Exploring abandoned Milton Keynes by bike – WIF #1

Image

One of the things I’m loving about my time in Milton Keynes (and there genuinely are a lot – I’m just being lazy about writing them up) is its weird and quirky planning and construction.

There are so many interesting little factoids and trivia about MK that start to emerge when you glance at a map or history book (and I do that with alarming tenacity).

Since buying a bike recently (my first new and very own bike since I was about ten!), I’ve been absolutely loving getting out and about on it, as well as just using it to get to and from work. Amongst MK’s weird and wonderful transport systems is the fantastic network of Redways* – cycling (and pedestrian) paths which criss-cross the city and mean you can get from one point to almost any other without ever crossing a main road (and only rarely crossing minor roads).

map link – PDF

The Redways have opened up a sort of virtual landscape to me, and they’ve enabled MK to make sense to me, where before everywhere kind of just looked the same. It still does, of course, but I’m starting to get my bearings and I’m enjoying being able to correspond a point on a map with a place I can visit.

But where this process gets a little bit more intriguing than your bog-standard ‘navigating by map’ is when you go to a location on a map which… just isn’t really there in real life.

Milton Keynes was planned so precisely and so carefully that, inevitably, sometimes things didn’t go to plan. This results in quirks and oddities on the scale of whole neighbourhoods being paved, roads built and street names assigned… And then they are just left, as if abandoned.

Image

One such neighbourhood (one of several, actually) can be found surprisingly close to Campbell Park, the new city’s central recreation area. I stumbled on it by accident, following my nose along another ribbon of Redway.

Image

Suddenly, across the road from the park I found myself surrounded by roads that were laid, along with pavements and kerbstones, and lines of trees. But behind the kerb were no houses – no buildings at all. Just wasteland leading to another copied-and-pasted tree-lined avenue.

Image

It was actually quite eerie – and this was on a sunny Saturday afternoon, when a minute or so before I’d been whizzing past Campbell Park’s cricket ground. And yet, suddenly, here was windswept silence, with only a distant hum of traffic and the wind in the leaves.

Image

And what I might even love most about this whole weird place is that on all the maps that cover the area, the roads are all named. Above you can see down the length of Taymouth Place. Nearby turn-offs lead to Smithsons Place, Reliance Lane and Limerick Lane.

But nobody lives at these addresses, and there are no road signs. And yet they exist on maps and, presumably, in some sort of planning database. There is much for me to explore and investigate, clearly.

Image

As before, but in reverse, it took just a few turns of my pedals before I found myself cycling past flats and a busy road once more. Now that I’ve found this place by accident, I’m taking a more concerted effort to find more. I’ve seen a few that are easy to find, opposite huge supermarkets and similar. Then there are those almost stereotypical junctions with spurs to roads that never got built.

I need to be careful about the tools I use for this mission. Google Maps is pretty accurate, but using the satellite maps and Street View imagery often only tells half the story – or less. The ‘current’ satellite view of my workplace still shows a hockey stadium, for example. And there is an adjacent patch of land to the one I talk about above, which appears to be in the same condition according to Google, but has since been built upon.

So, it’s a mystery story with a few tools necessary – a handful of maps, my bicycle, and a curiosity to seek out some of MK’s more surprising hidden gems. I’ll let you know what else I find.

Drinking coffee in the girls’ school staffroom

On Wednesday this week, I and some of my colleagues at the Trust had the pleasure of visiting Henrietta Barnett School, the prestigious girls’ grammar school located on Hampstead Garden Suburb’s Central Square. Formerly The Institute, the school is in a beautiful 100-year-old building designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, which overlooks the Central Square’s two churches and a wonderful arrangement of flowerbeds and trees, all also originally designed by Lutyens.

The school has recently had a brand-new wing added, designed by Hopkins, and we were pleased to be given a brief tour by the school’s deputy head.

We were visiting the school for Lauren Geisler to deliver a lecture to the year 7s about the Suburb, with regards to its geography, architecture, and to its founder, Henrietta Barnett – the school’s namesake.

Lauren’s talk was well-received by the 90-odd girls aged 11-12, and if the enthusiastic question-and-answer session that followed was anything to go by, I’d say it was a great success. Questions after a talk are interesting and often quite revealing – about the nature of the audience, and the kinds of topics that were picked up on. Some of the girls were intrigued as to the Trust’s (and Barnet’s) powers to restrict building work deemed unsatisfactory, and about where the money for the Suburb came from in the first place.

But the best question had to be from the girl who queried: if Henrietta Barnett was “kind of… sort of… well, dead,” then why such care and attention was spent on keeping the Suburb as she had first devised it more than 100 years ago. An amusing way of putting it, but a salient point (one of many, in fact) which highlighted the need for such educational and informative outreach activities from the Trust, in and around the Suburb.

It was heartening to see the girls being so receptive of their school’s ‘architecture day’; when the deputy head flashed up a few examples of innovative school buildings recently erected around the capital, gasps of awe and delight could be heard. I hope it also helped them to further appreciate their own building – not just the original part, but the innovative new extension.

