Geek Weekend: Milton Keynes
Welcome to the fourth instalment of the Geek Weekend on Pocket-lint. Every 2 weeks we've been bringing you a guide to a UK city designed specially for the discerning geek traveller and today we take a look at the much maligned and misunderstood Bucks beauty that is Milton Keynes. So, the next time you fancy a stop over on your journey from north to south or east to west, make sure you take a look back at this page.
Big thanks to Simon Buckwell, Doug from MK, Andrew and miltonkeynes.com for help getting this one together.
It's easy to scoff at the town of Milton Keynes if you've never actually been there. Declared and purpose built in 1967 to be equidistant between London, Birmingham, Oxford and Cambridge and with its grid system of roads and concrete cows, it's easily dismissed as place without soul but that simple ain't so - especially if you're of the geeky persuation.
Places to Stay
There are two choices when staying in Milton Keynes. You either go for an urban hotel right smack bang in the CDB or, because it's a relatively small place, you can still stay in a country retreat while still having quick access to the town - so long as you know where's kitted out for geeks, of course.
Church House Hotel
Eight minutes from the centre but blissfully tucked away in a lovely rural setting is the Church House Hotel. Don't be fooled by the old school room phones. This hotel comes with Sky TV, free Wi-Fi, tea and coffee machines, hairdryers and a clock/radio as well, while at the same time having a rich feeling of classic luxury about it. There's only 10 rooms, so make sure to book well in advance. A deluxe double comes in at around £129 per night.
Location: 52.07733, -0.749195
It may not wreak of glitz and glam but the Holiday Inn in the heart of town is both convenience and gadget heaven. There are 178 very comfortable rooms each with internet access, movies on demand, DVD player, VCR, film rental, games consoles, stereo and cable TV as well. Rooms start from £100 per night and include the added bonus that check out is not until midday.
Location: 52.039175, -0.759537
If England were a geek, then Bletchley Park would be her spectacles. Milton Keynes may not be heavily endowed with attractions for the gadget loving tourist but the concentration of appeal here at this famous country estate is phenomenal.
National Museum of Computing
There are three main areas that all geeks simply must visit as well as the park playing host to some excellent WWII exhibitions and having some lovely grounds as well. First on the list should probably be the National Museum of Computing which features a set of impossibly ancient machines including the Colossals used to crack the Enigma code back in the 1940s and iconic computers from the 60s and 80s such as the Elliott 803 and the ICL 2966.
There's analogue computers, a retro-computing gallery, reconstruction projects - like the Bombe - and a look at where we are today with an exhibition on the internet. Quite simply a Mecca. The only issue is that it's just open on Thursdays and Saturdays, so do be careful.
National Codes Centre
The most famous thing about Bletchley is as the National Codes Centre and it's the codes, cryptography and deciphering exhibitions that are the real crowd pleasers. The park houses a superb private collection of British, German, American, Russian, Swedish and Swiss cipher machines, including, of course, the legendary Enigma.
As well as the kit itself there's a superb display of code breaking and its involvement in the war with spies, stories and other intrigue as well as the carrot of a secret treasure map to computer forefather Alan Turing's legendary buried silver.
Milton Keynes Amateur Radio Society
Knowing a good geek spot when they saw it, the Milton Keynes Amateur Radio Society has relocated to Bletchley Park where you can now enjoy regular demonstrations of radio communication using speech, morse code, video, and various forms of text messaging. They also run starter courses for the budding radio enthusiast from around £22 and you can even learn morse as well. Check the MKARS site for details of when the monthly courses begin.
The best thing about museums these days is that you can take a piece of them home with you and, when we're talking about Bletchley, it doesn't take long to realise what an excellent hub of geek gifts the park shop can be. You can pick up pocket enigmas, code kits, guides on morse, rockets, robots and all sorts of other goodies. A good place to stock up for Christmas.
Bletchley Park Garage
Geek motor enthusiasts will have a bit of a field day at Bletchley as well with an impressive collection of 1930s and 40s automobiles in the Park Garage. It's open to the public every day and make sure not to miss the two Austins which featured in the film The Eagle has Landed.
Like the radioists, the Milton Keynes Model Railway Society also has a berth for itself at Bletchley. Get down there on a Saturday or Sunday between 12pm-4pm and you can take a look and have a go on some fantastically detailed model train sets including tunnels, platforms and all the trimmings. There's even a Thomas set for the kids to enjoy as well as talks and information from the society members standing by.
Special Events - Vintage Computer Festival
If you're reading this piece nearing the time it was first published, then you might be lucky enough to take your trip to Bletchley Park for the weekend of 19th/20th June 2010. The reason to get there then is that the National Museum of Computing will be running the very first Vintage Computer Festival of Great Britain. For £10 for the whole weekend, you get a host of guest speakers plus machines from exhibitors like Acorn, Amiga, IBM and Spectrum to enjoy as well as some hot arcade action too. Cancel your plans and start convincing your family.
