Shortly before dawn on the summer solstice, I sleepily vacate my room in a south of England motel and head off to meet author and friend John Higgs. Together we drive a few miles to a pagan sun temple to witness the sunrise. Stonehenge is, of course, where druids and free spirits flock at this time of year (even if only virtually in 2020). We, however, are heading to Milton Keynes.
I first came across some surprising facts about Milton Keynes through Higgs’s book Watling Street. “It was built under a fog of marijuana smoke and Pink Floyd records,” he says, as we park and begin walking to the most elevated point in the town, Campbell Park, which is topped by a six-metre-high pyramid sculpture.
In 1970, Milton Keynes’ chief architect, Derek Walker, appointed a young, inspiring team who shared his diverse passions for environmentalism, American town planning, “Earth mysteries” and the Pink Floyd album Atom Heart Mother. The town was going to bealigned along the north-south and east-west axes until someone noticed that a bit of nudging could align it, like Stonehenge, with the summer solstice sunrise. Walker consulted Greenwich Observatory to ensure accuracy. The town’s central artery became Midsummer Boulevard, flanked by Silbury and Avebury Boulevards. A desire to create a “forest city” also led to the planting of two million trees, which has since grown to 22 million.
Milton Keynes’s Midsummer Boulevard. Photograph: David Sillitoe/The Guardian
Not all of Walker’s ideas came to fruition. We can only imagine what the Isle of Wight festival organisers would have done with their own theme park in the town centre, or how a giant LED outline of the Uffington White Horse might have looked above the shopping arcade.
When John and I reach the Light Pyramid (a sculpture by Lilian Lijn erected here in 2012), there are seven other people there, wrapped in blankets. Birdsong sweetens the air as a red sun breaks the horizon, enchanting our tiny, silent gathering. An hour later, we walk down Midsummer Boulevard, the shimmering sun now sitting atop the pyramid behind us. For a moment I imagine myself cavorting around a roundabout with Lord and Lady Summerisle. The spell is broken when I turn back to see the more prosaic – though Grade II-listed – Milton Keynes’ shopping centre.
Purists might reject the idea of celebrating the solstice in a town often associated with blandness and conformity. But the absence of crowds and the juxtaposition of modernity, commercialism, neolithic references and a six-metre pyramid made celebrating midsummer here more surreal – and all the better for it.