There’s more to Milton Keynes than roundabouts

There are parks too


It’s tough coming from a place that gets constantly ridiculed. “Where are you from?” is the dreaded question when it comes to meeting new people. The response always gets a similar reaction. An awkward silence, sometimes a subtle snigger. They realise it’s not a joke, and there’s a look of confusion, before their eyes fill with pity. “Why?” asks the look on their baffled face. “Why on earth would you live in Milton Keynes?”

My parents moved from London to Milton Keynes when I was four. Growing up in the comfortable confines of the grid roads, I wasn’t aware of the stigma surrounding my hometown. Roundabouts were normal and concrete cows were cool. I liked our house and my local friends and as far as I was concerned MK was the best place I could be.

But as I grew older the truth began to come out, and when I moved out for university it was confirmed. In Freshers’ Week alone my hometown became the butt of a thousand jokes. “Roundabout city”, “concentration camp layout”, “grey” were just a few of the cutting insults. One time during pre drinks my flatmate decided everyone had to give a reason why Milton Keynes was shit or drink. I was nicknamed “MK Dons” and mocked for my Milton Keynes “accent”.

Since, I’ve become all to aware of MK’s reputation nationally. In the press it’s been dubbed “a soulless suburb”, “bereft of personality” – a total “non-place”. Pioneered 50 years ago as a London overspill just an hour’s drive from the capital, its lack of history deprives it of the heritage most British cities pride themselves on. A “new town” of the 60s, still waiting to be granted official city status, Milton Keynes has become known solely for its abundance of roundabouts, its controversial football team and its obsession with concrete cows.

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There’s some truth in all that. It was designed to be a “car city”, with roads running vertical and horizontal to form a patchwork of what the planners called “grid squares”.  They say cars in Milton Keynes have left tyres that are more worn down than the right ones because of all the swinging around roundabouts where the roads intersect. The local football team, MK Dons, is the subject of controversy, after we robbed the club from Wimbledon when they went bankrupt 13 years ago. As for the concrete cow obsession, it all started when a cluster of black and white cow statues that sit inconspicuously in a field off the roadside somehow made their name as an icon for the city. To this day no one really understands why.

But Milton Keynes is not just cars, controversy, and concrete cows. Nor is it the character-less, consumerist city many think it is. Yes, there is a colossal shopping centre bang in the middle crammed with chain stores; yes, the public transport is shit and cars dominate; yes, the nightlife scene is limited to places like WonderWorld – deemed one of the worst nightclubs in Britain. But when you actually live and grow up in the ridiculed city, you learn to defend it, and there is reason to.

Firstly, for a place that is passed off as just a load of roads, MK has a lot of countryside. One quarter of the city is made up of parks and green spaces, and there are more than 400 acres of water. Fond  memories from my teens include going “down the river” and downing Lambrini. The “redways” that run along a lot of the roads also mean getting around by bike is easy, so driving everywhere isn’t the only option.

MK river

At a time of rising rent and house prices, Milton Keynes is also a viable alternative to London. Located 50 miles from the capital and bang in the middle of the Oxford-Cambridge arc, it is very central, but with much lower house prices than London. The city isn’t bad for business and employment prospects either, ranked top of the list of UK cities with the highest job growth over the past decade. At a time where London is pricing us all out, maybe MK (just maybe) is a beacon of light…

But there’s no denying Milton Keynes is odd. Now that I’ve moved to the big city I sometimes wonder what would have been if we had stayed. I remember visiting my north London cousins as a teenager, and they were always a step ahead of the game, wearing skinny jeans while I was still in full-on flares, dolly shoes while I was still rocking K-Swiss Tongue Twisters, going to house parties in big houses while I was going to nappy nights in Oceana. For a city that is so close to London, MK is far from it.

I could’ve been a London kid, but instead my younger years were spent in the little town of Wolverton in the north of MK. I went on bike rides down the redways to visit the concrete cows. I waited forever for the unreliable buses to trundle through the estates and down grid roads to get me “up city”, where my friends and I would hang about near the replicated concrete cows in Midsummer Place. I learned to drive by navigating my way over an endless string of roundabouts. I watched MK Dons matches and joined in with the favourite chant from the home stand: “No one likes us, We don’t care”. That sums it up.