Bletchley has had an unsteady history, with times of growth and prosperity and periods of decline and this has had a huge influence on the way people have lived and shopped in the area. In essence Bletchley’s status has been determined historically by the success of its neighbouring settlements and the railway, and this continues to be the case today.
Although now it is easy to drive from Fenny Stratford to Bletchley without noticing the join, in the past these two areas had more separate identities and it was in fact Fenny Stratford that was more significant. The name “Stratford” means “marshy ford on a Roman road” and in the case of Fenny Stratford that Roman road was Watling Street and there are still traces of Roman settlement where Fenny Stratford stands today. The name “Fenni”
was added sometime in the 13th century to distinguish it from the nearby town of Stony Stratford. Historically Fenny Stratford was the location of a weekly market, although this came abruptly to an end in 1665 when the town was badly hit by bubonic plague. Consequently, the main road through the town was diverted away from it and the market was no longer viable. A market has not returned to Fenny Stratford to this day and by the early eighteenth century the town was in decline.
In contrast, Bletchley was nothing more than an obscure hamlet on the road between Fenny Stratford and Buckingham until the arrival of the railway in 1845. The railway brought a period of rapid growth during the Victorian era. In 1895 Fenny Stratford and Simpson were constituted as the urban district of Fenny Stratford, and it was only in 1899 that Bletchley was added to this district. However, the urban district was renamed “Bletchley” in 1911, such was Bletchley’s growth at the time.
On December 16th 1944, the Bletchley District Gazette announced: ‘Greater London Plan gives Bletchley 60,000 population in ten years’. As Bletchley was a leading authority in post war housing, this decision was greeted with much approval and Bletchley got stuck into building new houses well before it became an official act of Parliament in 1952. However, it was as early as 1950 that Bletchley Urban District Council expressed concerned that the amount of shop space in Bletchley would be inadequate for the expansion of the town.
At that time the shopping provision in Bletchley mainly comprised some small, privately-owned shops along Bletchley Road, which ran straight through the centre of town. In addition there was a row of little “tin hut” shops that stood beneath the railway bridge towards the end near Buckingham Road. Together this equated to 3,800 feet shopping area frontage, with an additional 1,560 feet in nearby Aylesbury Street in Fenny Stratford. This was calculated to be enough shopping provision for a population of about 19,000 people but Bletchley was expecting to soon be providing facilities for 21,400 people and would continue to grow beyond that.
A concerted effort to develop the shopping provision was therefore required and attention fell on how to improve Bletchley Road. At this time there were still some residential buildings in the street and their gardens were seen to be a physical obstruction to shoppers. As such a compulsory purchase order was issued to buy up these properties in order to remove the gardens and turn the buildings into retail space. In addition, it was seen as important to attract large chain stores to the area. So it was with much excitement that on July 26th 1952, Bletchley District Gazette announced, ‘ Woolworths coming’. Despite a lack of suitable provision for the store, Woolworths came to Bletchley and in the early days it was situated in a pre-fabricated building so that it could start serving shoppers whilst arrangements were made for the erection of a permanent building. It was hoped that the fact that Bletchley had a Woolworths would encourage other firms to consider opening stores there.
Another important part of the shopping culture of the time was the weekly cattle market, taking place where the Sainsburys supermarket and car park now stands. This Thursday market was a popular social occasion and also included a general market that sold everything from wristwatches to garden vegetables situated between Greenways fish and chip shop and the Working Men’s Club. However, as Bletchley grew it began to drift away from its agricultural roots and this cattle market was to become obsolete, leaving behind a general market that would struggle to find a permanent location for many years.
During the 1960s Bletchley continued to be used by the Greater London Council as a relocation area for the London overspill. This led to further growth of Bletchley, particularly in the Water Eaton area. As they were built, many of Bletchley’s estates were provided with their own small local shops. The Saints Estate, the town’s first London ‘overspill’ estate, was provided with a cluster of shops in St. Mary’s Avenue and similar local shops were provided for the Lakes Estate, Bletchley’s last ‘overspill’ area. Every town, however, needs a proper shopping centre so focus for development of retail space remained on Bletchley Road.
By 1965, a survey of Bletchley shopping centre saw a retail turnover in the region of £4,250,000, which was considered below average when compared with similar size towns. Provision of further retail was considered necessary to support a population of 42,500. By this point the “Bletchley area” had been pin-pointed as a possible location for the building of a new town so it was likely that further rapid expansion was on the cards. The original White Paper suggested that this new
town would see the area with a population of 100 000 by 1981, probably taking the shape of a figure of eight with two town centres, one of them being Bletchley. Shoppers in Bletchley at the time largely welcomed this news. Many of these people had only recently moved to Bletchley from London and they were looking forward to the prospect of having a greater variety of shops and somewhere to go in the evenings.
