05 June 2022
Milton Keynes is
a new city with
a soul still waiting
to become a city
The ‘new city’ of Milton Keynes is marking a key anniversary this year. It is 30 years since an order was signed in June 1992, officially dissolving Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC) and handing over the place to Buckinghamshire County Council and Milton Keynes Borough Council.
At the time, MKDC was congratulated for having achieved what it set out to do – create a ‘new city’ from scratch. MKDC was formed in 1967, and had built 44,000 houses, planted 14 million trees and shrubs, provided more than 100 km of new grid roads and built 230 km of unique cycling and walking routes known as Redways.
At its peak, it employed 1,700 people, including the most visionary architects in Britain. Their master plan had a vision for a ‘city in the trees,’ where no building should be higher than the tallest tree. Although things have changed since, it was radical thinking at a time when multi-storey flats and tower blocks were dominating other large towns, and it offered a model for solving the housing crisis in Britain.
A ‘soulless suburb’ in
a green and pleasant land
Milton Keynes, with a population of 260,000, is perfectly placed between London and Birmingham, between Oxford and Cambridge. It has been described as ‘an urban Eden’, with 22 million trees and shrubs, more waterfront than the island of Jersey, 200 public works of art, three ancient woodlands and a shopping centre praised widely as the most beautiful in Britain.
This is a low-density, low-rise city of trees, a place of light industry, high technology and ultra-convenience. It is home to Britain’s first multiplex cinema, first peace pagoda, and the Open University.
The Open University suggested the name of MK Dons, chaired by property developer Peter Winkelman, although football fans in parts of London still refuse to forgive him for relocating Wimbledon FC to Milton Keynes.
The architects were influenced not only by Los Angeles and Chicago, but also by the grid cities of ancient Greece and China and the rebuilding of Paris in the 19th century by Georges-Eugène Haussmann (1809-1891), with new boulevards, parks and public works.
As Milton Keynes developed, press coverage claimed London was being ‘hollowed out’ by Milton Keynes, which was ‘engulfing’ a green and pleasant land.
Milton Keynes was said to be ‘lost between designers’ dreams and the creation of a liveable city.’ For more than half a century, it has been derided as a soulless suburb, a centrally-planned city in the heart of ‘olde worlde’ middle England, between the Home Counties and the South Midlands.
Finding the soul of
suburban Milton Keynes
It is unfair, however, to say Milton Keynes is a suburb without a soul. The surrounding towns and villages have become virtual suburbs, but all have churches that date back to Anglo-Saxon churches or to mediaeval monastic foundations.
Watling Street was the old Roman road that crossed England from London to Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter) and the north-west, crossing the Great Ouse River between Old Stratford and Stony Stratford.
The Romans defeated Boudica at Watling Street. Later it marked the border of the Danelaw with Wessex and Mercia, and it became one of the major highways of mediaeval England.
Early Saxon hoards were unearthed in Old Stratford in the 18th century, and the ‘Stratford’ part of the village name is Anglo-Saxon in origin, meaning the ‘ford on the Roman road.’ The ford was later replaced by a causeway and stone bridge, marking the border between Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire.
Old Stratford had no church of its own, and the nearest one was in Passenham, where the dedication to Saint Guthlac (674-715) is rare.
About 1,000 years after Saint Guthlac, Francis Hutchinson was the Rector of Passenham in 1706-1727, and was also Bishop of Down and Connor from 1720 until his death in 1739. He was a key figure in the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) and was obsessed with witchcraft and with trying to convert Irish-speaking population of Rathlin Island.
Another Anglo-Saxon church foundation survives in Old Wolverton, where the Church of the Holy Trinity incorporates Saxon and mediaeval elements. The old mediaeval church was rebuilt in 1809-1815, but the new church incorporates a 14th-century central tower.
Bradwell Abbey is a large commercial and industrial estate in Milton Keynes. But Bradwell Abbey or Bradwell Priory is also an urban studies centre and an historical monument with the remains of a mediaeval Benedictine priory, founded ca 1154.
