Enigma variations

Helen Werin cracks the new Town's code

Milton Keynes turns out to be a bit of an enigma (more of that later). Nearby at Bletchley Park they once worked on the real thing. This was where, at full throttle, 10,000 people worked on a shift system to crack the messages the Nazis had encoded on their Enigma cypher machine. The fact that we survived was in large part because we were able to read U-boat messages during the Battle of the Atlantic and secure safer passages for the vital convoys of men and material. Potential code-breakers were apparently given The Times crossword. If they could do it in five minutes then they got the job.

Today, the birthplace of the modern computer is now the Bletchley Park National Code Centre where a trail of wartime huts around the grounds of a lovely red-brick mansion offer a gripping insight into a once top-secret world. Local people were so in the dark about what went on here that some thought that it was a lunatic asylum.

Here we find a rebuilt Bombe, the most advanced electro-mechanical technology available in 1941. To break an Enigma cipher the Bombe had to discover the key from 158 million, million, million possibilities. But it's Colossus, the world's first semi-programmable electronic computer, which draws most attention. That is, except for my young daughter. She is far more interested in a Pigeons At War story about the messenger birds parachuted in to occupied territory. I'm enthralled by a From Bletchley With Love display and its tales of spies and double agents and the wartime exploits of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond.

The people who worked there took their oath of secrecy so seriously some took it with them to the grave. Today the place where an intellectual life-or-death struggle with Nazism took place now also offers itself as "a unique Milton Keynes venue for conferences, weddings and banqueting".

Milton Keynes is full of the unexpected. One moment you are in an ultra-modern land of 900 roundabouts and in the blink of an eye the scene changes to a peaceful village, surrounded by thatched cottages. This is Middleton, one of the American-style "grids" of MK – as everyone calls it – and home to the chocolate-box-pretty hamlet that gave MK its name.

Moments later and we're back in the car navigating the pattern of Hs (horizontal ways) and Vs (vertical streets) that are supposed to take motorists across town in under 10 minutes. We head for Fenny Lock, with a swing bridge, on the Grand Union Canal. Beside the Red Lion pub is another row of quaint cottages where the postman stops for a chat as he hands the letters over the picket fences.

It's hard to believe that a few steps away, the real MK, the last, the largest and the most successful of the new towns, is encroaching on this idyll.

We are further caught up in this curious time warp phenomenon at Wolverton, one of the three towns absorbed with 13 villages to make up MK. A Victorian farmstead is home to Milton Keynes Museum. It's run by the most enthusiastic band of volunteers you could ever wish to meet, all eager to preserve the local history. In what was the cowshed is an entire street of shop frontages which have come from the old villages. There's even the front of the Co-op department store from nearby Newport Pagnell.

In a huge new shed there's two of the world's biggests; the largest steam tramcar, a magnificent polished beast which we're allowed to board and the world's biggest mobile phone, a bright yellow BT demo vehicle with a huge handset on its roof.

As if to further enhance the weird sensation I'm getting of a parallel universe, in the corner I spot a canvas-roofed gipsy caravan. It's been left exactly as it was in 1994 when the couple and their three-year-old who had been living in it for years decided local authority housing would be rather more comfortable for the pregnant mother. Outside there's a paddock where we meet Jessie. This is the Shire horse who is a celebrity in nearby Cosgrove, where she has been hauling a recycling scheme cart around the streets for 16 years. Later, a road through an industrial estate leads us to the site of the medieval monastery at Bradwell Abbey. As we admire wall paintings in the 14th century pilgrim chapel of St Mary we remind ourselves that, only a few minutes away, is the futuristic Xscape building, inside which people sky-dive.

On the way to Bletchley Park we stop for a stroll around the lake at Caldecotte. Canoeists whip across the water. On the far shore is a windmill, albeit a replica one, creating the illusion that we're in the middle of the countryside. This is exactly what the planners wanted. MK has, so I'm told, 26 per cent green space, enough trees to classify it as a forest, three ancient woodlands with deer and badgers and more miles of waterfront than Jersey around its many lakes and the canal.

Next day we're at Woburn Abbey, home of the Dukes of Bedford for nearly 400 years, where 21 of Canaletto's glorious Venetian views hold me awestruck. In other rooms are masterpieces by Cuyp, Gainsborough, Reynolds and Van Dyck. In the vaults below are glass cases filled with magnificent collections of gold, silver, glass and porcelain.

In the Abbey Gardens, woodland glades are filled with modern sculpture and the ponds teem with enormous carp. On our journey home, I'm mindful of what friends said when they heard we were coming to Milton Keynes; "the land of the concrete cows and roundabouts".

Yes, we did catch a glimpse of them, they were created for an art project. We were on our way to see the Bancroft Roman Villa, in a green corridor between housing estates, its outline still clearly visible, its mosaic pavement on display in the shopping centre. Milton Keynes is an enigma if you look beyond its malls and multiplexes and decipher some of its secrets.

WHAT ELSE

Newport Pagnell, on the edge of MK, mainly known for its motorway services, is worth a detour. Take a town heritage walking trail alongside the river and over the beautiful Tickford Bridge, the oldest cast-iron bridge in the world still carrying traffic. Dine at the characterful coaching inn, the 15th century The Swan Revived. www.swanrevived.co.uk

Woburn Safari Park. www.discoverwoburn.co.uk

Stony Stratford, a charming market town is where the expression "cock and bull story" originated

Helen Werin stayed at Best Western Moore Place Hotel, a Georgian manor house in the village of Aspley Guise on the edge of MK. www.mooreplace.co.uk

YP MAG 11/12/10