It's probably more famous, more special and more useful as a snow dome but the 44m high Xscape activity centre in Milton Keynes also happens to house a 16-screen cinema as well as some shops, climbing centre, bowling and a good dose of arcade action as well. You'll go a bit mental if you spend all day in here but, even if you don't enjoy winter sports, the geek tourist might wish to inspect the genuine man-made snow as constructed by 16 snow guns firing cooled water into air chilled to -20 to make the 1500 tons of the stuff needed to cover the 190m slope. How's that for some stats?
Location: 52.041405, -0.748873
Si5 Spy School
Now that you've been to Bletchley Park, you should be an expert in cryptography. What Si5 does is give you a chance to put some of that theory into practice. Making perfect big group entertainment, this experience is good for both kids and adults and involves mission briefings, helicopter drops, assault courses, mental challenges and, all in all, ends up somewhere between the Crystal Maze and Mission Impossible. Very reasonable for just £15 per head. Naturally, you'll need to book in advance make sure that you have a group size of more than 4.
Location: 52.028046, -0.765395
The central streets of Milton Keynes were designed to be hyper-functional. With the whole town planned at once, it's one of the few places in the UK to have a perfect grid of streets rather like you might find in the States. MK, however, has taken this one step further. Each greater block is exactly 1km in length and breadth in order to make sure that you're always near a bus stop and, so that you always know where you are, the streets are named either a vertical number or a horizontal numeber - eg: V8, H3, H1, etc. Now, that's geek town planning for you.
Central Railway Station
Don't be too hasty to leave behind Milton Keynes Central Rail Station as you step off your train. Make sure to take a picture or too of the plaza which was used as the set for Superman IV as an alternative to the United Nations. Same thing really.
Location: 52.034304, -0.77415
There's a fantastic amount of public art available to see at all hours in Milton Keynes and a few of them are definite hot spots for the geek tourist. The first is Lightflow by Peter Freeman - two 4m vertical towers made of mirrors and LEDs to use colour and movement inspired by the reflections of light on water. Both are interactive allowing anybody to choose different light effects using one of six text commands - Sparkle, Rainbow, Splash, Blue, Flow and Ripple.
Location: 52.037973, -0.763185
Bruce Williams's Electric Sheep laser cut sculpture and its changing colours can apparently be seen from space. If you'd rather though, you can go and check it out on foot.
Location: 52.044272, -0.749044
Rather clever, poignant and menacing at the same time is Steven Gregory's creation of anthropomorphised cameras on marching legs known as Paparazzi. Well worth a picture.
Location: 52.044457, -0.749643
Head down to the Milton Keynes Theatre and you might not see too much at first, especially if it's daytime. At night though, very clearly from outside, you can see a drawing of the surface of the Moon as made in Leipzig in 1894. If you can't stop staring at it, you might want to buy a print from inside.
Location: 52.044428, -0.74883
Prague may have its ancient, traditional, mechanical clock but Milton Keynes has a 4 tonne timepiece for a frog instead. On then hour, every hour, it springs to life in Midsummer Place playing music and blowing bubbles out onto the crowd.
Location: 52.041115, -0.75619
It may only have a population of under 200,000 but Apple has decided that MK is major enough to have its own white tech goods store. So whether you just want a play or you're in need of a cable or two, you know where to come.
Location: 52.041273, -0.75664
Independent, friendly, packed with goodies and an excellent place for a consultation as well as a purchase is Technosound towards the east side of town. It's been operating since 1979 and stocks all your home cinema goodies with Pioneer, Loewe, Yamaha, Arcam, B&W and KEF just a few worth mentioning.
Location: 52.038581, -0.751534
Bang & Olufsen
Right beside Technosounds, you'll find the Bang & Olufsen store. Take a look around at the luxurious audio art and, if the price tags start scaring you, then just pop back next door.
Location: 52.038581, -0.751534
A couple of steps back in both style and cash is what Sony has to offer and you can peruse the Japanese giant's gadget wares in the middle of town in Milton Keynes's Sony Centre. Make sure to take a look at the Bravia XEL-1, if there's still one about, for a glimpse of the OLED TV future that just might be.
Location: 52.042355, -0.759473
You can pop down to the perfectly good Jessops in town but if you'd rather a piece of local photographic excellence, then MB Cameras is the choice of the specialist. The shop does repairs as well as sales and advice on all sorts of weird and wonderful cameras with, doubtless, an excellent knowledge on Leica given that one of the German camera company's headquarters was in Milton Keynes until early this year.
Location: 52.042355, -0.759473
Last, but by no means least, don't forget about the cut price electrical stalwart that is Maplin. If you've forgotten a cable, a card or are in need of any kind of adapter at all, then this is most certainly the place to come.
Location: 52.033367, -0.759752
Pocket Enigma Machine ($2 - Android)
Sadly, there's not a lot in the way of app travel guides to this region of Bucks or anything much to help you on your wanderings apart from the likes of Google Maps, of course. However, there is Pocket Enigma Machine to remember your trip by and enjoy for some time to come.
It's a graphical representation of an Enigma machine and its workings with genuine sound recordings and you can actually use it to encrypt messages to send to your friends on the same app and decipher their replies.
The true geekiest sights and sounds are often the hardest to find and there's no way that in a place like Milton Keynes that we can explore every nook and cranny. So, whether you're a local or someone back from a visit, do let us know your tips and ideas in the comments of how to get techie in town.
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