MILTON Keynes may not be the first place that springs to mind when someone mentions pilgrimage. Yet one corner of the city has proved a powerful magnet for two major waves of pilgrim.
Almost 1,000 years separates those waves. The first arrived by foot or on horseback, having spent days slogging along Watling Street to reach the Chapel of St Mary within the grounds of Bradwell Abbey. They sought an audience with a statue of the Virgin Mary which had become famous for its powers of healing, and working the occasional miracle!
The second wave is still arriving by coach, train and often by plane: urban designers, city planners and academics from all over the world, visiting the City Discovery Centre – which now occupies the Bradwell Abbey site – to learn how to create a new city.
We know about the medieval pilgrims because their arrival, bearing gifts, was recorded in wall paintings, some of which are unique in the UK. By sheer luck these and other wall paintings which had lain hidden underneath layers of whitewash, applied by farmers who used the derelict chapel for storage, were rediscovered in the 1960s when water leaking through the roof began to dissolve the wash.
The Abbey may just about have survived two outbreaks of the Black Death, but it was no match for Henry VIII’s break from Rome and the dissolution (and plundering) of the monasteries that followed. Over the centuries enterprising locals carted off anything that could be useful in building their own homes, so that by the time Milton Keynes Development Corporation was formed all that remained was the Abbey’s bakehouse, thrashing and tithe barn – and the small Chapel.
But not only were Milton Keynes’ creators committed to preserving this area’s historical roots – the new city is said to be one of the most archaeologically studied areas in the UK – they also knew that this bold experiment in creating a new city at the end of the 20th century was as historically significant as anything that had gone before.
With huge foresight they set up Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre to act as custodian not only of the Chapel and all that remains of the Bradwell Abbey, but also the archive and library that tells the story of the design, planning and construction of Milton Keynes.
And it’s this huge breadth which makes CDC such a fascinating visit, taking you, in the space of a few hours, on a journey from pre-history through Roman times to the present day.
There is, for instance, the 7,000 year mammoth tusk; 17th graffiti carved in the walls of the chapel; stonework cannibalised from the Roman villa that once stood at nearby Bancroft; bones which may date from the Black Death plague pits; and everywhere, traces of the large Abbey around which everything once revolved.
As MKCDC director Henk van Aswegen explains: “Our aim is to depict the heritage of Milton Keynes: its natural, built and historical environment. I see our role as selling Milton Keynes as the model city, ensuring that local people and our visitors see it as a forward-looking city with a rich heritage and history.”
That means providing city tours, lectures and access to a research library and archive containing key plans, maps and documents, photographs, drawings and scale models to groups of planners, architects, academics and government officials from all over the world.
And it means organising a programme of events enabling local people to get in touch with Milton Keynes’ roots and development, as well as working with schools and community groups.
Says Henk: “Our schools programme covers the history and geography of the MK area. You might encounter a Roman soldier, or a Medieval monk or a Tudor barber-surgeon on site re-enacting that historic period. People are beginning to understand that Milton Keynes has a long history and we represent two ends of the spectrum”.
While conserving the heritage of Bradwell Abbey, the site and its facilities are as much a hub or community facility for the local community as it would have been when local life revolved around the Abbey and the monks.
MKCDC is always keen to attract more volunteers, helping with particular projects such as recreating the medieval herb garden and hedge-laying, or to assist year-round in the archive and library or with historic re-enactments.
But it’s also keen to welcome those who just want to bring a picnic or pause on their way up the Loughton Valley Park.
There are art and nature trails to enjoy, but above all that rare feeling of the centuries merging and dissolving, allowing a glimpse of the lives of those who helped make Milton Keynes.
> See www.mkcdc.org.uk for a full list of upcoming events, including fascinating guided walks of the site on the first Sunday of each month.