Missing the Point

When you think of cathedrals, what springs to your mind?

Great echoing spaces, soaring buttresses, acres of stained glass?  Gothic arches and lancet windows?  Or is it the ceremonial aspects?  Thundering organ music or ethereal choirs?

Whatever the trigger, if you were to presented with something that represents a cathedral, you would need that reference to make the connection.

I mention this as context for the disappointment I experienced yesterday when visiting one of the attractions on the outskirts of Milton Keynes.  The Tree Cathedral.

To my knowledge there are two such “buildings” in England; the original at Whipsnade in Bedfordshire which was begun in the 1930’s and completed after the war was inspired by Liverpool Cathedral, though the design is based on a medieval layout.  The example that I visited is much more recent and was designed only 30 years ago, copying the layout of Norwich Cathedral.

Perhaps I chose the wrong time of year due to the lack of foliage, but I had thought that the trees in full leaf might become rather shapeless.  There was certainly evidence of design, particularly in the hornbeams of the “cloister” but there was nothing here to create any sense of awe, just rows of trunks with parallel pathways running between them.  _PW_5894_3_5_6_7_8

The impact was probably lessened further by the lopsided view that greeted my arrival.  One of the two great leylandii had recently been felled, the aroma of pine resin still redolent.  Had it been damaged in the storms we have experienced of late, or had some modern-day Samson felled one of the pillars of the temple?

I approached the structure from various angles but failed to find much of interest; a corner view that begged a bit of Gothic abstraction maybe?_PW_5911_2_3-Edit

Perhaps the best angle to view from would be directly above, where the cruciform design would become apparent, but without a drone that was denied me.

So much effort for so little impact, and yet it is possible to create something far more reminiscent of a great church as Giuliano Mauri’s 2010 installation near Bergamo in Northern Italy proves.  Italian design wins the day again as you can see if you follow this link.

Nature had the last word.  Without trying to be something spectacular the simplicity of a few daffodils saved the day._PW_5932_3_4


Milton Keynes is one of those places that I suspect generates a lot of preconceptions. Hardly surprising since the place was once synonymous with half a dozen concrete cows (which in all my visits I’ve never seen).

I was under the mistaken impression until recently that the town was named after the economists with conflicting philosophies; Milton Friedman and Lord Keynes, but as the name goes back a few centuries I’ve had to scrap that theory.

What is beyond doubt is that the straight line is king. They might be tree-lined and further softened by being called “boulevards” but the fact is that the roads run straight and parallel, the buildings are square and even green spaces have rectilinear tendencies.

With time to explore I might have embraced those angles, but with a tight schedule and the ever-present parking challenges that are also part of this town’s character I grabbed a few examples in the vicinity of my workplace but nothing of real value or impact.

Disappointing, but there was a surprise still to come. Just before joining the motorway that would lead my back to my northern homeland I spotted an alien structure standing in an area of parkland. It was a pagoda.

Now I’ve seen pagodas before (and photographed one earlier this year) but this one was different. No tiers of oriental canopies here, just one. What’s more there was a large white dome beneath it that reminded me of a different religious structure altogether, or rather two.

Temple de swayambunath-nepal
Temple de swayambunath-nepal (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I was lucky enough to celebrate my 40th year by cycling across Nepal, and in my time in Kathmandu visited two of the Buddhist faith’s oldest religious sites; Swayambunath (The Monkey Temple) and Bodnath where refugee monks from Tibet continue to worship. Sadly in those days my interest in two wheels exceeded my interest in developing photographic skills so I returned without images of these great monuments so forgive me for resorting to wiki at this point.

Bodnath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal.
Bodnath Stupa in Kathmandu, Nepal. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

These white hemispherical structures house holy relics and are known as Stupa, and this was what I recognised at the MK pagoda.

Was this some sort of hybrid?  No, not really.  Look at the structures above the dome and you will see a series of tapering circles or steps (which in Buddhist symbolism represent fire).  Now that’s more pagoda like.

The truth is that the Stupa was the original Buddhist religious structure in India and Nepal where the religion first took hold, but as it spread further east to China and Japan, the dome (which represented water) became less prominent and disappeared whist the structure above became more developed and ornate.  The Milton Keynes Peace Pagoda provided me with the missing link that enabled me to see this architectural evolution.

It made for some interesting pictures too.

Peace Pagoda, Milton Keynes
Peace Pagoda, Milton Keynes

Temporal Paradox

The first, and probably still my favourite, novel I read by Peter Ackroyd, was Hawksmoor. Written almost 30 years ago, I’ve still never read anything like it; part detective story, part historical pastiche the novel blends and subverts real events and people from history. In the novel the eponymous Detective Nicholas Hawksmoor investigates a series of murders which parallel murders committed by the architect Nicholas Dyer, an associate of Sir Christopher Wren.

Most of the churches built by Dyer in the novel (and which are “consecrated” by the murders) do exist and were the work of an associate of Wren’s called… Nicholas Hawksmoor. You get the picture. Ackroyd has willfully and effectively blurred the boundaries of time with events repeating themselves across the centuries so that the 18th and 2oth century events become indistinct from one another.


My work this week has taken me to Milton Keynes, a “new town” notable for bearing the names of two leading (and opposing) economists, a “stolen” football team, and its concrete cows. I’m probably not being fair, but none of my previous visits to the place have provided me with greater inspiration. That might change if ever I have time for a detour to Bletchley Park.

I’m not staying in MK though. My bed for the nights that I’m here is to be found in the town of Stony Stratford, a town whose origins are rather more historic. Stratford referring to a river crossing on a street, in this case the Roman Road of Watling Street. Markets have been held here since Norman times, and significant events have occurred here right up until the filming of Withnail and I.

On my arrival the first thing that caught my eye were the large brackets supporting shop and inn signs that extend well out into the high street.

I’ve never seen their like before, although the locals that I questioned about them found them unremarkable.

The main street is the High Street, both nominally and literally, for when sitting in the bar of my hotel, which is at the level of the original Watling Street, the modern-day road and pavement are significantly higher.


Stony Stratford is rich in historical buildings, boasting two medieval church towers, a number of coaching inns (The Old George where I’m staying is over 500 years old) and Shell House, a building of unique design within the town’s peculiar style. The architect is unknown but both Wren and Hawksmoor were working in the area at the time that much of the property was developed. There is plenty to suggest that Hawksmoor is responsible, but no evidence that has survived the passage of the years.

Perhaps Hawksmoor did study the occult as Dyer does in Ackroyd’s book. Perhaps he found a way to bend time and cast his net into the future (or should that be fuschia?)


Or maybe its just a cock and bull story. 😉APW_2051APW_2049-2