“Milton Keynes has more shoreline than Jersey.”
“Milton Keynes has more shoreline than Jersey.”
This is news to me. I must admit that, tasked with writing a feature about the UK’s first and most famous ‘new town’, I was apprehensive. How much can there be to say about a place that will only reach its 50th birthday next year and has largely been constructed out of concrete? Even Bill Bryson visited the place and failed to manage a humorous encounter with a quirky local. And I am not Bill Bryson.
Arrival at the station does little to dispel the impression that Milton Keynes (MK) is a bit grey. A huge plaza, long streets built on the American grid system, buildings made, yes, out of concrete. All in all, a distinct absence of rock pools, seaweed and grungy types offering cheap surfing lessons. But there we have it.
“Milton Keynes has more shoreline than Jersey,” says Shoosmiths partner Charlotte Dunn, and a quick check of the council’s website confirms that this is indeed true (it’s due to the huge number of lakes). It is just the first in a series of unexpected facts that crop up as I speak to local lawyers in an attempt to find the soul of Milton Keynes.
Having taken the short walk from the station I arrive at the offices of Shoosmiths, where I’ll meet Dunn, but not before I’ve spoken to NQ Natalie Brody and three-years-qualified lawyer Andy Pratley. All the lawyers I end up speaking to in MK are ridiculously smiley people but Pratley in particular is looking particularly chipper. It turns out he’s about to get married to a lawyer at a nearby firm who he met through the local networking group, so I suppose he has good reason to feel cheery about Milton Keynes. If this is a mission to find the soul of the place (and I have unilaterally decided that it is) this seems like a good starting point. I jot down ‘MK – city of love?’ in my notepad and embellish it with a few hearts. Actually, I don’t – lawyers have a tendency to try and read anything you’re writing from across the desk and I don’t want to freak Pratley out.
In terms of enhancing your network you could argue there’s almost nowhere better in the country
But his experience is heartening. If I was a trainee moving to a strange city I’d be worried about making friends and it transpires that Pratley has not only managed to acquire a spouse, but has also apparently convinced everyone he knows to come and live round the corner from him in the outlying market town of Stony Stratford.
“I’d never set foot in Milton Keynes until a week before I started working here,” he says. “I went travelling for a couple of years so I missed all the future trainee events the firm puts on. The first time I saw Milton Keynes was from the plane flying back from Africa. I remember looking down on the grid system and thinking, ‘What have I done? I don’t know anyone in that city.’ Now, five years on, I find myself constantly defending it.”
From a blank slate, Pratley has a house, a fiancée, a job at a well-regarded firm and a group of mates nearby. In my eyes, that already puts MK in pretty good standing.
But what more can it offer? After all, people tend to turn their noses up when MK is mentioned. Why?
“Everyone knows Milton Keynes for the concrete, the roundabouts and maybe the shopping complex, but that’s just the centre,” says Brody. “There’s so much more in the surrounding area and it’s so beautiful.” This is a sentiment echoed by a number of lawyers over the course of the day – that actually MK is kind of inside-out. Other towns have the cultural centre and surround it with shopping malls and business parks. Milton Keynes has a functional core and the more beautiful stuff is round the edge. In some ways, that works better.
It certainly makes MK “a very convenient city to live in,” says Shoosmiths grad recruitment manager Samantha Hope. (‘MK – the city of convenience?’, I jot down on my pad).
“You have everything you need within a 10-minute drive,” Hope adds. “You have the massive snow dome, cinemas, theatre, all the shops and loads of chain restaurants. The centre lacks a bit of the independent retail and restaurant scene you get in organic cities, but if you drive 10 minutes to the likes of Stony Stratford and Newport Pagnell, that’s where you find the more independent, interesting things.”
“If I were trying to sell Milton Keynes to someone I wouldn’t take them for a tour around the centre,” he says. “But I’ve got lawyer friends in other places who work on ring roads and industrial estates. Here, I can walk for one minute and there’s a choice of maybe 15 restaurants and 10 bars. In terms of access to amenities when you’re at work, there’s literally everything you can imagine, but then you’ve got the countryside on your doorstep when you go home. It’s a great place to be Monday to Friday, but when you’re out of work there are really nice places nearby.”
