I spent last night with an 81-year-old woman. It was great; she even made me eggs and bacon in the morning.
Pauline Ikin lives in Milton Keynes, an hour’s drive north of London; it’s one of the New Towns that sprung up in postwar UK and, like most of them, has received its fair share of flak for being drab and lifeless. But it wasn’t always this way: when it was built in 1967, Milton Keynes was heralded as a utopia for its wide open spaces and US-style grid system. But before long its indoor ski slope, retail estates and chain restaurants became punchlines in comedy clubs rather than people’s idea of a great place to live.
“Some think it’s odd that I’d invite people I don’t know into my home,” says Pauline of my stay, as we settle down at the breakfast table. We’re using the regular crockery; the good stuff’s older than the town and, I’m told, is for display purposes only. “Now, tea or coffee?”
I’m here as a participant of Beds United, a feature of the Milton Keynes Festival of Creative Urban Living: an attempt by the council to revive the town’s image among architecture buffs and beyond. This first biennial won’t convince everyone that the low-rise city should be held in the same esteem as Amsterdam or Paris but it seeks to showcase the city’s strengths. The organisers maintain that you shouldn’t pass judgement until you stay the night and see the town: so here I am.
The programme’s format? You, like me, can stay in a resident’s home (separate beds are encouraged). An excellent host, Pauline is something of a rarity: she’s lived here since before the government turned a small collection of villages into a car-centric conurbation of 250,000 people; she’s seen every stage of the town’s development. “[When construction started] it was a bit like Brexit is now: we didn’t know what was going to happen,” she says. “We were shown architects’ visions and drawings but it was difficult to imagine until it was built.”
From the outset, planners had an idea for small communities of homes surrounded by greenery, sitting within a grid of new streets punctuated by roundabouts – lots of roundabouts. Though derided now, it was seen as a breath of fresh air compared to the congested spaces that the UK’s older cities had become. It’s green too, even along the main roads: 22 million trees were planted.
Pauline’s home – all beige bricks, with a brown-tiled roof – was built in the late 1970s: its austerity is in stark contrast to her bright sitting room furnished with a rug from John Lewis (the department store opened a branch here in 1979) and a pre-eminent collection of Toby jugs. With the curtains pulled back, Pauline sinks into an armchair and peers into her garden and the greenway beyond; snooty Londoners, 86km away, might be jealous of the view.
I’m often reminded on my visit that Milton Keynes is a city of firsts. There’s the UK’s first service station, where Pauline celebrated her first wedding anniversary; the country’s first solar-powered house; and its first purpose-built multiplex cinema. But the town’s newer developments, Pauline says, don’t have the same quality of the early constructions. “The more recent builds are all crammed together,” she says. “There’s not much green space around them. They don’t have open spaces at the front and back of the house, like the early developments.” It’s a concern shared by the broader community too: there has been a backlash against housing that doesn’t have the same connection to nature that defined the town’s first years of budding development.
And while there might be a reluctance to embrace new builds, Milton Keynes is certainly open to new people. Pauline kindly drops me off at the station after breakfast. It’s been a pleasure staying with her and, after a one-night stay, it’s nice to avoid sneaking out, feeling guilty, to wait for a taxi.