Bradwell Abbey contains the greater part of the mediaeval precinct of a priory. The small 14th century chapel of Saint Mary – a dedicated pilgrimage chapel – is the only complete building of the original priory still standing and it contains unique mediaeval wall paintings.
Today, Bradwell Abbey is an urban studies centre, providing a workspace, library and guidance for visiting international town planners and students studying Milton Keynes. It also hosts school visits to see its mediaeval buildings, the chapel, the surviving farmhouse, its fish ponds and its physic garden, and how they have changed over time.
An Irish rector and
his benevolent sister
All Saints’ Church in Calverton, close to Stony Stratford and Passenham, is another early foundation near Milton Keynes. Saint Birinus came to this area as a missionary and became known as the ‘Apostle to the West Saxons.’ He lived in the area before becoming the first Bishop of Dorchester, and organised the parish system in the area before he died in 649.
Richard the clerk of Calverton is the first recorded priest or rector, and witnessed a deed with Robert de Whitfield, Sheriff of Oxfordshire, in 1182-1185.
The right to nominate the Rector of Calverton was sold with the manor in 1806 to Charles George Perceval (1756-1840), 2nd Lord Arden and an elder brother of the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval (1762-1812). Spencer Perceval was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons, the only British Prime Minister to have been assassinated.
Lord Arden commissioned had All Saints’ Church rebuilt between 1818 and 1824, on the foundations of the earlier All Hallows’ Church.
Lord Arden’s son, the Revd the Hon Charles George Perceval (1796-1858), came to Calverton as Rector in 1821, at the age of 24. He was a devout High Churchman and a supporter of the Tractarians, and some of the Tracts for the Times were planned if not written at his rectory in Calverton.
Perceval’s daughter, Lady Mary Perceval (1830-1891), married the Revd Richard Norris Russell, Rector of Beachampton, near Calverton. She was generous to the Church in Stony Stratford, donating towards building Saint Mary the Virgin Church, now the Greek Orthodox Church on London Road, and funding a new school.
Perceval’s eldest surviving son, Charles George Perceval (1845-1897), was born at Calverton Rectory. He succeeded as 7th Earl of Egmont, an Irish peerage title, in 1874 and inherited the family’s vast estates in Co Cork. However, Lord Egmont sold off many of his Irish estates, including Liscarroll Castle, near Buttevant, in 1889. Kanturk Castle was donated to the National Trust by his widow in 1900.
Newport Pagnell has two ancient church sites: the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul is cathedral-like in its location and dimensions, while Tickford Abbey, a residential and dementia care home, stands on the site of Tickford Priory established for the Cluniac Order.
shared by architects
When the architects were designing the centre of Milton Keynes in the early 1970s, they realised the planned main street almost followed Stonehenge in framing the rising sun on Midsummer Day.
They consulted Greenwich Observatory to obtain the exact angle required at their latitude in Buckinghamshire. The idealistic young architects then persuaded the engineers to shift the grid of roads a few degrees, to relate the new city to the cosmos.
One solstice, the architects lit an all-night bonfire and played Pink Floyd on the green fields they would soon pave with a paradise of parking lots, roundabouts and concrete cows. The midsummer sun would shine along the 2 km length of Midsummer Boulevard.
The Master Plan for Milton Keynes hoped for a town centred around a grid of streets and boulevards about 2 km long by 1 km wide, and in their futuristic vision they imagined light-weight electric cars would become the mode of local traffic.
When the Development Corporation was wound up in 1992, the Parks Trust was created to look after the open spaces. By then, Milton Keynes had become an economic and popular success.
The bid by Milton Keynes to become European Capital of Culture in 2023 collapsed in the aftermath of Brexit. And, ironically, the one thing the ‘new city’ of Milton Keynes did not achieve was the right to actually call itself a city.
Buckinghamshire is an English county without a city. Now, 30 years after becoming a borough, Milton Keynes is hoping its fourth bid for city status will be successful during Queen Elizabeth’s platinum jubilee celebrations.
This two-page feature was first published in the June 2022 edition of the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough)
Note: Between writing this feature and its publication, Milton Keynees received city status to mark Queen Elizabeth’s platinum jubilee