Balloon Repair Station

The Tourists’ guide to Milton Keynes Part 1 – In search of the Concrete Cows

Pork Pie Friday is when days out are oft dreampt up so thus it was that as we had already decided not to have another Tracklements’ day on account we did that last year we did rather feel a Grand Day Out was long overdue. This was supported by the fact that we’d missed out on St George’s Day, on account it fell on a Saturday, and Trafalgar Day, because some fool booked a heap of work in. Then we got chatting about Milton Keynes, like you do, and in a haze of ESB I worked out that it was 50 years ago I became a boarder at Wolverton House, it was 35 years since the Homeworld ‘81 houses were built, Paul the Landlord grew up there his family having moved there 40 years ago and this year (2016) the original Concrete Cows were moved from the City Centre back to their place of birth nearly on St Georges’ Day. Clearly there is a lot more to Milton Keynes than meets the eye so we decided that we’d become tourists for a Day. I naturally fancied seeing the Stony Stratford tram that was in the elusive MK Museum (where the cows now are). A bit of bar-side telephone online research revealed that the MK Museum was closed Monday and Tuesday so we elected to Sally Forth (or her sister did) on Wednesday 7th December. This also meant we escaped the Wendover Christmas Lights Grand Turn On and buying flashing plastic swords and homemade sweets for the grandchildren. As John was somewhere sunny, Bazzer had been pre-booked to collect his son from York University, PD was starting a house in Henley and when I mentioned it to Jane later she said she’d rather collect a dead sheep from a garage forecourt in Surrey, it just left Mr Paul, possibly Godders as he was awol , Stewpot and me to look forward to a full and action packed day out and track down the cows.

“That’ll be South Milton Keynes we are going to”, I stated, all knowledge like. “Nope!”, explained Paul, “Its north”. “But we approach from the south”, I retorted. “Its an overhang”, explained Stuart. Godfrey had no say as was climbing a pair of Paps in Scotland and didn’t yet know he was going. Paul had come across The Concrete Cow Brewery (they do the very agreeable Old Bloomer) so that most certainly had to be the starting point. Then we decided we’d go to Bradwell Abbey and drop into the Resource Centre where hopefully we could discover where, or if, the Homeworld ’81 houses lurked as we knew they were somewhere on Bradwell Common. Stacey Bushes is just around the corner and that is where the cows had been taken and would do for our picnic site. Then we’d go in search of the replica cows then pay homage to the Peace Pagoda at Willen Lake, over the road from where Stewart takes off from, followed by a trip to The Bull in Stony Stratford. Paul would go to Budgens and get supplies, beer would come from the Brewery (with an emergency supply of ESB from the Swan) and I’d let Godfrey know he was going on another adventure. All sorted. Well almost. I got hold of a splendid fellow called Dan, who for some reason we thought was called Matt, who said we’d be welcome to come and visit the brewery but he was busy, Godder’s walkie talkie didn’t work in deep gulleys and he couldn’t be contacted so a message was left with the Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Post. It would all be fine. I did a bit of finger tapping and blow me down only found a picture of Liz Leyh. Liz who? The Concrete Cows creator of course. What could possibly go wrong.

Wednesday dawned quite pleasant, broken cloud and warm enough. We moved with military precision. I collected Paul and the picnic from The Swan, we collected Godders telling him we were going on a pilgrimage to find the Concrete Cows. “You are having a laugh?” he profferred, and thence (great word that) onto Stewpot, Whitchurch and north to Bradwell. As this was all going to be on Paul’s old stamping ground and around popular fishing spots, he knew exactly where we were going and as he doesn’t drink he was the driver. Shortcuts! Believe it. We cut through some early, now rather tatty, MK housing estates, around some ergonomically green-type industrial units until finally, down a wide somewhat empty one-wayed bunch of small units we arrived in front of The Concrete Cow Brewery. It was small and rather tucked away. Not what we had imagined and it did look closed. The door was unlocked so in true pioneer spirit we stumbled in. There wasn’t much room. “Hi. Matt? Chris. We spoke on the phone? This is Paul our Landlord, Nick, a shareholder in the Tring Brewery and Stuart who has travelled the world in search of beer”. “Great, pleased to meet you I’m Dan. Please don’t lean on anything as it will probably fall over.” We already liked this.

