Making my way through the handsome boulevard of gardens that underpin this experiment in town planning, I remembered reading that this was the place that inspired Milton Keynes. As claims go, this is perhaps on a par to being the band who inspired Coldplay.
The main run of gardens continues almost out of sight, the arterial road split either side of it, and thus diminished and subservient to the green space. Branching off to my left at the point where a grand fountain marks the junction, another run of gardens lead up to the combined shopping centre and railway station. This is the town centre, arrayed loosely around the greenery like a much loved and oversized woolly jumper. I sat on a bench and watched the world go by. A few benches along, a man enjoyed the simple pleasures of slowly releasing rizlas into the gentle wind and watching them float away, one by one. A small boy ran up to a litter bin, regarded it fiercely for a second or two, declared it was “A well laid trap!” and ran off.
This was Welwyn, then, peaceful, gentle, prosperous, uncanny and preposterously hard to place.
The gardens sang with hedge trimmers and leaf blowers. Teams of orange-vested men combed down the rows of plump hedges, overlapping clatters and hums as council issue trimmers rose and fell to the same pitch. There wasn’t much point busking with them at work, so I wandered, quite at peace in gentle sunshine. My notebook and fiddle case drew the attention of a man in a trilby, who announced himself as Justin. He was also writing a book about England, and had caught the train that morning out of London on a whim. He affected a false serenity, sitting on a bench with a studious calm that merely underlined an inherent restlessness. His was a semi-fictional epic and already 1000 pages without end in sight. It was difficult to watch someone struggling so hard to convince themselves they were relaxed. I wondered to what extent I was looking in a mirror.
“I’m enjoying the journey” he told me, and I believed him. Even a park bench in a foreign town was too much like settling down. He moved on and I never saw him again.
The garden workers gradually arrived at the end of the final hedge and piled up on the concrete square before the shopping centre as if falling off the end of a conveyor belt, seemingly unsure what to do next. In the new found silence, I went for a busk, picking an odd corner between two walking paths. Welwyn is spacious to the point of being sparse, and you end up playing into the great void if you’re not careful. I learned to face the shops for the acoustic rather than stand in front of them. It went well. School children found change, mothers stopped to introduce youngsters to music. A jogger extended his exertions to perform an astonishing lycra clad sword dance right in front of me, jogging clearly having already rendered him far past the point of self consciousness.
Out of town insurance salesmen worked the street in small gangs, one a father and son combo, using the young lad to draw the attention of polite old ladies. It always looks like a confidence trick to me, even when it isn’t. I’m immediately mistrustful of street sales, and worried about the demographic they seemed to be targeting.
I made a decent £25 in a little over an hour at the end of the day and looked forward to the morning.
At 10am, my chosen spot was already occupied. A good sign, as if the locals played there, that meant I’d judged well. A guitarist called Paul was at work, and he sang with a wonderfully melodious voice that filled the open space. I got a coffee and listened. He was making enough for his train fare and he’d be off. Maybe an hour? No pressure from me. The gardens ask you to amble about, from one semi-formal section to another. Residential roads branch off, with vast hedges square and fat from decades of careful maintenance.
New towns are misjudged places. It’s the newness we hate, when the work is that of a designer, unsmoothed yet by the folk process of a thousand home-owners with different aesthetics, budgets, and priorities. A new new town jars the senses, and induces the same feeling of helplessness and unease that many find in IKEA or as I discovered in the strange village of Portmerion in Wales, where beautiful though it may be, the collision of oddity and conformity left me feeling like I was wandering uninvited through the architect’s mind, afraid to touch for fear of triggering some sort of chain reaction.
A single new house in an old town is immediately part of a warming diversity. A new estate, or whole new town is a great disconcertion, until enough people have lived in it to give it the natural diversity that calmness craves. Here, the formal gardens and plantings have grown imperfect and crooked. Welwyn has bedded in now. No two bits are quite the same any more, and that’s as it should be. In perfect newness, you are the impediment, the unanticipated rogue element detracting from the design ideal. In the diversity of a mature town, your oddness is just one among many, and not so likely to result in questions being asked, curtains twitching, officers of the state just ‘checking’ if everything is quite ok.
The humanising effect of time and countless cumulative little individual choices and acts of God have weathered the planned rigidity of the place and I liked it and felt unjudged. The long boulevard of gardens that split and lesson the roads, rendering them subservient to the walker were bright with birdsong. Catnip and lavender tumbled and bounced with countless excited bees. Roses were tidy and alert, and quietly tucked away, a woman sat sobbing on a bench.
