A town called malice: How the Queen and Margaret Thatcher helped kill off Bletchley

Bletchley town centre is officially dead and buried, just like Queen Elizabeth II.

What do you mean you haven’t heard?

When we moved to the Buckinghamshire town in the 1970s it was a nice and pleasant place to live, and not at all coincidentally, close to my maternal grandparents in Aylesbury.

Other than the regulation every second Sunday visit to the gramps, for a change of scenery mum, sis and I would occasionally hop on the bus or train to Northampton — or sometimes Bedford, birthplace of Ronnie Barker 93 years ago tomorrow, as it happens.

For the record, the statue erected to commemorate the one Ronnie is in Aylesbury town centre. Sitting outside Waitrose in Exchange Street, the bronze looks up at the new Waterside Theatre as a nod to how his comic career began.

Indeed, the site was chosen over Bedford because Barker made his debut as a professional actor at the Aylesbury County Theatre in Market Square. Long-demolished, the theatre was next door to where a more contentious statue now stands – the Earthly Messenger re-creation of myriad David Bowies; the Dame another public figure with an even more tenuous connection to the town than Ronnie B.

Back to Bletchley then. 

This was the place where I saw my first film at ‘the pictures’ (Jungle Book); and even now I can recall like yesterday my parent’s distaste at the queues to see Grease, which stretched serpent-like all the way to, appropriately enough, the snake and pyramid-shaped leisure centre where Dad had taught me to swim.

I can also boast a vivid flashback to what seemed to be almost my entire infant school sitting obediently on the grass banks of Buckingham Road — close to the steps up to Bletchley train station — watching the Queen and Prince Phillip pass by as part of the Silver Jubilee celebrations in 1977. 

It’s true, she did indeed have a dazzling smile that seemed much less manufactured than her mother’s. Though even then, at my tender age (I was seven going on eight) there was a sniff of discontent: while everyone and their aunty was doing the clapping, cheering and waving thing I remember being disappointed the royal couple were in a maroon Rolls-Royce Phantom VI rather than a black one. That’ll be the same one Charles has been using since he ascended the top job then. Possibly.

I had a lengthy and slightly overdue phone conversation with my parents just after Queen Elizabeth’s funeral cortège left London for Windsor — another Home Counties town where we had family back then — though I didn’t tell them I’d been watching the TV coverage.

After a typical bloke-style chat with my father — not about car strikes but their dog mainly. Oh, and the flu jab, of which I’ve been advised to consider getting this autumn over any COVID top-up (thanks Nina) — the part-time politician Pafford offers to pass the phone over.

“Do you want to speak to your mum?”

“Well, it would be rude not to.”

Mother’s ready and waiting. 

“Hello!,” she beams.

“Hi Mum. Dad says that the Queen’s died?”

“Didn’t you know? Where have you been?”

“I’ve been away. There’s not been much in the news about it?”

“What? Are you…”

“I’m kidding. Talk about over the top! Seriously, is there nothing else going on in the world?”

We then have a debate about whether HM’s sausage-fingered son is going to be a good King and if the ‘blank canvas’ approach adopted by his mother is suitable for the 21st century.

In other words, king or ring?

I say that, as an avowed republican, I certainly don’t want a meddling monarch going around opining about all and sundry, irritating and upsetting people. They’re unelected and are there only by the will of the people. Even if the people are often brainless (hi Brexit!). The pen and ink footage evidence that he’s a pampered, petulant prat that displayed more ego in those few seconds of footage than the Queen did in her entire reign.

“I don’t think he’s going to be as popular as his mother, do you?”, asks my own mother, somewhat rhetorically. She is just three weeks younger than this person they call Charles III. 

After a brief debate over Doris versus Trussolini, I’m informed that Sainsbury’s, WHSmith and (gasp) even Boots have all recently closed and vacated Bletchley town centre for good.

Situated at opposite ends of the Brunel Centre — “the concourse” as we used to call it — that’s a bit of s triple whammy if ever I heard one. Barclays has also done a runner, Dad said.

The last time I paid Bletchley a visit, Queensway — the main shopping street to which the indoor Brunel Centre was a typically 1970s addition — was a forlorn jumble of charity shops and pound shops. 

It was a depressing sight. It used to be such a bustling street back in the day. The only hint of anything decent was a Costa Coffee (or “Costa Lotta” as I like to call it), but even then a bog-standard chain was typical of how the vast majority of Britain’s high streets have become monotonous identikit thoroughfares with the same old same old names cropping up all over the place.

Strange how in much of the continent that the UK has divorced itself from that expressly isn’t the case. Can’t blame that one on the EU then. 

In one of the earliest cases of retail park killed the traditional star, Bletchley has been in unmeasured decline the moment Central Milton Keynes shopping centre was opened in 1979. 

First there was a royal visit by Elizabeth II on 27 June — the day after I turned ten — who popped over after a tour around the nearby Open University, which was celebrating its tenth anniversary. Without wanting to get bogged down into party politics, like Milton Keynes itself the OU was actually a Labour Party creation founded under the instruction of the pipe-wielding PM Harold Wilson. 

Ironic how, other than the Blair era, MK has returned true blue Tories at the ballot box every time. Talking of which, puzzlingly, only three months later CMK was opened “officially’ (i.e. once all the stores were open) by the equally brand new Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, as if the PM was subtly reminding Her Maj who was really boss of the land.

That’ll be Thatcher then. Gawd, my folks loathed that woman. Though it’s funny how now they don’t (if ever there was a case of offspring subconsciously influencing parents that would be it), even if The Crown, artistic licence or not, has made pretty outrageous attempts to “imagine“ the conversations between the two female regnants.

Scores of shoppers with heavy wallets used to flock from all over the country to see this futuristic marvel, half a mile in length and at one time the largest covered complex in the entire United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Attracting the new and the extremely old, even Duran Duran and roller-skating closet Cliff Richard got in on the act, wanting to be seen shimmering and sashaying around this marvellous mirrored Mecca.

To put it bluntly, the appearance or patronage of these celeb sorts helped hasten Bletchley’s demise.

Ironically, ’79 was the year we left Bletchley and moved to a little rural village on the outskirts of the borough. Mum even helped hasten the defection by taking up a job at the brand new John Lewis, the southern tiled wall of which where the lovely Cliff would wheel himself to and fro while he was Wired For Sound.

In day terms, I returned to the town for two years of college in the mid-1980s, at leafy Bletchley Park — right next door to a mysterious half derelict site that locals whispered in hushed tones “things went on there during the war. It was all top secret”

Perhaps my parents were on to something.

Now an important heritage museum, BP had been the setting for the now-feted wartime Codebreakers headed by LGBT icon Alan Turing, and, with delicious coincidence, a place I found myself working at when the Berlin Wall came tumbling down.

As if to make it official that Bletchley was surplus to requirements, during her Platinum Jubilee of 2022 HM did something Milton Keynes has been coveting for decades: she granted it city status, making it the first and only city in the country of Buckinghamshire. The concrete cows were heard mooing in delight.

The moral of this tale?

I’m sorry I haven’t a clue, but if nothing else it’s a chance to share some lovely photos.

Mine’s a flat white.

Steve Pafford

And Remember This: Life in a Buckinghamshire town before Adam Ant is here

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