The Brewery is absolutely brilliant. It has taken over, completely, with not an inch to spare, a unit half the size and height of our workshop. Here, single-handedly, Dan not only brews his beers but also runs the marketing, packaging, bottling, delivery and, most recently, canning of everything that is produced and also for a couple of other local brewers. He did have lady assistant who was brilliant but she was pilched to run a pub. He’s been at it for a fair few years and reckons he has now got the business to a stage that he can actually have a bit of a life outside of it. Make no mistake though, this is a man passionate and dedicated to his brewing and immensely proud of the beer he produces. There was a lot of knowledge in the form of Fuggles, Challenger and Saaz flying about and we made the most of it enquiring about the financial problems of running a brewery, hops, production and the pitfalls various all of which he admitted having fallen into at one time or the other. On the table were some very enticing bottles of his latest Christmas Brew, sadly not for sale as he was only just coping with the orders he had but he made us coffee and then we did have some ‘Cock ‘n’ Bull’ he was about to decant (yes I know) and very flavoursome it was too. “You’ll be surprised by the canned stuff,” he explained. I know what you’re thinking, can’t be done but believe me we tried his MK 67 lager. Lager!? This isn’t eurofizz stuff but, and I hate to admit it, a very fruity Belgium-like nearly IPA thing of a drink which, had I been blindfolded, would not have thought of as lager. Very nice. Also currently in the tinned department and equally tasty is MK IPA at a healthy 5.0%. As luck would have it we could buy some of this so we did. A word of advice though. Tinned craft beers need to settle well before opening! Nick ended up with some really useful tips to assist with his home-brewing, Stewart, it turned out, had lived just down the road from where Dan lived in New Zealand and knew all about the NZ hops he uses. I was rather impressed that this was all actually a one-man operation and Paul convinced him that not all landlords were the enemy of the small breweries. Fearing that we had already taken up too much of his limited time we bade him a fond farewell and Paul promised he’d be back for a barrel in the New Year (Bloomer I trust). MK67? Well 2017 marks 50 years since the inception of Milton Keynes. Best we celebrate that as well then!

It was but a short drive to Bradwell Abbey, in fact it was at the end of the access road. We could have walked there. To be honest the entry didn’t look that promising. A bit confusing and non-descript actually with a bit of wild west tumbleweed blowing about. In reality the site is very historic but looked pretty derelict. It is not on the English Heritage Tourist Trial mainly as it isn’t English Heritage but having said that the adjacent Resource Centre, which we did finally identify as it wasn’t labelled, was modern, tidy but apparently closed, confirmed by a very nice lady who eventually came to the door and after shifting bolts and entering access codes poked her out and informed us that not only wasn’t there anything really to look at inside but it wasn’t really open however we were welcome to walk around the site and if we followed the stone plinths the history of the place would unfold before us. “Do you know where the Homeworld houses are please?” we politely asked. Confidently she told us they were in Bradwell Common but there might be something in the Resource Centre about them, if it was open. But it wasn’t. Confusingly the first plinths were about the rather shabby Butlins works of art that surrounded a sad untidy pond complete with a foraging heron which gave us a knowing look, gave up and flew off. To be honest there isn’t really very much of Bradwell Abbey, which is technically a medieval 14th century Benedictine Priory, the only real bit left being the lonely St Mary’s Chapel which contains some impressive wall paintings which we could go and look at. It turned out that the diminutive building was clad in scaffolding and plastic sheeting which appears to have been there for a while and….it was closed. Never mind we inspected a dead fox in the nature pond, wandered around the site and tried to work out the orientation of the information boards to make sense of it all and how much of the Abbey had gone into building the later farmhouse. Most of the remains are the humps and bumps in the neighbouring scruffy horse paddocks and not accessible but we did identify what was left of the old cruck barn (available for weddings!) Then just as we were leaving a fellow tourist wandered down the dreary track smiled in a ‘what are you doing here’sort of way, studied a plinth and sauntered off down the swampy nature trail towards the pond. Disappointed? Nope. Enlightened we set the compass for the Museum and headed off to find me tram car.

