Friday, 30 July 2010

Advantage In Height: The Hub, Milton Keynes

Source: Glenn Howells Architects

Call it force of habit, but on a summer's Friday night, when I've completed the last commute home to Milton Keynes from London for another week, I like to drive along Witan Gate past The Hub. There's just something so convivial about the people sat drinking outside the Living Room, the waiting staff arriving at the back doors of restaurants in the throes of gearing up for busy Friday nights, and just the general sense of people kicking back after a week at work; all of this helps me with my transition from corporate life to family life.

The other reason – the main reason – I like driving past The Hub is one of personal aesthetics: I love tall buildings. I think towers are graceful and elegant. Don't get me wrong, I am appreciative of architecture generally, both modern and historic, but tall buildings in particular have always fascinated me. Trips to Birmingham as a child were all the more thrilling for the views of the Rotunda looming over the city, while sporadic visits to London found me simultaneously intimidated and intrigued by the likes of Big Ben. I didn't have enough Lego bricks in my box to build skyscrapers, but I'm sure I would have done if I could. During the first year at university, I resided in one of the lower floors of a brutalist brick tower; while it was clearly not in any way 'beautiful' in the traditional sense of the word, I thought the simplicity of the repeated floor patterns and the hard vertical lines scaling the height of the tower were nevertheless pleasing to the eye.

Back to The Hub. Designed by the London / Birmingham firm of architects Glenn Howells, the elegant main tower (Manhattan House) is fourteen storeys tall. That would be positively diminutive for London, let alone Manhattan. But compared to elsewhere in Milton Keynes, the principal tower at The Hub is a giant. Surveying the topography of this young city, buildings have rarely ever had more than three or possibly four storeys. They aim at bulk rather than height. Examples would include the dense, brick-clad Santander building on Grafton Street which occupies an entire block. It's vast, but only three storeys tall. Another example is the office of the Inland Revenue on the corner of Witan Gate and Silbury Boulevard. The only exceptions to this are Xscape – a landmark entertainment destination housing a ski slope, gym, multi-screen cinema, bars, restaurants and shops – and Mellish Court in Bletchley, which is an archetypal Sixties residential concrete mass rising seventeen storeys.

The Hub consists of various buildings, all of mixed use and of varying height. The ground floor of each is let to popular restaurant chains, cafés and shops, while the upper floors are all residential. In total, the complex consists of 408 apartments. The buildings are arranged around a large central piazza (Mortimer Square) which occasionally hosts public events, and which also includes a sequence of fountains flush with the paving – popular with toddlers who, defying their parents, love getting drenched in the jets. Each of the buildings has a name which aspirationally links the development to Manhattan. In its own way, this is nothing new – Milton Keynes already has a high-speed variation of the New York grid, and the nomenclature of The Hub appears to be an attempt to develop a quintessentially Milton Keynes version of its buildings too, sporting the names Manhattan House, Brooklyn House, Staten House, Carnegie House, Metropolitan House, Dakota House and Chelsea House.

The latter contains Brasserie Blanc, Raymond Blanc's mid-priced chain brasserie; in defiance of the sleek modernism evident across The Hub's design, the incontrovertibly traditionalist Blanc replaced the flat entrance to his restaurant unit with an old wooden revolving door salvaged from a Brighton hotel; outside it looks awkward, uncomfortable, but from the inside makes complete sense.

Source: MK_Tom / Panoramio

Apparently there was a degree of negative public reaction to the design of the buildings, as there often is to tall buildings generally. The positioning of The Hub towards the top of a hill makes it visible from quite a way off the centre of the city; but, unlike London, there are no views of St Paul's to obscure. This is a city that has existed for around half a century and all of it could thus feasibly be described as 'new'. To my mind anyone complaining about another modern facet to the city is a hypocrite in my book. The buildings required the removal of one of Milton Keynes' coveted underpasses, and unlike anywhere else in the city the buildings are situated right on the edge of the surrounding gates and boulevards, eschewing the usual grassy banks and wide walkways evident elsewhere.

The Hub's inclusion in the city is, to me, more than welcome, and certainly long overdue. But it is also disappointing. When a new tall structure appears on the horizon, it should signal a broader acceptance of such buildings, paving the way for more similar-sized schemes. Sadly, with the exception of the beautiful and chunky Pinnacle, which rises nine floors and has a roof design that references Hugh Stubbins and Associates' Citicorp Centre in New York's Midtown, other new buildings on the cards see a return to the squat, derivative structures abundantly available already in the city: the new National Rail offices, on the site of the old hockey stadium, will be a sprawling 'groundscraper', a design which is all the more disappointing after the advances of The Hub and the Pinnacle.

