While driving to Carolyn’s house, I was chatting to my youngest daughter about how travelling out of London makes me feel as though we are going on holiday. After approximately 45 minutes we leave the busy – quite congested – M1 behind and take a country lane to Milton Keynes instead. Quaint little cottages, green meadows and yellow rapeseed fields meet our eyes. Somewhere along the line we seem to have crossed an invisible border and are now driving through a different country.
Driving into the new housing estate in Bletchley, Milton Keynes had the feeling of being abroad dissipating as quickly as it had appeared. I thought it looked identical to some of the new estates in the capital.
When Carolyn opened the door and greeted us in her all too recognisable North London accent, we may just as well have driven a mere five minutes up the road from Enfield.
Yet, by this point I am very curious to hear from Carolyn of how she has come to live in Milton Keynes, away from the place she grew up and lived most of her life. So, I ask Carolyn:
How have you come to live in Milton Keynes?
As an [Ofsted] inspector I did a couple of inspector jobs up here. My patch was fairly big and when I was covering someone, I visited Milton Keynes and around it. I noticed how lovely and green it is. I thought to myself, I could live here. I might decide to live here when I retire. As you do, you have those little dreams. That was the end of that really.
And then I had a spell of not being very well. I said to myself you need to slow down, Carolyn. Think about your health a bit more. I decided not to work in the school holidays. To go term-time only. George was still fairly young. I am going to miss out on him growing up. So, I decided to work less and then I thought…. Uhm…how am I going to pay the mortgage!
So, at that point I thought, ‘’it’s time to think about moving home and downsizing.’’
I started to look around where I lived. In Waltham Cross, Enfield, Edmonton, all of those areas. Everything I looked at I thought: ‘’What am I doing? This is really silly.’’
There was nothing that was even as nice as the place I was living in! And the place I was living in was pretty…you know… needed some work…having been a single mum for so many years, there were things that needed doing.
I lived in a nice house in a nice area, and I couldn’t find anything, even smaller than I had that was as nice and would do for me.
It had been in my head that I really liked MK, so I had a chat with my mum. I asked: ‘’What do you think mum? You know, it is leaving all my family and friends behind.’’
She went: ‘’Oh no, if you want to do it, go and do it.’’
That gave me the oomph to do it.
But also, that year was the year of the riots. [August 2011] And George had been away at the time. I remember thinking how glad I was that George was staying with his Dad. It made me realise I don’t really want to bring him up here, in a place like this.
So, there were loads of reasons behind it and eventually I kind of looked around MK and found this place!
I liked this place straightaway.
I wasn’t going for a new house. I told them [Estate Agents] no new houses as they are flimsy and no 1930s as I have lived in one for so many years. I wanted something different. But they insisted on me seeing this house and as I walked in, I loved it. I fell in love with the space. This is the one!
That was it. It was all emotion after that. I was panicking a bit. What am I doing? I am moving away from my family, my friends. Carolyn, you are moving to a completely new city where you don’t know anybody. You are working in a job where you are very isolated. How are you going to do this? But I did.
You stepped out of your comfort zone.
Yes, it was. Completely. And I have to say, to this day I do not regret the decision.
It was a brave thing to do and I have to say I admire Carolyn for taking such a big step and not looking back, so I ask her:
How different is Milton Keynes to Waltham Cross, Enfield?
There have been some good points and some bad points that I have discovered over the years. Or mainly in the first year as I got used to it after that.
But what I really liked about it was…. Uhm…I think I felt I was just going through the motions in London. The city…my job took me into the centre of London and the city was built up and grey and urban…overwhelming and almost took you to being into a depressed state. When I moved out here – just driving through even the city – it is green. I think the colour green is a powerful thing because it lightens your spirit. It relaxes you and you don’t feel so stressed and anxious. And I felt that straightaway when I moved out here. So that was a really positive experience for me.
When I went out on inspections – I was still doing the same job then – I was driving through villages. You know really pretty country villages and I thought why did I not do this years ago! Because this is just beautiful. The journeys there and back were just lovely.
It’s slightly slower…the pace of life. Now it’s really slowed down as I am doing something completely different and I am not on a schedule. Even then when I was still doing the same job, it was a different pace altogether.
And what was nice about this house was that I finally had a room where I could shut my work away come evening. I could go in there on a Monday morning – that was my office – and on a Friday night I could close the door and that was it. I wouldn’t be thinking work all the time.
One of the negative things was…One of the things I decided to do to make friends was to join a community and I joined a church and I found there…because the city is not as diverse as London maybe…I don’t know…I found their views were still quite narrow on some subjects and I got quite angry about that. I thought, these are people … I don’t want to associate myself with.
I got George into a youth club and some of their teachings in this youth club I thought: Actually, you are so out of date! I was saying to him, you come from this family and you know how this family thinks.
