Saturday, 29 May 2010

The Well-Trodden Path to the North


Day 11 was always going to be something of a break-out, a determined effort to get away from London's cloying crowds and get myself up-country towards the next bit of the journey which begins in the West Midlands.

However, it was all so much more than I was expecting.

Watford had seemed pretty dismal when I arrived last night – poor-looking terraces, pizza take-away's and massage parlours – but the town centre I discovered this morning had a much more optimistic and brighter air and I rather liked it.

Onto the bus to Aylesbury then, and we were soon heading towards London's outer boundary, the M25, then under it and out the other side. As if to confirm that we had indeed left London behind, the first thing I spotted was a herd of Jersey cows resting in a roadside meadow. Red-tiled villages soon followed and it was clear that we were definitely out the other side.

We arrived in Hemel Hempstead via one of the most unnecessarily complicated roundabouts I had ever seen, which was negotiated in both directions of travel with the help of additional mini-roundabouts at each of the five junctions. Absolutely mad!

Despite its tall modern buildings close to the infamous roundabout – located there, one assumes, to give office staff a good view of the carnage and mayhem below – the centre of Hemel Hempstead has a late 50's feel about it with some rather fine post-war public buildings. Its architecture tells Hemel Hempstead's story, in that the town was developed almost from scratch just after the Second World War to provide new homes for London's bombed-out masses.

The road out of Hemel Hempstead takes us across water meadows and over a canal which I assume is the Grand Union Canal connecting the Thames with the industrial Midlands. We then dip under the West Coast mainline and the impression that this is a countryside often travelled through grows yet stronger. It's all very different to the counties bordering London's southern border. It's just as green and tree-lined and just as busily farmed, but its more spacious somehow, the sky seems bigger and the roads wider. It's almost like this is a countryside designed to be travelled through, which I suppose it probably is.

We visit a number of pleasing Chiltern towns and villages – Berkhamsted, Tring – before arriving at Aylesbury's subterranean bus station, an underground horror roofed with sewerage pipes and air conditioning ducts, dimly lit and hidden from sight beneath a sprawling and unnecessary shopping mall. It's truly horrible.

Venture outside and you'll immediately find a beautiful market place with a clock tower and a busy market, bustling and attractive streets and you wonder why on earth such a foul, windowless shopping mall could have been dropped into such a place.

I couldn't get out of Aylesbury – or, at least, its underground fume-filled bus station - quick enough and luckily I didn't have long to wait. My bus to Milton Keynes had leather seats, which was a luxurious touch in what was in all honesty a fairly ordinary and elderly single decker.

Through field after field of rape, bean and wheat we head towards Milton Keynes through gently rolling countryside with the tree-top Chilterns never far away. We cross and re-cross the West Coast mainline and the canal before arriving at Bletchley, which is busy and bustling and has the simplest and least stimulating bus station I have ever seen. It's a car park around the back of some tall building and nothing more. No attempt at design has been made, no imagination or creativity deployed. Well, it's only a bus station...

Let me tell you what it is like to find yourself in the middle of Milton Keynes.

Being in Minton Keynes is like being trapped on a vast business park, with islands of tall anonymous buildings set in a sea of tarmac and shrubbery. It's like a set for an episode of Doctor Who, but scarier. Despite the trees which optimistically line the broad boulevards, trying for all their might to lend a European and cosmopolitan air to the place, the effect is to distance people still further from the world around them – or at least one mad vision of the world.

I mean, separating people from traffic is logical enough, but the degree of separation is so extreme that it banishes pedestrians to the edges of the undergrowth which actually feels quite threatening. Reducing people to walking beneath roads in dank, graffiti-scarred underpasses whilst motorists above bask in the full blaze of the sun is difficult enough to justify during the hours of daylight, but at night...

For these reasons, and many more, Milton Keynes feels fragmented, furtive, abandoned. And this is on a bright sunny day in May. What it must feel like on a cold January morning can scarcely be imagined.

Eventually, I am out on Milton Keynes along its many, many shrub-lined dual carriageways, vainly looking for a view that may or may not be there, and on the road to Northampton. More lovely farmland and rough stone cottages, the road tracing ancient field boundaries on its journey from village to village.

Eventually, we arrive in Northampton - to an underground bus station of such a vast scale and of such mind-boggling awfulness that I'm genuinely surprised to see anyone waiting for buses there. It's enormous. You get to it by crawling all what feels like a drain to a flight of sick-spattered concrete stairs. It saps the will, it is a Dementor of a bus station, and I've got to go back there is the morning. Oh, God.

Time for a curry, I think...

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