Rural suburbia flying high: Andrew Brown overcomes his nerves to enjoy an aerial view of Britain's fastest-growing urban area

THE queasy part of a helicopter ride comes at once, when after the noisy preparation it squirms into the air and waits there for a few moments. You notice that your feet are hanging unnaturally 20ft from the ground with only a very clear window to rest on. As soon as the beast starts to move higher and faster, like an aeroplane, it is perfectly relaxing and flight seems as ordinary as a bus ride.

Thinking of Milton Keynes as a city is as difficult as staying frightened on a helicopter flight. For what stretches below you is countryside. It is rather suburban countryside, but it still looks less urban than most of Surrey or West Sussex. Perhaps the secret of Milton Keynes' success and attractiveness is that it is a suburb without an 'urb'. Though about 10,000 of its inhabitants commute to London every day, a slightly larger number commute into it from the surrounding countryside.

As they never tire of telling you, this is Britain's fastest growing urban area, and has been for the past 25 years. And, as it celebrates its silver jubilee, none of it looks urban at all.

On the maps in the development office you can see where a net of roads was laid across the countryside in 1967: but once netted, much of it was left in peace. There are still 2,000 acres (800 hectares) of farmland to be developed over the next 20 years. A further 50,000 people are to be accommodated there, if 35,000 jobs for them can be found.

The helicopter flies over the sights of the town: the three buildings huddling together in a vast car park comprise De Montfort University, formerly an offshoot of Leicester Polytechnic. A Japanese boarding school stands next to the Grand Union Canal: they came here in preference to Rome or Paris. There is even a new prison, at Woodhill. The outer wall is built of the same red brick as surrounds a modern Sainsbury or Tesco superstore, but that is the closest you come to 'heritage' in Milton Keynes.

This lack of 'heritage' is the nicest thing about the city. It does lack a certain grandeur, as would any town whose most famous work of art is a set of concrete cows. But a look round the rest of the South-east is enough to show that artificial is better, any day, than phoney.

(Photograph omitted)

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