At this time, despite concerns over lack of provision, Bletchley Road was a vibrant High Street. Fine Fair and Elmo supermarkets, the Co-op, a small independent bakers, a Wimpey burger bar and Mokaris Café were just some of the go-to places to enjoy. It was even fit for royal approval and in 1966, Bletchley Road was renamed Queensway in honour of the Queen after she came for a visit.
With the building of Milton Keynes confirmed, in the 1970s Bletchley needed to step up to meet the shopping and leisure needs of the growing population whilst plans were drawn up to create the second centre in the new town model. The old central gardens, which dated back to the 1930s and included public parkland, tennis courts, putting green and an open air swimming pool (later covered) was flattened to make way for a new leisure centre. Additionally, a multi-storey car park was built straddling the newly constructed Princes Way.
During this time Queensway was blocked off so that it was no longer a through road, with traffic being diverted around via Princes Way. The Brunel Centre was built at the far end of Queensway, blocking that end of the road and an underpass was constructed under the new Brunel roundabout to help pedestrian access between the station and the shopping centre. The Brunel Centre was a swish new shopping centre, attracting important chain stores such as WH Smith and Boots. In addition, the largest Sainsbury’s supermarket in the country was built on the site of the old cattle market.
Since the closure of the cattle market in the 1960s, a general market had continued, being moved to various locations along Queensway. However, in the 1970s a new permanent plastic canopy was erected in a newly pedestrianised area further along Queensway. This all-weather protection was popular with the stallholders but unfortunately the location away from the new Brunel Centre meant that trade was slow. A few years later the canopy was badly damaged by fire and it was removed rather than rebuilt.
By this time the new shopping centre in central Milton Keynes had opened and Bletchley’s heyday had passed. During the 1980s the area went into a period of decline. By the 1990s Bletchley was recognised as being outdated and unattractive, with a declining market, and being increasingly characterised by discount and charity shops. It required investment to improve its facilities and to re-establish its place as the second retail centre serving the population of Milton Keynes.
In the early part of the 21st Century, the Local Plan sought to promote Bletchley Town Centre, to upgrade it, improve access and improve retailing. Amongst other things this was to lead to the demolition of the iconic pyramid leisure centre, the clearing of the old market site to create “Elizabeth Square”, and the redevelopment of Stevenson House.
Interestingly, when originally planning the building of a new leisure centre it was earmarked to be located on the west side of Princes Street, with its front entrance opening onto the new Elizabeth Square on Queensway. At the same time, Elizabeth Square was to be promoted as a focus of leisure and entertainment, with cafes, restaurants and bars around its edge and a seating and performance area in its centre. It was seen that the location of the old leisure centre on the other side of Princes Way and the vast expanse of car parking had separated the leisure centre from the shopping area of Bletchley. The new plans saw the bringing together of town centre shopping, eating, car parking and leisure facilities, providing a purpose and buzz to the somewhat neglected end of Queensway. At the same time, a new housing development on the site of the old leisure centre, complete with public garden, would bring more residents (arguably of a higher socio-economic class) into close proximity with the town centre shopping and leisure facilities.
In Queensway itself there was to be a co-ordinated plan to improve the appearance and practicality of the shops. Shop fronts would be tidied up, impractical small shop units would be merged to make bigger stores that would attract chain shops and the pavement would be improved and widened to both improve day to day shopping but also to allow the market to trade along the length of the street without becoming an obstacle. Above the shops, vacant floors would be turned into flats to encourage centre of town living and the provision of shops as a whole would be co-ordinated to ensure that a good and appropriate mix of shops occupied the high street.
At the western end of Queensway, plans were put in place to relocate or modernise the bus station, to redevelop the neglected Stevenson House into residential apartments, to open up pedestrian access past the end of the Brunel Centre and to create new public spaces in front of Wilkinsons, Co-Op and Stevenson House. In addition, a new residential area would occupy the corner of Princes Way where Kwik-Save, The Enigma Tavern and a Burger King restaurant stood, and a better quality car park would be built to serve Sainsburys and the Brunel Centre. Finally, there were plans to redevelop the Dukes Drive retail area into an area of attractive architecture that would properly signpost arrival into the town centre of Bletchley.
