This demi-paradise

Martin Plimmer looks for Utopia and finds Milton Keynes
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Indy Lifestyle Online
When you think of Milton Keynes you think of concrete cows; but there's much less to it than that. It's not rural really, nor really urban; it's not even really a place; rather a collection of places tied together by a concept. It likes to call itself a city, yet it has no spires, palaces, triumphal gates or arches, no statues of heroes repelling invaders from Northamptonshire (or whatever). Instead it has acres of car parking space - a provision any city worth its salt would disdain. It's creepy.

Getting to Milton Keynes couldn't be easier (getting away is easier still). Slide off the M1 and you're in an ordered landscape so un-English it might have been designed by an alien intelligence. Grids of roads bearing other- worldly designations (V10, H5) are connected at neatly planted roundabouts labelled with the ghost names of villages that once stood here. Everything in Milton Keynes is labelled and numbered, even the pedestrian shelters on the central reservations of road crossings: D2 1A for example, and D1 1E. You don't have to be Erich von Daniken to know that if you input all these figures into a computer and systematically decoded them, you would extrapolate a unique map of man's place in the universe.

Milton Keynes is 30 square miles of landscaped green leisure space, dotted with tight corrals of modern houses. It is said that if you wake early, you may catch sight of Teletubbies hopping about among the artificial hillocks in their brushed nylon decontamination suits, their cranial genitalia wobbling eerily in the Milton Keynes dawn. Exactly what draws them here nobody knows, although it's no secret why companies selling material-handling system integrators and unique, multi-layered logistics solutions are attracted. Milton Keynes is the service capital of Britain's service economy, slap in the centre of the country's main distribution artery, a digital nerve centre full of telephone and computer response centres.

Best of all is being able to park where the hell you want to, then cross Silbury Boulevard at shelter D2 1A, and enter Door 7 of a travertine-floored glass box containing half a mile of eager shops. It is while noting the ease of everything, the desire to please, to give no offence, to be clean, green and keen, that you start to feel sorry for Milton Keynes. You can see why it is vulnerable to the cynical jokes of the jaundiced reporters which are mentioned in the official guide.

It's a short step from here to liking it. "Maybe Alison's Bag Centre isn't quite so scary," you think, "the Yoghurt Shoppe retail barrow almost half nice." And then you go back to your car to find a pounds 25 parking ticket - that's one aspect of the urban life they've got sorted.

The Milton Keynes coat of arms incorporates the double axe of ancient Crete, whose cities were among the earliest planned communities. But there is no bull-leaping in Milton Keynes, only concrete cows.

There is a pyramid, however. Is it a pharaoh's tomb or a complex coded blueprint of man's place in the universe left us by aliens? Or a leisure centre?

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