Wednesday 20 March 2013

Milton Keynes

Have you ever tried to get out of Milton Keynes? It's bad enough trying to find anything in the vast sprawling Metropolis. I start to get lost after the 4th identical roundabout. A paper map is useless, and I praise God in heaven for the people  who invented the Sat-Nav. I can now find my destination in Milton Keynes, thanks to the American voice on my dashboard. Then I make the mistake of switching off the gadgets for the way home. "It's easy enough", I tell myself foolishly: just follow the signs for the M1. This is usually late at night, when I am tired and I want to get home.

There is a roundabout off the A5 where the M1 motorway is clearly signposted from the dual carriageway. But when you get up onto the roundabout, there is no indication which exit you need to take off the roundabout. No blue square on any sign. Just village names that you've never heard of. I know because I went all the way around twice last night trying to find it. In the end I got back onto the A5 and went a different way.

If you go "through" Milton Keynes, there are plenty of signs at every roundabout for the M1, and it helpfully suggests different routes for southbound and northbound traffic. But there is one crucial roundabout, probably close enough that you can see the motorway, where the signs to the M1 are missing. You are destined to remain in Milton Keynes forever.

There are only two places where I need a Sat-Nav. I can navigate just about anywhere else by looking at the map beforehand (usually online nowadays) and spending 15 minutes planning my route. My wife boasts that I can drive all the way across Germany and remember how to get to her sister's place without looking at a map. But even with a map I cannot find my way around Milton Keynes. A friend of mine who grew up in nearby Bedford explained that it is because new roundabouts are being born and old roundabouts die all the time, and the road layout is different every time you go there. The confusion is exacerbated by hundreds of identical roads, identical housing estates, identical roundabouts, and even similar place names. The day that the sat-nav was invented should be celebrated by anyone who needs to drive into, or more importantly out of, Milton Keynes. The only other place I need a Sat-Nav is inside Ikea.

I would love to know if people who live in Milton Keynes also get lost in their home town. How did you find your way in the days before satellite-guidance? Is it any easier by bike or on foot, or do you just take the bus?  I did eventually work my way out of your town, but I never found the motorway.

20 March 2013

Monday 4 March 2013


Magdeburg is a wonderful place to visit. It is easy to get to (90 minutes' drive West from Berlin, and it's on the main railway line) but do not go in February. There are plenty of things to see and do in Magdeburg, but mid-February is the wrong time of year to do it. We had a family birthday celebration there, but we really should go again at a better time of year. At this time of year, an icy wind blows straight off the Baltic, or Siberia or somewhere else not listed in holiday catalogues, bringing with it a temperature of -8 C. (or 18 F).

We stayed in the small town of Wolmirstedt, just outside Magdeburg. It has a railway station, a car-free shopping street, and a few hotels and restaurants. It's the kind of place where most people know each other. The hotels knew about our party, because they were all fully booked. The taxi company knew about our party because they had something to do.

There are some pretty amazing things to do and see in this area. One of them is the Water Bridge, the world's longest navigable aqueduct, which crosses the river Elbe. They completed this in 2003. During the separation of Germany, canal boats from West Germany to Berlin had a 12km detour from the Mittelland canal, down through some locks and a ship hoist (also pretty amazing), along the river Elbe, then back up the locks to the Elbe-Havel-Kanal. Most of Berlin's coal came in that way. We parked near the aqueduct and walk up to the canal level, which is 16m higher than the water level of the river Elbe. At the top we were greeted by the aforementioned Baltic wind, which cut right through us. We braved it for only a few minutes before descending into the shelter of the banks again. It's quite bizarre seeing boats on a canal so high up above the surrounding dead-flat land.

Apart from our party (we do some fairly awesome family parties) we also ventured into the centre of Magdeburg. Again, this would probably be really interesting during the summer. The tall buildings and straight streets shelter you from the wind one moment, then when you go round the corner, the wind funnels right at you. We lasted 2 hours in the cold before seeking shelter in a shopping centre. But in that time we did see the "Green Citadel" building, the last building designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser. It's supposed to be green because of the grass on the roof, which of course was white with snow. Nevertheless it is a stunning building, curiously positioned between traditional and other "modern" buildings, and manages to avoid straight lines in a Dr Seuss way, whilst still remaining practical.

Like all good short breaks, the long weekend was over too quickly. We drove back to Berlin (despite snow on the Autobahn, we made good progress), and struggled through the chaos that is the woefully inadequate Schönefeld airport: There is one restaurant (burger King) and one pub, serving several dozen gates, and water costs twice as much as it does on the plane! But we had a fab weekend that the kids will remember for a long time. We must go back in the summer.