In the meantime, a proposal to build a new stadium for the MK Dons football club was also announced for the North Denbigh area. The proposal included a multi-purpose sports stadium, a community hub, conference facilities, an Asda Supercentre, including petrol station, a non-food retail store and a “Media Village” that included business space, hotel, health and fitness and restaurants. The development was seen to be a significant “people attractor” to Bletchley, with those people also making the short journey into the town centre.
Linked to this was the proposal to make alterations to Bletchley train station. The key part of this was to open up an eastern entrance/exit so that people would be encouraged to travel to Bletchley by train, particularly on match days, and would be able to easily walk to the new stadium or into the Queensway area. This was seen as a necessity to ensure that the stadium development increased visitor numbers to Queensway rather than just pulling people away from the centre of Bletchley to a new, modern and convenient retail area.
In December 2005 these ideas were adopted as part of the Local Plan to set out how Milton Keynes would be developed until 2011. In 2013 the Core Strategy was adopted and these are both due to be reviewed and replaced during 2017 by PlanMK. However, a tour of Bletchley today can plainly see that whilst some of the Local Plan intentions have been carried through, others have been altered and some have not happened. We also find ourselves amidst a “Fixing the Links” regeneration strategy.
Clearly, the old leisure centre and car park were demolished and replaced with a new facility as intended. Interestingly, however, the new leisure centre was located on the same side of Princes Way as the old one, despite plans to the contrary. Although its entrance is closer to the end of Queensway than the previous leisure centre entrance, it does not open out into Elizabeth Square as planned. Elizabeth Square was created as planned, with a tidied up paved area, planting, seating and bandstand. Today the businesses opening out onto it include takeaways and small grocery stores, mixed in with charity shops, barbers and estate agents.
Their target markets of low-income and migrant families serves a useful purpose but it’s a long way from the upmarket food, leisure and entertainment vision proposed in the Local Plan. More importantly, as part of the “Fixing the Links” initiative, only a few years after its creation, the square now has a one way flow of traffic running through it and more car parking and the relatively new bandstand has been relocated to Stanier Square at the other end of Queensway. Where once the closure of Queensway was seen as the way to enhance the shopping experience, now reopening it is viewed as the way forward.
Stevenson House has undergone the extensive redevelopment planned and is now filled with occupied residential apartments and has some small shops at its base. Behind this, the bus station was modernised rather than moved. Any plans to put housing on the corner have clearly been shelved as work is in progress to rebuild the recently burnt down Burger King and the Enigma Tavern and old Kwik-Save unit both stand sadly vacant. A smarter area of paving is now in place between Wilkinsons and the Brunel Centre and the car parks serving it and Sainsburys have been upgraded. Unfortunately, unforeseen by the people behind the Local Plan, the Co-op ceased trading in 2007, over 120 years after the first small Co-op shop opened in Bletchley. After such a long history in the town, its disappearance was keenly felt. Having stood boarded up and empty for more than six years, part of the building is currently occupied by Poundland, although this too is in the process of closing down. It is unclear whether the building will once again stand empty or if a new shop will open in this space, and if so what?It is certainly against the optimistic rejuvenation plans set out in the Local Plan.
Road users in Bletchley could not have failed to notice the extensive roadworks that took place for many months during 2016 to re-model the Brunel roundabout, between the end of Queensway and the railway station. This was part of the “Fixing the Links” regeneration strategy, designed to help the movement of people around Bletchley, particularly from the station to the shopping areas. Perhaps counter-intuitively, this included removing the underpass from beneath this roundabout that in the 1970s had allowed pedestrians to cross from the station. However, the underpass had been closed up for many years as it had proved problematic, not least because rain came in at one end, but also because its steep inclines were tricky to negotiate particularly for wheelchair users. Now pedestrians are encouraged across from the station by a selection of surface-level pedestrian crossings, significantly wider pavements and improved lighting under the railway bridge. The wall that once blocked pedestrian access to the Brunel Centre has been opened up too, allowing pedestrians to more easily complete their journey to the shops.
It is interesting to note, however, that despite plans, Bletchley station is yet to see an eastern entrance/exit. Instead, the entrance to the station faces out towards Buckingham Road and pedestrians still have to be quite determined to make the journey under the intimidating railway bridge and across the roads of the newly re-vamped Brunel roundabout in order to reach Queensway, the bus station, or indeed to head off towards the MK1 shopping development.