Now, the Milton Keynes Museum is located in what was Stacey Hill Farm at the back of Wolverton. Mainly volunteer run and, according to everything we’d found out about it, it is actually supposed to be a really interesting place to visit. The place has evolved over the years and now houses a pretty thorough collection of local stuff. We cheered as we swept through the open gates into the carpark with a few cars parked and some seventies streetlights not exactly vertical. This was more like it. Welcoming you is a rather nice example of a Thames’ tug built in Stony Stratford. Yes really. They were built by Hayes at his Watling Street Works which were at the Calverton end of the High Street, towed up to Old Stratford by traction engine and lobbed into the Buckingham Arm of the Grand Junction (as it was then) and towed to London. Larger vessels were pre-fabricated and assembled closer to their destination. Alongside it is a portable steam engine, like a traction engine but not self-propelled, these were also built by Hayes although the one on show, we think, is a Claydon & Shuttleworth, or is that the other way round, can’t remember. Full of hope and anticipation we headed for the entrance but …… it was closed. We smiled for at least we hadn’t arrived at locked gates. Ever stoic us. We were not going admit defeat. Tantalisingly close, over the hedge, we could see the original Concrete Cows! Nick was clearly quite thrilled. The farm was for some time the studio of one of Milton Keyne’s artists-in-residence Liz Leyh who, in the late seventies, made the darlings. Following the demise of the oak tree in the Milton Keynes Shopping Centre (much to amazement of all!!!) and around which the original cows grazed on bark chippings amongst litter various whilst being spattered by pigeons, plans were made to return them to Stacey Hill so this year they had actually ‘come home’. Nice one. Now they were under a healthy outdoor oak, grazing and frolicking on real grass. A tear welled in me eye. On a mission we marched through the gate marked ‘staff only’ and had a wander round. Sadly, close up, the cows are pretty sorry looking. Hardly surprising considering the multitude of vandal attacks, abductions and living outside beings as they are concrete over a mesh frame. I’m amazed they haven’t got concrete cancer! They are though still delightful but although there is a sign (too close) requesting children not to climb on them you can get right up to them, well we did anyway. All about are huge presses, lathes, stationary engines, old boilers, drinking troughs and castings massive, all piled up along with a myriad of farm implements tucked behind orange plastic fencing, easy to clamber over and have a closer look at. Wolverton Railway Works were at the heart of a very industrial area surrounded by very productive agricultural estates years ago. Stacey Hill Farm is itself a Victorian Model Farm built to accommodate the latest technology and practices available at the time. All a bit of an odd way to display stuff really we thought. Eventually we ran into the Press Officer busy setting up Santa’s Grotto ready for the weekend who explained that there is a lot of redevelopment going on at the Museum which is why many of the larger lumps of machinery and exhibits are currently outside. He denied that the website said the Museum was only open weekends in the Winter season but would check! He didn’t have a key but we did manage to peer through the window into one of the Exhibition Halls and blow me down there was my monster double-decker Wolverton and Stony Stratford tram car. I admit to being a bit confused though as there are pictures of the recovery of the smaller tramcar, originally used on the Deanshanger extension, that once lived life as an allotment shed in Stony Stratford. The larger one was, I think, on the Scouts land in the Cosgrove Quarry but then again it was rumoured to have been a carriage that belonged to Winston Churchill. We did visit it a few times. Maybe the smaller car was somewhere else or had been extended or was only a half of a big one. I explained all this to our clearly enthralled group but Nick had wandered off to check out a Metropolitan Drinking Trough supplied by the Cattle Association, something he remembered from his youth and Stewpot had disappeared inside a rather large pipe. We vowed there and then to return when hopefully it would be open. Well that was three out of four closed so far but the sun was nearly shining and we were still smiling…..