Thursday, 22 July 2010


Martini glass

Those who know me personally, and those who've seen my Twitter feed, will know that I love making cocktails. I went on a cocktail making course earlier this year at Shaker Bar School in East London, which I'd recommend to anyone who has the remotest interest in combining drinks together.

The gimlet is, along with the martini, the Manhattan and the Collins, considered one of the classics. The drink consists of Plymouth gin and Rose's Lime Cordial. According to 2500 Cocktails by Paul Martin (my go-to guide for all things mixology), the gimlet was 'the product of two ingredients that came together by geographical and medicinal circumstance.' A gin distillery was established in the British naval port of Plymouth in 1793, while Rose's Lime Cordial, created by Lauchlin Rose in Scotland in 1867, was considered a medicinal cure for scurvy; given the disease's prevalence among sailors, it was almost inevitable that the cordial would find its way to Plymouth.

This cocktail is a variation on the gimlet, but replaces the lime cordial with Bottle Green Ginger & Lemongrass cordial (available from Sainsbury's), so I called it a greenlet

- 50ml Plymouth gin
- 25ml Bottle Green Ginger & Lemongrass cordial

Shake the ingredients, together with a scoop of ice, and strain into a chilled martini glass.

Thursday, 15 July 2010

Cornwall Diary (Part 1)

7 July 2010

We set off from Milton Keynes at about 6.20 and reached Tehidy Country Park just after 1.00 for a picnic. The Tehidy estate was once owned by the Basset family, one of the most powerful western Cornish families and whose family name adorns streets and pubs in the nearby Redruth and Camborne area.

Tehidy Country Park

The park consists of 250 acres of natural woodland and nine miles of paths, and is centred around a serene swan-filled lake, and also has a small café and information centre. We hunted Gruffaloes (we caught six, according to Daughter#1) and befriended at least three pairs of very tame squirrels.

For the second year running, we were staying at Gwel an Mor, a five star collection of wooden lodges just above Portreath, with tranquil views across the sea. We have always struggled to find good quality, child-friendly accommodation in Cornwall and consequently find Gwel an Mor to be a welcome breath of fresh air. This year we stayed in a 'Tregae VIP' lodge which had the upgrades of a wood-burning stove (low likelihood of getting used in the summer), a hot-tub (yes, I am Hugh Heffner) and a midweek maid service; the latter was the clincher for us – with this being ostensibly a self-catered holiday, when we stayed here last year the place really felt like it needed a clean midway through our stay, and given that we were on holiday, we were relatively disinclined to do that much cleaning.

Gwel an Mor lodge

The lodges are quirky yet homely – lots of wood throughout gives the place a cosy Scandinavian feel (the Hemnes bedroom furniture from Ikea also helps), and it doesn't take long to get used to the three bedrooms being downstairs and the lounge / kitchen being upstairs in the roof.

Dinner on the first night came courtesy of the fish and chip takeaway on nearby Portreath beach – they're not the best we've ever tasted, and not even as good as last year, but decent and good value nonetheless.

8 July 2010

This being England, weather is of course distinctly variable – even in usually dependable Cornwall – so when we saw the forecast for sunshine today, we decided to head to the beach; the beach, in this case, was Sennen Cove, near to Land's End and rightly regarded in surveys as one of England's best beaches.

Popular with tanned young surfers, sunbathers and families, Sennen is a truly wonderful place with a wide sweeping sandy beach, dramatic cliffs, good waves (if that's your thing) and, in the Beach one of the best restaurants we've ever been to in Cornwall. The restaurant has a good menu, and an excellent selection of unfussy children's dishes. Daughter#1 enjoyed a perfect soft poached egg with soldiers, while #2 had soul goujons; Mrs S had the same goujons in a wrap while I had roasted Mediterranean vegetables from the grill.

Sennen, like many Cornish towns on the tourist trail, has galleries (for buying, not just viewing); in its case, Sennen has two, both housed in the unusual round, slate-roofed building next to the RNLI station. We visited the upstairs one (the Round House), as we do whenever we visit, and came away with lots of pretty ceramics and pictures by local Cornish artists.

The Round House and Capstan galleries

Heading back to Portreath, we stopped in at Trengwainton for a stroll with my sister and my six-month-old niece. Trengwainton is a serene tropical garden just outside Penzance that's managed by the National Trust. The gardens were given to the Trust in 1961 by the Bolitho family, another of Cornwall's powerful families.

