Exploring Milton Keynes

I spent about 7 hours yesterday exploring Milton Keynes with artist and mythographer Phil Smith. We set out to orient ourselves in the city in preparation for our Digitalis project, working with the Libraries network there and the Council in this, Milton Keynes’ 50th birthday year. Phil’s proposition was an intriguing one; in such a young city can we yet find evidence of it developing its own mythology, its own legends?

Midsummer Boulevard is the overt signifier that the city’s planners were conscious of Milton Keynes’ potential to be a new ritual landscape. Unsurprisingly, in a city whose central street aligns the shopping centre and the railway station with sunrise on midsummer solstice, on our journey we found ourselves exploring a sun temple, we found a reflective space that offered a ready moon pool for scrying, we found the processional route to the sun and the futuristic monument, like something from the sci-fi movie Zardoz, placed at the top of a tor to rival Glastonbury’s, placed to pierce the sun as it rises on solstice morning. In fact, everywhere we walked we discovered overt attempts to build processional routes, meeting circles and spaces designed for some unknown social ritual or other.

In the city’s more recent public art commissions there is evidence of conscious thought about the gap Milton Keynes may feel it needs to fill in the historic ritual landscape of the British Isles. Yet, despite the dozens of potential ritual spaces we found coded into the terrain, there was no sense of cohesion uniting them all. Processional routes abruptly ended or were thwarted by commercial concerns or other obstacles in the landscape. Amphitheatres wait for gatherings that never materialise. Meeting circles remain empty as the communities around them head elsewhere to the corner shops and cafes for their social discourse. We meandered through the grids of egalitarian housing in some socialist ‘sixties vision’ of a continental utopia; a dream now long forgotten. What was once an idyll transformed now into social housing enclaves hidden from the city and its more affluent neighbouring communities by earth banks, trees, dual carriageways, linked by clearly delineated liminal portals like bridges and underpasses.

The impression grew in me that Milton Keynes was like a giant crazy golf course for a post-modern hodge-podge of the world’s spiritual traditions. Shinto shrines, Gothic cathedrals in miniature, roman baths, Rhiannon, the Celtic goddess of the sun and Chango, the Santeria god of lightning side by side within the abandoned skate park; the labyrinth, the sun temple, the strange miniature silver henges of some futuristic UFO cult, the beehive haunted by the ghost of a Disney princess, the cave paintings visible only in the reflection of the office blocks of the financial district; they mimick ritual landscape, calling forth the gods to appear, for communities to fill their spiritual vessels with meaning, offering, like some cargo cult, simulacra of the houses of the holy in the hope the gods will return and take up residence.

These initial explorations are just the beginning. Phil’s role through Digitalis will be to reveal the songlines of the landscape to citizens and visitors of Milton Keynes and prompt them to document it, reveal its secrets, share their personal histories or fabricate some legends about it and help us draw the map of new spiritual and mythical topographies for the city.

It’s going to be a fun year.

Barry Hale – Milton Keynes, Feb 2017

Deep in the heart of the labyrinth

Phil Smith is author of On Walking (www.triarchypress.net) and will be working with us in Milton Keynes throughout 2017. Follow us on Facebook/barry.hale.23 to learn more about the Digitalis project.