I hadn’t expected to see my first butterfly of the year in Milton Keynes. Yet walking along the oak hedgerows that fringe Campbell Park I see half a dozen flutterers, drawn out of hibernation by an unseasonably warm March day. The park spreads over 100 acres to the east of the town centre and is naturalistic, rather than formal, shaped by the spoil from the construction of the town and intended to resemble the downland of southern England.
This sense is reinforced by the sheep that voraciously nibble the grass, creating an attractive sward and helping wildflowers – in particular cowslips – to proliferate.
It’s all some way removed from the stereotype of Milton Keynes: the sheep are real enough but the city will for ever be associated with concrete cows, a tongue in cheek attempt at ‘plonk art’ a few years ago. Outsiders seized on them as the epitome of a soulless new town but in reality the joke was on a media that missed the point.
For when it comes to wildlife and nature, Milton Keynes does things rather better than you might think. The high ground in Campbell Park is known as the Belvedere and crowned with a pyramid-like obelisk. From this vantage point I can pick out a church spire and a hinterland of woodland that spreads out to the M1 some three miles away. In between – but hard to pick out – lies a great deal of low-density and low-slung housing, all but masked by woodland – a direct consequence of the vision of a ‘forest city’ that was behind the creation of Milton Keynes , which this year marks its 50th anniversary.
The city boasts more than 20million trees and shrubs, the River Ouse and three smaller river valleys, 15 lakes and 11 miles of canals. At Old Wolverton to the north-west of the centre, Konik ponies graze the floodplain. Elsewhere are ancient woodland and wildflower meadows and drystone walls built from local limestone by volunteers for the Milton Keynes Parks Trust that runs most of the city’s green spaces.
I leave the park, passing a cricket pavilion and pitch that could come straight from any village in Middle England and cross the Grand Union canal via Pear Tree Bridge. The canal is busy, many boat users halted by the delightful arc of Lombardy pines, known as the Broad Walk that fringes the waterway.
Close by is the Tree Cathedral. The ‘cathedral’ comprises pillars of cypress and yews; four Californian redwoods form the ‘tower; the ‘cloisters’ are home to four thorn tree cuttings taken from Glastonbury. This arboreal cathedral is also claimed to stand on a ley line: the length of the nave – lined with hornbeams -is aligned with the rising sun on the longest day of the year. I’m accompanied by David Foster, chief executive of the Parks Trust. ‘The architect was a bit of an old hippy,’ he says, fondly.
We follow signs to the peace pagoda, run by the town’s Japanese Buddhist community. To reach it we pass under one of the thoroughfares that carve Milton Keynes into a series of grids. These roads are densely planted with trees and collectively they create more than 100 miles of continuous linear woodland, producing the green corridors for wildlife to move around that so many cities lack.
Across from the pagoda is Willen Lake. The southern side is, says Foster, ‘Milton Keynes’ bit of seaside – sailing and pedalos’. The northern shores are more serene, fringed with reeds and in spring an excellent place to hear Cetti’s Warblers. Otters, which disappeared when the town was built, have returned and can with luck be seen from the hide. A beautiful ash tree, hundreds of years old stands close to the lake shore. We follow a redway, one of the multi-purpose shared-use paths that cover 230km through and around the city. At 3m in width they are wide enough to nip most of the perennial conflicts between hurrying cyclists and pedestrians in the bud.
We finish at Camphill Cafe, which is a thoughtful example of communities and landscapes can come together. The cafe is based in the grounds of sheltered housing that is home to people with learning disabilities, who account for almost all staff. ‘It’s a good way to break down barriers and dispel a few preconceptions,’ says Foster.
We follow waterways back to Camphill Park. ‘We are a charity and we look after the parks, lakes and woods forever,’ says Foster. ‘ The “forever” bit is important. Our job is to make the parks beautiful and inspirational. We are not there yet, we need to make the better.’
Milton Keynes can be reached by train from both Birmingham and London. Campbell Park is an easy 1.5 walk from the train station.