I thought about asking if she was ok, but she’d hidden herself away and whatever her problems, it seemed unlikely to me that a big ginger bloke suddenly rocking up was going to be the answer.
Back in town, a traffic warden was writing a ticket for a BMW parked outside Costa on a double yellow line. A woman came running out;
“I’m sorry, I’m pregnant and I was desperate for the loo. Please don’t give me a ticket!”
And much to my surprise, the traffic warden said;
“Ok, that’s fair enough. Have a lovely day.” And destroyed the ticket.
Everything was just so. Smartly dressed and well scrubbed school children walked past, oblivious to the world, unafraid of any danger, their noses buried in novels. Even a beggar chose to address me formally;
“Excuse me sir, I don’t suppose that there’s any possibility that you could perhaps consider seeing if you could spare…” before arriving at the usual “…any change?”
It was all immaculate. The gardens in full summer bloom, full of pollinating insects, bright flowers, perfect hedges. Each shop a going concern with a decent hum of people. A kind and respectful populace making a good life for each other.
How I longed for a yob, a dickhead, a lager drinking oaf with a foul mouth. A heavily tattooed man in a vest with a volatile dog on a string. How I wanted to round a corner and see a pile of discarded bin bags and broken bottles, and to hear a vulgar, weed smelling car drive by with the windows down and something loudly distasteful on the stereo. But instead, another perfect day slowly unfolded before me.
Welwyn was not a town likely to spawn a musical genre, it seemed to me. I couldn’t feel that sharp edge that demands art be made. I saw no sign of the counter-culture, the unfeedable need to stir and provoke. But people are people, so where was it? I walked down another immaculate residential street and found myself imagining a different Welwyn within those private detached walls, where ever such nice people with perfect lives, successful children, diverse and fruitful pension portfolios, would close the door on another gentle, ripened day, and descend to colossal, perverted sex dungeons to exorcise the demon of self imposed repression. Consenting adults suspended in awful contraptions, hovering at the edge of sexual ecstasy, not quite able to reach the crossword puzzle. This person coming towards me, look at him in his nice jacket, almost certainly a massive pervert.
There must be something, surely? Otherwise what’s it all about? Where’s the spark of human curiosity?
But as ever in my own wild fantasies, I was missing the point. I have a friend who lives in Milton Keynes. A creative, expressive, artistic friend, who needs her home to be a haven, with birdsong, walks in the trees and peace, so that re-charged, she can get out there and be her vibrant self.
Welwyn is like being on retreat. A mere half hour from London on the fast train, it’s a place of safety where folks can recharge their batteries in peace for another slog at it tomorrow. Where the elderly can retire in comfort and without worry. Where children can grow up safely, well educated, better able to chose where and when to push their boundaries as young adults away at university. The art will come, but perhaps elsewhere, and perhaps more survivably.
I had another busk, lasting nearly three hours till a very late lunch was enforced on me by fat summery drops of rain falling weightily from a humid sky. In that time I made £50 and saw plenty more of life. An old couple stopped by me for a chat. He was blind, having been a concert violinist and forced to give up due to no longer being able to read the page.
“But now I go to a folk group, and we improvise without the music. I’m learning again but I’m back in love with it.”
Were they happy in Welwyn?
“It’s a good place. London is just half an hour. We’re happy here.”
I wished them the best and decided not to ask if they had a sex dungeon.
I paid in my coins at the bank. The young black man behind the counter asked me about my music, and I asked him about life in Welwyn.
“It’s quiet here.” he said, thoughtfully, smiling to think of it.
I made my way back to my car. Outside a very expensive townhouse, a young man carrying a picnic hamper and immediately followed by his girlfriend headed towards a top level Jaguar sports car they were surely far too young to be able to afford. Remarkably, both of them somehow managed to look exactly like Jarvis Cocker.
On the edge of the town centre, an old grain factory was completing a transformation into an art and information hub. I left this dreamlike perfection of English good taste in the uncanny valley and headed to my evening commitment. I’d been asked to give an after dinner speech for a business-person’s supper club at Missenden abbey, something of a new departure for me. But that’s a story for another day.
Thanks for taking the time to read this. My ‘Busk England’ project is entirely funded by what I make as I travel round. If you’ve enjoyed it, and would like to support me as I do this, please consider making a paypal tip to firstname.lastname@example.org or through the button in the archive – link here.
Treat it as you would a busker — a few coins in the hat all add up. Everything I get from this will be put back into the project. Ta!