Paul knew exactly how to get to the repro Concrete Cows and we were there in a trice and guess what? They were actually there and open! Whilst we plodged through a scruffy well-littered copse he sauntered knowingly along the road over Bradwell Brook (he’d fished that) and down the bank where they were scratching, frolicking and grazing no longer clearly visible from the road or the Virgin trains rushing along the Euston Line. On the left as you go under the bridge carrying the railway over Monks Way and the river bridge they are easily missed. Although these are lumpy distorted copies of the originals seeing them in their rightful location, in what is quite likely a very lush meadow in the summer looking out onto fields, its all rather worthwhile. They looked quite happy to be honest. As we approached, rather reassuringly, two other tourists were heading back to the pathway. They smiled and nodded sympathetically. These cows were equally tired with repaired-badly ears. It is said that the last time they were ‘attacked’ and painted out as skeletons their creator wrote to the Borough Council or whatever it is now expressing her delight that the residents had ‘taken them back’. They did look cool as skeletons! Despite all that and the discarded crisp packets, they still put a smile on ones’ face and brought country to city, just like what they were supposed to have done all those years ago, which was nice. They are an icon of Milton Keynes and although they still form the butt of jokes, songs and cartoons they are very seventies and are rather nice. Crude they may be but they truly have life and movement. They are doing cow things. The originals are safe now and the substitutes good enough copies. Ask anyone what they know about Milton Keynes and I’ll bet they’ll say “Concrete Cows”. Come to that ask people to name two modern sculptures and I reckon it would be ‘Angel of the North’ and ‘The Concrete Cows’. Fair play to you Liz for gifting them to the New City of Milton Keynes. Why then are they not sign-posted and why do they give the appearance no one bothers? Milton Keynes is largely a success whatever you may think and held in high esteem especially by those that were there from the start. It works. The cows have done their job well. Thanks Liz. There was a bollard missing on the side of the busy dual carriageway that hurries traffic past. We could have got the car down there and had our tail-gate picnic right next to them but it wouldn’t have been right somehow so we headed for Bradwell Common which, it has to be said, isn’t exactly a Common any more.

Clever things these wipwap phones. Paul found the possible address of a Homeworld ’81 house in a road called Coleshill Way rendering the closed Resource Centre unnecessary and before you could say Buck Rogers we were in this rather puzzling boulevard come housing estate lined with some surviving seventies fishbowl street lights some at jaunty angles, just as displayed in the Museum carpark that was closed, and looking at the Pyramid House. We were spellbound. Appropriately for Nick it was in Chesham Road. He used to live there (not the road but Chesham). This exhibition of radical houses was one that I rather wanted to see but for one reason or another never got around to. The houses have appeared in various films, documentaries and programmes including Tomorrow’s World, The Money Programme (they even built one) and The Fourth Protocol and I seem to recall a play for today or something involving pigeons being released at the MK Bowl and a Jake Thackeray song but I may have been confused! They were built to promote private housing and futuristic building methods emphasising energy-saving houses. They were well ahead of their time. If I recall correctly (what, again!!!) one of them even had a Fiat engine which provided electricity for a couple of the houses and heating. There was also a Sun House but we couldn’t spot it. These days the houses have largely been overtaken by the surrounding estates, mature trees and gardens, very different to how they must have appeared when first built but that aside the moment still exists. They just needed the odd Austin Princess, Ford Granada and Hillman Avenger parked in the driveways and all would have been proper. The back gardens of the houses on one side of the street appear to border the local school playing fields so there must be some pleasing views of the properties still just about available but sadly if there was a way to see them we couldn’t find it. We managed to identify about a dozen or so houses out of the original 36 but I’m sure more still exist. Whether any are listed or not we never found out but they look as if they are still pretty original. Not exactly what one would call a tourist attraction and I’m sure the owners would get fed up with tourists peering through windows and taking pictures of the washing hanging out but we found them interesting. What was notable was that there didn’t appear to be anyone else searching for them! We classed this experience as ‘open’. Then just as we were leaving, a bit down the road, was the triangle hose with a quirky little window in the top just under the gable. Now I’m sure that was the one where the girl looked out of in the puzzling film I imagine I’d seen once upon a time. We will have to look further into this chapter of Milton Keynes history and revisit. Someone must have a map or original brochure. I’ll bet there really is one in the Resource Centre (closed).