The MK1 shopping development can perhaps been seen as one of Bletchley’s recent success stories. It has kept to its plans and now boasts the largest Asda in the country, the always popular IKEA, plus a new cinema complex and a host of new chain retail stores and restaurants, and not least, a new football stadium. There are certainly plenty of reasons to head into this part of Bletchley. Sadly, without the alterations to the station, which were stressed as being essential to complete before the building of this retail area, it seems unlikely that many match-day goers arrive by train. And with chain stores and convenient supermarket shopping available in this part of Bletchley, it has left even less reason for shoppers to venture into Queensway and even less reason for chain stores to be tempted into retail space there. As successful as it is in its own right, without the train station alterations being in place first, it has possibly just tapped another nail in place into Queensway’s coffin.
It seems to me that Queensway and Bletchley in general has been failing to compete with the Centre:MK since the shopping centre was first established in the 1980s. I suspect many officials and community-spirited people who have an interest in Bletchley are frustrated by the continued trend for discount stores, charity shops and shops specialising in ethnic minority needs, not helped by whatever it is that causes co-ordinated plans to be altered or only partially implemented. The regeneration outlined in the Local Plan would have made a significant difference to Bletchley had the investment been there to see the whole lot implemented as a complete package and in a timely fashion. But given that this has not happened and that money has been spent in a piecemeal fashion to deliver a downgraded version of aspects of the plan, I now think it would be better if Bletchley stopped trying to compete with Centre:MK and embraced its own unique character. It might not be a prestigious shopping centre but it is nonetheless a useful one.
The original figure of eight model of Milton Keynes with two shopping centres has clearly not come about but that is not to say that Bletchley does not still have a place as Milton Keynes’ second major retail district. Milton Keynes has within it several distinct retail areas and each has its own purpose and draw. The Centre:MK attracts to it people wanting to shop in chain stores, almost in a mini version of London. However, it is not the sort of place you would go to if you just wanted to do a weekly food shop. For that we have the other shopping areas – Westcroft, Kingston, Wolverton and, indeed, Bletchley. People wanting to revamp their homes and gardens wouldn’t head for the centre either – instead heading for the Winterhill retail area or Bletchley. With the likes of Poundland, Pound Deals, Wilkinsons, Home Bargins, B&M, Matalan and TK Maxx all having stores in Bletchley, it is definitely the place to go if you like a bargain, and that’s even before you have seen what gems you can pick up in a charity shop.
It is true that a high street full of discount stores and charity shops is never going to look as neat, tidy and upmarket as a boulevard of top end chain stores but that is not to say that Bletchley is a bad place for it. It is clean, if a little tatty round the edges, and I have never felt any more unsafe shopping there than anywhere else. Personally I like the mix of shops – the unusual, the ethnic, the independents and the affordable – that you don’t get in CMK. I know what Bletchley has to offer and that’s why I choose to go there and, to be honest I go there far more often than I do to the shopping centre.
Three minutes and 44 seconds into this film you will see some clips of Queensway taken in the mid-60s and you will see that it is a busy high street. However, study these clips and you will soon notice that the streets are filled mostly with women and their babies and children. It may be the case that back then shopping in Queensway was at its peak and it may be that planners would like to see shopping at this level there again but it is clear that the people who shopped there in the 1960s just don’t exist anymore. We no longer live in the era of the housewife, spending her shopping days pushing the pram from one specialist retailer to the next down a high street. We live in the era of the working woman, busy people with cars who shop weekly in the supermarket or even order their shopping over the internet. Midweek daytime shoppers are predominately the retired, unemployed, students, self-employed or on maternity leave and what they need, above all else, is affordability. Thankfully that is what they can find in Bletchley.
With Lidl recently investing in expanding their store on Duke’s Drive to serve their community, it is clear that there is success to be had in Bletchley for the right type of retail. What would characterise a failing retail environment to me would be lines of empty shopping units, a feeling of entering a ghetto or somewhere you simply can’t buy what you want and need. Take a walk down Queensway today and you will see lines of occupied shops, an eclectic, yet useful mix of retailers, recognisable brands mixed with family butchers, greengrocers, florists, cake shops and coffee-shops, and a market trading four days a week. It is noisy too – with traffic, traders and customers – certainly not a ghost town. I’m not saying don’t continue to invest money in Bletchley. Recent investment is evident and has made improvements and continued work to keep things clean and tidy would be helpful. But it would be nice if people stopped putting it down and instead embraced it for what it is and the useful way its serves the community of Bletchley and Milton Keynes as a whole.