I did build a really good friendship group quite quickly, with people who do not have these views, and that helped me over that first hurdle and I kind of blossomed ever since.
And then I knew I had to make another big break but found powerless to do that until George went to university. I needed to know that he was secure. Once he was at university, I made my next big break, which was to leave my solid, reliable job to something less predictable which again has changed my life completely.
So, from living in London feeling stuck to the situation I am living now, I am feeling like a completely different person.
It feels as though Carolyn is confident in the decisions she has made so I ask her:
Do you feel you are more in control now?
Yes, completely. Things like finding time in the day to walk the dog, you know I can do that. When you are working for an organisation like Ofsted or Tribal you are dancing to their tune all the time. You are working over your hours and you never quite get the time to do the things to stay healthy and well and balanced and all the rest of it. That’s lovely knowing that I can take my well-being into account and look after myself in whatever way I do now.
There are things that I miss! I miss my family, but it is also good to have that little bit of a distance from my family.
My priorities have changed now my children are grown up and moved on and there is more of a focus on meeting up with them on the weekend rather than my brothers and sisters. So, everything has changed to the way it was a few years ago.
I am wondering whether she finds any similarities between living in Milton Keynes and North London. Can a place really be so different that you become a different person?
In what way is Milton Keynes the same as where you lived before?
I would say there are very few things the same as where I lived before.
It is a very different city as to how it is laid out. I can get from one side of the city to the other side in 15 minutes. You can’t in London. You can barely drive 5 miles in that time- if you are lucky, because you are sitting in traffic. Everything is within grabbing distance here. I don’t spend a whole day going to IKEA. I was there last night and it took me half an hour to go and come back. You can’t do that in London.
It is set out on a grid system, with lots of roundabouts everywhere which means if there is traffic on one side I can avoid it by taken the next exit. You never get stuck in traffic for very long.
We have a very good bus system and they [MK council] are very modern in their thinking, so they encourage Electric cars. They have lots of EV points to plug in. and they are into driverless cars. We also have robots that deliver pizza in this city. Little white things with a flag sticking out.
They have a redway – which goes under the roads- for bicycles and pedestrians. There are lots of parkland and the redway connects the green spaces.
The city is cleverly designed and when you drive around you may not see a single person as it is designed with all these paths underneath the roads. It doesn’t reach as far out as Bletchley. Bletchley is older, pre-1940 and doesn’t have the same feel as the centre of MK.
This two-tier road system is almost a red flag for me. As a true Londoner I am thinking: ‘’this can’t be very safe’’.
Is there anything in particular about the planning of Milton Keynes that makes things difficult?
On the whole I think it is all positive. I have heard that those red roads can be quite isolated and people are being mugged. But that happens in every city, isn’t it?
We do have a huge homeless problem in MK. It has gone up all over the country, so it isn’t just MK. But MK is one of these places between North and South and you kind of end up here.
I am probably more conscious about the homeless as I have volunteered for the first five years that I lived in MK for a homeless charity. They [the homeless] do use the kind of tunnels and isolated routes under the main roads to find shelter and put up their tents, because it’s dry.
Do you think it is more of a symptom of what is going on in wider society than a particular problem to Milton Keynes?
Yes, there is that. MK has been mentioned on the news as one of the cities with the biggest problem. I think MK had to wake up to the problem and identify it, because there is so much green parkland and bridges where the homeless are living.
I know that Carolyn has changed her job since she moved to Milton Keynes and I am wondering whether the city has an influence on what she is doing now.
Does living in MIlton Keynes have an influence on the work you do?
I always knew I would end up fostering children. That was a life plan I had made years ago. I didn’t actually think I would do it. As the years went on, I thought it would be nice if I could, but I’ll never get to the point that I will be able to do it and then I did. The house itself lends itself to the job, but had I stayed in London I don’t think I would have done it.
My life principles and beliefs and views are very much the same as before. I don’t think any of that has changed. I am still the same person, but I guess a more relaxed version of myself. It has allowed me to show a more compassionate site of myself than I was able to be in London. I had more of an armour in London. I have been able to be more myself in Milton Keynes. I can show my tolerance.
When I go out with the dog everyone says hello to you. You meet lots of different people. It is a completely different environment. It resembles when I go to Ireland and everyone is kind to everyone.
My favourite thing is my morning walk, looking at the ducks and going to the park. When I was growing up my ideal place to live was a version of Ireland; the fields and the greenery and I feel I have found a bit of that in Milton Keynes.
And with that I leave Carolyn. I had a distinct feeling that here was someone who found life in North-London not quite working for her. When she made the brave decision to look further afield she had no idea how it would pan out. A change of environment gave her the courage to change her job, her lifestyle and ultimately take control of her life and her wellbeing. She hasn’t looked back.