolas in North Bucks, but there are some charming pubs along the River Ouzel – take that, Venice!