The gardens in Cornwall and manifest, and beautiful, and the tropical climate allows plants unusual to these shores to grow comfortably. My days of being a keen gardener are well and truly over, and I couldn't tell you at all what's growing in our own back garden (apart from weeds), but we love exploring Cornwall's gardens, mainly because they are such fun for kids. At Trengwainton, Daughter#1 hunted for clues as part of a kids trail, which centred mostly around the walled kitchen garden, built to the dimension of Noah's Ark for no discernible reason. Last year we climbed right to the top of the gardens, where the tropical foliage gives way to stunning views across Mount's Bay. My sister often visits the modern tea rooms here, which have an excellent array of lunches and cakes, while the sloping lawn in front contains giant kids games like noughts and crosses; perfect for letting them entertain themselves while grown ups have a natter.

9 July 2010

Ah, St Ives – I'm just not that into you. After a soggy day out there last year, we should've learned our lesson. The place is a tourist Mecca and the narrow main street – Fore Street – should really be pedestrianised. I admit it's not without its charms – much of Fore Street is beautiful, and there are no major high street chains – but it's way too busy for me, and I grew up in a tourist town so I should have a high tolerance. Plus it was drizzling, and I spent most of the morning stood outside congested shops getting wet while trying to deal with a very grumpy Daughter#2 (most shops are pushchair-friendly, but if you have more than one stroller in a shop at any one time it's usually a nightmare). Mrs S hit Cath Kidston and Joule and the unique Chocolat! (chocolate shop) and Fabulous Kids (toy / clothing shop for children) while I had a look around the the Digey's deli section. I looked at some local Cornish liqueurs from a gift shop to make some unusual cocktails. Cornish Smugglers liqueurs are made down near the Lizard and include brandies, fruit cream drinks and other localised variations of popular spirits.

St Ives may be pretty, but it's strangely not blessed with an abundance of places to eat; when we came last year, the rain made the few places that it does have far busier than we'd expected, leaving us eating pasties in the rain while fending off an aggressively insistent seagull on a bench near the Tate. This time we were determined not to endure the same fate, and so we booked a lunchtime table at the Seafood Café before the soggy hordes cottoned on.

Seafood Café is a bright, modern restaurant with an abundance of fish dishes on their menu (and given its location why not?), the waiting staff are nice and friendly and the food is excellent. I ate crab linguine which was delicately flavoured with chilli; Mrs S enjoyed a fish pie while the girls had fish and chips where you could choose from grilled or fried fish.

The best thing about going to St Ives is the journey. Rather than driving and negotiating the paucity of parking, we took the Bay Line train from St Erth which costs £4 per adult. The journey lasts around fifteen minutes and offers stunning cliff-top views of the bay. From 10.00 the train departs at 11 and 41 minutes past the hour, and parking is a very reasonable £1.50 for a full day at St Erth.

After St Ives we headed down to Penzance to hook up with my sister. We had enormous cakes and tea at Penlee House, a white Victorian house which is now the home of an art gallery specialising in the work of the Newlyn school of artists and also the original Penzance market cross, a much-moved historic carved stone cross. We'd intended to have our first cream tea of our stay, but they'd run out of scones; if the enormous doorstep cakes and slices we had were anything to go by, it's not hard to see why.

10 July 2010

We spent most of the day at Trebah Gardens, just outside Mawnan Smith near Falmouth, which is a valley garden designed by Charles Fox. Between the various Fox siblings, the family developed no less than six tropical gardens in the area, their ownership of a international shipping business allowing them to easily transport seedlings and rare plants from around the world in order for them to grow comfortably in the local area's sheltered climes.

Trebah Gardens

Trebah slopes downward to a private beach on the Helford river. The route down takes you through rhododendrons, camellias, giant gunnera, a bamboo maze and all manner of plants and trees you would struggle to imagine growing elsewhere in England. Trebah has endured something of a torrid history following the Fox ownership, including a requisitioning of the Helford beach by the US Navy during the second world war as an embarkation station for the Omaha landings; during their stay, the US concreted the beach and stuck in a new road. Thanks to the work of one owner – Donald Healey, the former racing driver and car designer – the beach is now largely restored to its former pebble-filled glory.

The modern visitor centre and restaurant is excellent; during our stay in Cornwall we ate at the restaurant three times. Their Trebah flan with Mediterranean vegetables and Cornish brie is amazing, while their fish cakes beat anything we've eaten in modern gastro pubs hands down; for kids the selections include fish finger sandwiches, and more unfussy and popular dishes. Even if you can't face the steep walks in the gardens, the food alone is well worth making a visit to Trebah for.