By now our picnic was well overdue but around the cornerish was Willen Lake and the Peace Pagoda. When we had a workshop at Russell Farm a group of delightful Buddhist monks turned up and spent a few months living in the Coach House. This would have been 1979 or 1980. They were lovely and blessed everyone and everything that moved including whichever car they got a lift in. I’ve never needed a blessing since. They were involved in the building of the Peace Pagoda that overlooks Willen Lake, a fine place to fish according to Paul, and used to leave early in the morning in a Transit mini-bus with orange and yellow tapes flying from the aerial. Here was yet another place I had vowed to visit but never had. It was in a field. It couldn’t be closed. This time Milton Keynes didn’t disappoint. There is of course a dedicated pay and display carpark with the customary litter and naturally one expects to pay to visit a place of worship doesn’t one? Paul parked jauntily as close as he could get to the steps that would take us up to the Pagoda. No chance of a tailgate party by the Pagoda then. We couldn’t even see it! Up to this point we had made light of our pilgrimage but I truly don’t think we expected what came next. You climb a broad flight of steps through what would be pleasant gardens in the summer I’m sure, and if were springtime it would be through cherry trees in blossom. As you reach the top you are looking at the golden sculpture that adorns the top and as you climb higher then gradually the whole thing comes into view below you. It is actually rather stunning. I felt quite moved in a Buddhist blessed ‘love and peace man’ sort of way. It seems to sit in isolation but is so at one with itself and the gentle surroundings it is wonderous. There doesn’t seem to be any scale. Reminded me of The Night Garden without trees. Really it is quite splendid. OK there was a bottle of abandoned vodka and it needed a bit of a spruce up but it wasn’t at all closed. It was welcoming. The vast area around it is landscaped rolling cared-for grass. Folk, even older than us rusties, were jogging around the pathways sporting numbers some appearing as heads bobbing along the tops of banks. Stewpot was quite astonished having flown over it on many occasions. We marvelled at the engraved panels that adorned it representing the story of Buddha (according to the plinth placed rather thoughtfully a fair distance back). If you walk down the pathway to the lake and look back you really get to see it in its setting. Yup we could make a pilgrimage to this provided we sent Sherpas forward with supplies. We wandered down past the faux stone circle to the nearby Buddhist Temple (closed) with its rather amusing and un-Buddhist parking space (empty) reserved for the Mayor of Milton Keynes (on holiday) where we did actually come across a few others who were clearly taking in the sights and exchanged pleasing smiles, which was comforting, and wandered back up the Maiden Castle like banks and ditches past a lone cedar with prayery type ribbons and messages dripping from it then rejoined the sweeping curve of the cherry trees. Paul told us that although the lake was great for fishing much of it is now a conservation area and rich in both twitchers and bird life. Now I have to say that if you are journeying through MK then take the time to visit this. It is well worth it and I promise you it won’t be closed but best get a Pay and Display ticket!

Although now spiritually fortified we still hadn’t had our picnic and the afternoon was fast heading for sunset. The original village of Milton Keynes was just down the road so we took a vote and Paul’s advice and headed there. Worryingly the signpost to it states ‘Middleton’, probably a station name stolen from Bekonscot, and underneath in brackets ‘Milton Keynes’. That can’t be right still we needn’t have worried the village is largely unspoilt although a tad theme park with allotments and all. Sadly the Swan appeared to have been toshed over not least because it burned to the ground a few years ago but the green is still there and there is a carpark that you don’t have to pay and display in although one end is a rather splendid open air free range litter encrusted area best avoided. We parked nearer the entrance and under the gaze of rather puzzled passing uniformed kids as the local school emptied out and had our splendid picnic. First off it has to be noted that opening the Concrete Cow IPA was a near disaster but once it had settled down a bit it was fine. Fortunately the design of Dan’s beer cans makes them look like an energy drink which is spot nobby so no serious frowns from the mothers. I expect the locals drink Red Bull infused with vodka in the evenings so we would have probably got away with bottles of beer. Along with our beverages we had a marvellous spread of cheese, meats including good old haslet, pork pies, chicken wings, coleslaw and fine company. We discussed the merits of MK tourism and decided that all in all the day had been a success and one we wouldn’t have missed and because so many places were closed we had actually managed to see more than planned having not wasted our time trompsing around exhibition halls or carrying out research at the Resources Centre (o: and felt we could now move onto a pint or two. Despite the local being called The Swan we decided something a bit more reasonably priced, wasn’t lightmattgreen and cream, didn’t specialise in food, had bar stools rather than sofas and was more to our style we chucked our litter down the end of the carpark (only kidding) and headed for The Bull. We felt sorry for the village formally known as Milton Keynes but then perhaps it was the constant stream of cars, lorries and vans being taken there when you typed ‘Milton Keynes’ into your Tom Tit that the Residents Association had its name put in brackets.