Things are gradually changing, however. Brody, who’s been in MK for two and a half years, notes that little independent stores and events are starting to pop up where there weren’t any before – “open mic and comedy nights, microbreweries, a little independent yoga place…”
It’s lunchtime though, so I forgo the opportunity for yoga and hit one of the many chain restaurants within two minutes of Shoosmiths’ offices. A few tables away from me, there is a group of men in well-tailored suits, obviously having a business lunch. One of them looks familiar. A small man with big glasses and a slightly geeky haircut. Is that… it can’t be… Bill Gates? This is a turn-up for the books – the founder of Microsoft swinging by for a quick bite and maybe a big deal.
But then, a surprising number of international businesses have their headquarters here: maybe not Microsoft, but Network Rail (Milton Keynes’ biggest employer), BP, Mercedes, VW, Argos, DHL, Home Retail Group – even Red Bull Racing. Domino’s Pizza recently moved its head office to MK, while bank to the super-rich Coutts also set up shop not so long back. So Bill Gates in town? Not out of the question.
“Everyone knows Milton Keynes for the roundabouts and maybe the shopping complex, but that’s just the centre”
“I was speaking to the Coutts team recently,” says Dunn. “They said they did all their research, hired consultants to advise them on which area to move to, and that all the indicators were to come to Milton Keynes. There’s such a vibrant business community here.”
‘Milton Keynes – city of commerce?’ That has a nice ring to it.
Coutts, along with many of those other HQs, is literally across the street from the major law firms in town – meaning contact, both professional and social, with key people at dozens of major businesses, is easy. In terms of building client relationships and enhancing your network for your future career, you could argue that there’s almost nowhere better in the country.
Indeed, Shoosmiths also sends lawyers on secondment to a number of these businesses. For example, second-year trainee Kirsty Farmer spent time at Mercedes.
“It was one of the seats that most helped me develop my confidence in terms of talking to clients and giving legal advice,” she says. “It was such a good experience because you’re just round the corner from your home office so I could keep in touch with the firm and still go to all the socials, but at the same time be inside a business building up commercial awareness. That was a real highlight for me.”
So how much of Shoosmiths’ work is for these nearby businesses?
“We make the most of clients who are based locally, but all our work isn’t for local clients,” says Pratley. “More often than not we’ll be working opposite the big London firms,” adds office managing partner Sanjeev Sharma.
As I leave the restaurant I sidle closer to the business lunch table in an attempt to hear what Bill Gates’ plans for Milton Keynes are. I manage to catch a bit of what he’s saying. He sounds like Ray Winstone. This is not Bill Gates. Never mind – he’s probably the CEO of something – maybe Weetabix, another Shoosmiths client. He catches me looking at him, so I hurry out and head for the shopping centre, which is one of MK’s most famous features, so I figure I should take a look at it.
It’s nice enough, and certainly has every store you could possibly wish for. I walk round politely looking at Wagamama and House of Fraser (shops have never really been my thing) when my eye is caught by something. It is a giant mechanical frog.
This is unexpected. In an attempt to avoid Milton Keynes cliches I have been studiously avoiding all references to concrete cows. I had figured these must be the most interesting thing about MK, artistically speaking. Why has no-one, at any point, mentioned a giant mechanical frog clock that blows bubbles? If I was selling a city to someone the presence of a giant frog would, frankly, be the first thing I’d mention. This is what I’m discovering about MK, even after only a short time in town. There’s loads of interesting stuff that I’ve simply never been told about. ‘City of the Unexpected’, I note in my pad.
It turns out that all these scribbles will prove useless as headlines: when checking on Wikipedia later, I find MK is not a city at all, it’s a town.
“Yeah, we applied for city status a few years ago but didn’t get it,” a lawyer confirms I when double-check this. “Everyone here still calls it a city though.”
The local paper is called The Citizen and even the buses and street signs refer to the ‘city centre’. It figures. Milton Keynes has big plans, not just for the economy but for infrastructure and housing too. The first phase of its development has now officially ended; the second phase will be filling in the gaps. With that will come more homes, more culture, more everything. ‘Town of Ambition?’, I write.
Still reeling from my amphibian encounter, I head over to Dentons’ office. In the process I note that while MK’s reputation for brutalist architecture is well-deserved the law firms have cunningly snapped up the nicest buildings in town – both Dentons and Shoosmiths are based in glass-fronted modern edifices.
“Milton Keynes is a strange place,” Dentons partner Rob Wyatt cheerfully admits.
‘You’re telling me’, I think. What unlikely piece of MK trivia am I about to be furnished with now?
