A crowd gathered in Middleton Hall in Centre:MK on Sunday 22nd January to watch the official cake cutting to mark Milton Keynes’ 50th birthday. This was followed by the singing of “Happy Birthday” by the horde and then the Rock Chorus provided entertainment as the crowd waited patiently for the impressive cake to be portioned up and distributed.
Milton Keynes has certainly come a long way in 50 years. It is doubtful that there was any cake cut or eaten on 23rd January 1967 when the government announced its approval for the building of a new town on a 34 square mile area north of London, near the towns of Bletchley, Wolverton and Stony Stratford. There had, as you might imagine, been some concerns expressed by some of the 53 000 people in the existing local population when it had been first proposed months beforehand but others had welcomed the news, looking forward to the improved infrastructure and shopping this new development would bring. On the date itself, however, the Bletchley Gazette was more concerned with reporting on the Young Conservative annual dance.
If Milton Keynes’ “birth” passed by largely unnoticed by the resident population, then the 25th birthday of new town in 1992 was more an occasion of note. By now the population was nearly 180,000 and a healthy crowd gathered in Middleton Hall to watch Frank Henshaw of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation invite Lord Chilver to cut the cake.
Watching this YouTube clip for the first time, I was struck that in the 25 years since this 1992 celebration both Milton Keynes and cakes have come along in leaps and bounds. Having tried to track down information about the origins of the 25th birthday cake, it is safe to say that it does not seem to have been noteworthy enough to have been recorded. Had Costco been established in Milton Keynes at the time then I might have suggested that it had come from there but they didn’t arrive until 2005. If anyone should know who was commissioned for this cake then let me know.
Fast forward to 2017 to the 50th birthday of Milton Keynes and we see not only a very different town but a very different cake. We are living in a post Great British Bake Off era where cakes can no longer be slabs of something edible but need to be a work of art. The pre-event press releases with their details about the cake makers and array of flavours tell you how far our cake appreciation has come. This was not a royal icing, marzipan coated fruit cake… oh no… this cake included chocolate mud, curry, carrot cake, fruit, lemon, pear and ginger and more and, we the public, were eager to hear this.
Standing on a base measuring 6ft x 4ft, the cake included replicas of landmark buildings such as Wolverton Station, the Peace Pagoda and Xscape, complete with working train and video screen. Local industries were represented with their logos on the main tiers of the cake and popular green spaces were present, along with their pieces of public area and an array of cake-pop trees.
This project was led by Karrin Simpson; not just a local cake maker but described as a Cake Artist and with a background in project management. Behind her was a team of professional and amateur cake makers including Hayley, Laura and Angie from Milton Keynes Cupcakery. And it is only right to mention that these women were not paid for this but created the cake in their own time as a gift to Milton Keynes, with ingredients donated by John Lewis.
Birthdays are usually a time for reflection and Milton Keynes’ 50th birthday is no exception. With the exhibition in Middleton Hall having shown us how far Milton Keynes has come in 50 years we should perhaps also take a moment to realise how far we have come in cake appreciation for the masses. We want to be impressed by a “Show-Stopper”, to ooh and ahh over the clever details of the decorations and marvel at the scale. We like to know the names of the creative women behind the cake and whilst some are happy to simply admire their handiwork others are inspired to try something on a smaller scale at home. Perhaps most importantly we want there to be substance behind the décor and to bite into something more interesting than a vanilla sponge and this cake delivered on all these accounts.
Where back in 1967 a decent bit of home baking was just another expectation of the housewife, somewhere in the few decades that followed this was pushed aside for time-saving ready-mixes and shop-brought baked goods. Mass production, space-age food additives and convenience became the order of the day. Yet, 50 years on home-baking is back, food provenance is on trend and interest in the artisans behind it is a must. Someone in 1967 would have struggled to have predicted how a celebratory cake 50 years later would have looked and who can imagine what one will look like in 50 years from now but let’s hope that it does the 100 year old Milton Keynes justice and that flavour and provenance remain as important as proportion and appearance.