As a new extension to a beautiful old building in a protected conservation area, it was bound to attract controversy. But in my opinion, the work was done to such a high standard, and in a way which compliments Lutyens’ original, that the result is a harmonious union of new and old. The new build houses state-of-the-art drama and music equipment, including a music room that looked more like an IT suite, replete as it is with wall-to-wall iMacs, and several soundproofed practise and rehearsal spaces.

It all made me feel like I’d left school thousands of years ago; I remember us getting our first proper IT rooms in secondary school, which were to replace the handful of computers dotted around other classrooms. I can still remember using green-screen BBC computers in the middle of primary school, even.

After a warm welcome, an engaging tour, and a very successful lecture, it was time to split the girls into groups for a Suburb walking tour. We wanted to point out some of the areas of interest that Lauren had brought up, and it became clear that although these girls go to school on the Suburb, few of them were aware of its significance.

The nature of the school’s selective intake policy means that many of the pupils (and staff) don’t live on the Suburb, being bussed and driven in from surrounding boroughs and counties. It was therefore a great opportunity to show them some of the architectural and geographical oddities and attractions quite literally on their doorstep.

Split up into more manageable-sized groups, the girls were led around a circular walk by various Trust staff and volunteers, along with some of their teachers. Luckily for me, I wasn’t in charge of a group and merely tagged along with one led by Ruth Ash. I was ready to jump in if I could, but fortunately my main tasks were ferrying the girls across the busier roads and just enjoying the tour myself.

The walk was good fun, and it was again interesting to hear what the girls had picked up on. Some were asking about a house featured in one of the Harry Potter films, while others were more impressed by the number and value of several sports cars in the driveway of a certain television personality. One girl was driven to ask about the Trust’s policy on dog mess removal – after finding a rather unholy amount on one section of pavement.

It was a short-ish walk, but a good length and enough to introduce some of the varied architecture and sights available. The girls returned to school for lunch and another talk, this time from a Hopkins architect (I rather wish I could’ve stayed for that one myself!), while the staff sloped back to the Trust office to see what lay in store for our Wednesday afternoon.

As an exercise in promoting not only the Suburb but also the invaluable work the Trust does to preserve it – along with it being a fun and informative morning – I’d say it was a huge success. Lessons were learnt, too, and it’s all useful experience for similar events in the future, such as Open House.

For me personally, it was yet another in a long line of interesting, unique opportunities that working with the Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust has offered me; drinking coffee in a school staffroom is something I’d never done before – let alone in a girls’ school!

My Trusty summer job

As you may know, I’m working again this summer at Hampstead Garden Suburb Trust. I was there last summer for four weeks, and they’ve kindly asked to have me back again this summer for another five.

After my second day back at the Trust, I thought I’d take a moment to write an update about my time there so far.

Well, the first couple of days have sadly been marred somewhat by me feeling under the weather with a bit of a cold. That can’t be helped though, and being ill rarely comes with good timing. Luckily I’ve been treated gently by the familiar faces who seem happy to have me back, and I’ve had some time to reacquaint myself with not just the Trust office, but with the history of Hampstead Garden Suburb itself. It’s a fascinating place, and everywhere you turn there are names, dates and documents to investigate. For someone like me, it’s a joy.

Touching on social history, cartography, town planning, design and much more, everything associated with the Suburb seems fascinating to me. Although the Trust obviously also deals with rather more mundane issues such as road re-surfacing and solving disputes with residents, it all forms a whole which stands for preserving the Suburb for future generations to enjoy it in the same way as it has been for the past century.

While those aforementioned more routine tasks take place around me, I’ve been left to explore photographs, documents and information pertaining to all aspects of the Suburb. As with daily life at the Trust office, already my primary tasks have changed, and I have spent most of my time poring over images for inclusion in a very important document – the Design Guidance.

Last updated in 1994, the Design Guidance document (available in its current, revised 2010 edition here) details, as much as possible, what sort of architectural work is allowed to take place on the Suburb. It lists adaptations that residents are likely to want to make (such as extensions or replacement windows and doors), and gives examples of how best to achieve these while keeping the building in sync with the rest of the area. With such a well-preserved collection of some 5,000 buildings, it’s vital to ensure that the right methods and materials are being used, and that the fabric and look of individual buildings doesn’t change too much. Only by doing so can the Suburb hope to remain as beautiful as it always has been.

As well as selecting images to illustrate the Design Guidance document, I’ve been finding out about a walking tour which will take place tomorrow, taking  a hundred Year 7 students on a walk around the centre of the Suburb. The students are from the girls’ grammar school on the Suburb’s Central Square, The Henrietta Barnett School, named after the amazing woman who first devised the Suburb a hundred years ago. Lauren Geisler will be delivering a lecture about the Suburb with regards to its geography and, along with various Trust staff and volunteers, I’ll be assisting in taking smaller groups on the walk itself.

I hope I can get rid of this blasted cold soon, but meanwhile I’m still getting used to the commute and life in a 9-5 job. It’s a bit of a change from the last few months of my life, I’ll tell you that.