Wyatt duly dishes out the fact that the main street is aligned with the rising sun on midsummer’s day. It turns out that the blokes who were planning MK in the 1960s were both visionaries who wanted to create an uber-modern and convenient city, but also massive hippies – and so built a street that serves the same essential purpose as Stonehenge, as well as giving everything vaguely pagan names. Shoosmiths is based in Witan Gate House, ‘Witan’ being, appropriately enough, an Old English word meaning ‘meeting of wise men’. The way things are going it wouldn’t surprise me if the famous shopping centre was built along a ley line or if the snow dome was actually a portal to Narnia, or possibly the Land of the Frog Lords.
I try not to get distracted. What about the business of being a lawyer?
“We pull in work from far away, including London matters – I didn’t realise the extent of that until I got here,” says Dentons trainee Helena Rozman.
This doesn’t come as too much of a surprise having spent the morning with Shoosmiths, but it’s nice to get further examples.
“I sometimes think we’re a bit underestimated out here, and that people in London think we’re all stamping about in wellies talking to a few little people, but nothing could be further from the truth,” Rozman continues. “But people are starting to understand that we’re getting much more high-profile work than they thought.”
My time in Milton Keynes is nearly up, so I say my goodbyes. On the train (33 minutes to London Euston, 55 to Birmingham New Street) I reflect on my trip.
I look at my notes. They read: ‘City of love? City of Convenience? City of Commerce? City of the Unexpected? Town of Ambition? Frogs.’
Hm. Well, maybe I haven’t found the soul of Milton Keynes. What I have found is that it isn’t anything like I thought it would be. And I’ve also found a lot of very happy lawyers doing great work and living a very nice life, thank you very much. As far as Milton Keynes is concerned, consider me converted.
Trainee about town
Name: Kirsty Farmer
University: University of Birmingham
Where are you from? Flitwick in Bedfordshire
What’s the most exciting matter you’ve worked on and why? A High Court patent case. It was exciting because we were in court for a full week and were acting for a high street fashion retailer.
Have you ever done an all-nighter? Never
What time do you usually leave the office? 6.30pm
What’s your favourite MK pub, bar or restaurant? On a sunny day the Black Horse in Great Linford. It’s got a great pub garden right on the canal, and has a real countryside feel.
Right next to the office in The Hub is Be At One, a cocktail bar where we regularly host young professional networking events.
Where do you live? In Flitwick, so it’s about 20 minutes outside of Milton Keynes.
How much is your rent? Rent in central Milton Keynes can be quite pricey so most of the trainees live in the villages surrounding the city, which are much more affordable, more scenic, but still only a 10-minute drive into work.
How much do you spend on commuting? No more than about £30 a week on petrol. We have a private car park underneath the office so I’m always guaranteed a space. Lots of people cycle into work as Milton Keynes has been well-designed for this.
What’s the best thing about working in MK? I love that our office is walking distance of everything you need. There’s a great independent coffee shop called Bogota in The Hub and loads of restaurants. It’s easy to fit in a shopping trip on your lunch break at the centre, which is less than 10 minutes’ walk.
What should you talk about to convince cab drivers you’re a local? When you let them know your destination, rather than a street name, say it in ‘verticals and horizontals’, and talk to them about anything other than concrete cows or the number of roundabouts.
Before I came to Milton Keynes I have to confess to having the usual misconceptions: I was not unique in expecting a soulless land of concrete cows and roundabouts! Having worked here for 12 years and lived here for five of those, however, it’s safe to say I have become a true convert! I’m still not sure about the cows though…
As a place to work Milton Keynes is often overlooked for the bright lights of London, but that is changing. People are recognising the quality of the companies based in and around Milton Keynes: businesses both well-established and newly founded are here.
Not only that, but firms here can and do pull in a very high quality of work from other locations. Good transport links to London, Birmingham and Manchester, and easy access to the M1 open up opportunities to work with excellent clients from all over the country.
The same good transport links are constantly attracting new businesses here as well as law firms. Milton Keynes is rapidly becoming a major centre for legal services, with the arrival of a number of bigger firms who sense the opportunities here, all of which is great for young lawyers.
Milton Keynes is a great place to live too, truly providing the best of both worlds. I have recently taken up running and was amazed to find I can run from one side of Milton Keynes to the other through parks, around lakes and alongside canals without ever seeing a road. All this while only a five-minute drive from the office. Yes, the roundabouts really do work that well!
While the centre may not be able to boast the same history and culture as other locations, we do have lovely little country pubs in historic villages: the Swan in Milton Keynes Village is a particular highlight. We have a great theatre and if the shows touring here from the West End are not enough the transport links to London make experiencing the delights of the big city incredibly easy.
Sarah Lovell, senior associate, Milton Keynes employment team, Shoosmiths