Sunday, 26 January 2014

Inside Milton Keynes

Peace Pagoda at Willen Lakes park
Back when I was a young hack I remember negotiating a multiplicity of roundabouts in the fledgling Milton Keynes to get from the M1 to our typesetters. (Back in the days when there were such people as typesetters in magazine production!)
And roundabouts are all most of us know of the place. Even the canal circles around the edge of it and never gets close to the centre. So this past week it's been a first chance to take a wander around what is by far the most successful of the sixties 'new towns'.
Great views from Campbell Park. Shame about the MacD litter!
Odd as it seems, the roundabouts that enable you to get across the town without ever finding the centre are at the heart of its design. For it is actually pretty much a town without a centre or a heart - that's the whole point. The architectural theory behind it was that a town of the future didn't need to radiate from a centre but instead should be a metropolis of smaller business or residential areas linked together by a web of roads for easy access. And it works.
Clever sculpture of memorial day columns at Campbell Park
'The Face' - Campbell Park again
The clever thing is that, unlike many traditional towns, where pedestrians and cyclists battle for survival among cars and trucks on ring roads and one way streets carved among the older streets, MK successfully separates traffic from people. You can walk or cycle from place to place without ever encountering a car.
Open air theatre
There is a centre - a shopping centre anyway - and we are moored on the edge of Campbell Park which is the closest the canal gets to that. It's a ten minute walk away but though the walk is great, the shopping centre isn't. Unless you like shopping, of course, in which case it's probably okay though the low-rise shops look rather old-fashioned to anyone brought up on trips to Bluewater and the like.
No, the parks and walks are the best part of the town - a delight and a surprise. Immaculately tended, even now in mid-winter, with little litter, tarmac pathways and lots to see from urban art to a Buddhist Peace Pagoda, they are superb. Brian the Dog is particularly impressed!
As well as Campbell Park, with its fine views, open air theatre, cricket ground and artworks, there is Willen Lakes, for bird watching and the 'tree cathedral' - yes, a plantation of various tree species in the layout and scale of a cathedral.
The only thing that's wrong at the moment is the weather – a good soaking yesterday and another rain and hailstorm today which has driven us back inside just as we were about to go for another park walk. Sorry about that, Brian.

The past is another country

Spectacular rainbow near Ivinghoe
And one that is rapidly disappearing in the mists of time. This entry, then, is one intended to try and clear those mists in my own head before a complete and irreversible fog descends. (Since I haven't posted since early November I doubt anyone out there will be still following our snail-like progress through winter so this is a just a brief memo to brain on where we are now and how we got here.)
Let's work backwards - it's easier to try and fill in the mental gaps that way. We're are now in Milton Keynes and have been for virtually a week. Getting here was a slow dawdle up the Grand Union, with various breaks for family visits, after we finally left London where we had been pottering between Paddington Basin, Kensal Green and Greenford becoming steadily disenchanted with the squalor and mess along large parts of the Paddington Arm of the canal.
Modelling my smart 'onesy'
In Uxbridge I tried with only partial success to cure a persistent fuel leak from the JP's fuel filter before we finally left the cityscape for the countryside, wandering past Denham, spending a couple of days in Watford, then the edge of Hemel
Hempstead - a sprawling old new-town looking very scruffy around parts by the canal - before reaching Berkhamsted, which is exactly the opposite: a compact and extremely affluent commuter belt town, full of boutique shops and up-market restaurants. All the same, the canal which was once a big part of the place's prosperity is still embraced with some decent pubs and tidy towpaths.
Canalside Christmas lights in Berkhamsted
There are a lot of locks on the climb out of London but by Cowroast we had gone through 45 and were at the summit of the canal. And not once did we find ourselves sharing one of the locks with another boat - so few boats seem to travel at all in the winter months.
We found  wide locks on our own a trial in our little boat, Star, but in the 55ft Harry we were untroubled - a bit more boat length and a lot more experience in working paddles to keep the boat pinned to the side in the filling locks made the difference.
Slightly nervously we left the boat moored over Christmas and New Year at the end of the summit level, at the top of the Marsworth locks. Fortunately all was well on our return - except it was bloody cold inside and took a good day or two to warm up properly.
Winter cruising on an empty Grand Union
In bright winter sunshine we spent a couple of days walking round the Marsworth reservoirs that feed the canal before moving on - downhill now - and turning into the narrowbeam Aylesbury Arm. The Arm was shut for most of last year because of a lock collapse. It's a lock right alongside the gigantic £150m new Arla milk processing plant. Seemingly the earthworks for the building of the plant and the collapse of the lock are unconnected. Hmmm.
Last time we did this 17-locks each way trip it was to moor at the Aylesbury Canal Society's moorings at the terminus of the Arm. Since then their site has been sold for redevelopment and the Society now has a very smart new home on the edge of town - and still welcomes visitors. It's a state of the art place with a clubhouse and dry docks being built and impressive moorings. We liked the place (and the super-friendly members) so much we joined the Society.
The giant Arla dairy plant by the Aylesbury Arm
Back on the main line the next port of call was Leighton Buzzard, after a one-day stop near Ivinghoe. A curious place is LB: there's a useful canalside Tesco and even more useful Aldi if you don't like Tesco prices but the general sprawl is unappealing. Walk into the small town centre and you discover a completely different LB - a bourgeois little High Street of niche shops like ice cream makers, chocolatiers, specialist bakers and boutiques. No recession here, then.
Finally, via overnights at  Soulbury and Stoke Hammond we did the long drag into Milton Keynes where we are now, on the edge of Campbell Park and just beyond the start of the proposed Bedford-Milton Keynes Waterway.