Stony Stratford is the well snobby bit of Milton Keynes. Paul gave way to a traction engine and empty trailer heading back from the canal at Old Stratford and we slipped off down the High Street. It is long and straight being built astride Watling Street and was once home to a raft of coaching inns with two very notable ones next door to each other, The Cock and The Bull, named after a local beer and which gave rise to the phrase ‘a Cock ‘n’ Bull story’ on account of travellers’ tales told in the inns whilst they waited for the River Ouse to subside! The other well-known reference is ‘Ride a Cock horse to Banbury Cross to see a fine lady on a white horse’. Say no more. Sadly the Cock Hotels’ insides along with its lovely bar has also been toshed over and it now has a chain hotel feel about it unlike The Bull, dating back to 1609 and where, in 1792, over a few pints (like you do) a couple of blokes decided to build the Grand Junction Canal, has a bar which is strikingly similar to our own beloved Swan and is frequented by friendly proper locals and a very happy smiling eternally young barmaid. Bit of a pause though. Now, there is an emporium called Castles Surplus Stores a couple of doors down which we had to pass to reach The Bull. Back in the sixties and early seventies it was a proper Army Surplus Store, these days it is more a bit of a tidy Auntie Wainwrights and full of useful stuff including great-coats and well-warm socks. No debate, we just had to just pop in for a minute or two. I purchased a proper metal tea-strainer for 98p, Nick got some bits he thought might be useful including a canister of camping gas and a bumper pack of scouring pads as a Christmas present for his missus whilst Stewart opted for some thermal socks priced at three pairs for a shilling. Paul smiled and behaved in a caring, understanding carers sort of way. Stony High Street is noted for its proper Christmas Lights and they didn’t disappoint, (we sent an e-piccie to Jane who would have been in Wendover High Street) neither did The Bull with newspapers stuck on the high ceiling and its fine range of goodly ales including Tribute, Rebellion, Hobgoblin and a few others including Bass. We raised glasses to Paul for the idea and the grub and then to Milton Keynes. Well? Yes actually. Of Milton Keynes tourism? Go online and look up ‘things to do in Milton Keynes’ or even ‘Hidden Milton Keynes’ and you’ll be disappointed. What you will find amongst eateries various that spartanjames25 of Stantonbury recommends, the Snowdome, Central Shopping, Bletchley Park (nearly forgot Gulliver’s land!) and after that, Bedford (for a proper High Street apparently) and Woburn Abbey which aren’t actually in Milton Keynes and there appears very little else. But that isn’t the case but we had to admit that as a tourist destination it would have a lot more going for it if it was open, they swept up a bit and we wrote a book about it. We would return to the Museum in the New Year and probably the Resource Centre but don’t hold your breath! We’d only touched on a tiddly bit. Still in the north was the Iron Trunk and railway works remains at Wolverton, Newport Pagnell, home of the second cast iron bridge ever built along with its civil war defences, Aston Martins and a spooky groovy graveyard (they built a railway station on the site of the castle). Then there is a roman mosaic in the City Centre, The Owl and the Pussycat at Netherfield, the lost village and motte and bailey castle at Old Wolverton and the River Ouse. How much excitement can one have in a day and how much of it would be closed? Watch out for ‘Finding the Concrete Cows-part two’. – moving the concrete cows – say no more but best call before visiting and his name is Dan – aptly titled ‘Behind the locked door’. Blinding as it probably will be. – Check the opening times before visiting lots going on during the year. – Brilliant folk song about Edward Hayes boat builders Stony Stratford set to old photographs. The Milton Keynes newspaper

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