As you enter Poundbury, you might think you’ve chanced upon a typical poky old English town of meandering streets, sleepy squares, and old buildings – albeit one that’s bizarrely clean and orderly, lacks any street signs, road markings or electrical lines, and has no houses that appear to have been designed after 1920.
You soon sense the unsubtle presence of the man now known as King Charles III – who created Poundbury in 1993, wrote the anti-modern manifesto that governed its design, established the tight regulations that determine its appearance and operations and, until he assumed the throne last week, owned it outright.
A visit often feels as if you’re starring in some remake of The Truman Show, with the reality-TV producer replaced by the erstwhile Prince Charles and Duchess Camilla.
The town’s focal point is the grandiose Queen Mother Square, finished in 2016 and featuring a six-metre bronze statue of Charles’s grandmother. Next to it is a lavishly ornamented baroque building, resembling London’s Ritz Hotel, named the Duchess of Cornwall Inn, after Camilla, who personally opened it. The streets around the square are named after racehorses that belonged to his mother, the late Queen Elizabeth. Many of the kids go to Prince of Wales school, which he opened and visits regularly. And the main business in the square is a Waitrose supermarket, a chain famous for its exclusive deal with the former Prince of Wales’s estate to sell his range of high-end food products.
“Charles has an absolute passion for this place – he visits at least once a year, and spends as much time as he can with us,” says Blake Holt, a corporate human-resources executive who, like many of Poundbury’s almost 4,000 residents, moved here after retirement to downsize from his big country estate and live closer to his neighbours – in his case, in a large three-storey brick-and-flint Georgian-inspired townhouse. “It’s a very pleasant place to live.”
Poundbury offers a window into the mind of the new King. It was the controversial test bed for his outspoken ideas about architecture and urban planning, ecology and community. It has been a highly lucrative part of the portfolio of property-development and retail ventures that made up his business empire, now passed on to his son William.
And, you realize after spending a day or two here, Poundbury is meant to be a statement – about the importance of tradition and its place in a modern high-tech world, about the relationship between community and authority, and, by extension, about how Charles envisions institutions such as the monarchy, and imagines them functioning during his time on the throne.
When you enter Poundbury, the sign bears the words “Duchy of Cornwall” – which is confusing, because you’re actually in Dorset, two large counties away from Cornwall on England’s southwestern coast.
The Duchy of Cornwall is the feudal property-holding enterprise owned by the Prince of Wales, with land holdings all over England. In 1989, after a series of speeches in which he denounced modern architecture (and incidents in which he successfully lobbied politicians to cancel big projects by such architects as Mies van der Rohe), Charles published a book, A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture, that proposed a return to the neoclassical styles of the 18th and 19th centuries – which, he declared, were the only styles that reflected the “natural order.”
In 1993, he decided to use one of the Duchy’s big land plots on the edge of the historic town of Dorchester, population 19,000, to show off his ideas. He did so by letting property developers build homes, apartments, shops and schools, and sell the non-rental ones to their owners – but the Duchy owns all the public space, and the homeowners’ leases stipulate that they cannot break Duchy rules on everything from paint colours and claddings to number of tenants and possible additions, and that they must remain non-modern in appearance.
To live here is to live under Charles’s rules (it is not clear whether William intends to be more flexible). Currently, Poundbury residents are embroiled in a debate about windows: The Duchy says that only wooden sash windows are permitted. Many residents would like to replace theirs with vinyl or fibreglass windows, which are easier to maintain and, crucially, more energy-efficient – and Poundbury is theoretically a ecologically advanced town. So far, the Duchy is not willing to budge.
If that all sounds like the sort of condominium-board tiff that ties up the residents of middle-class housing developments around the world – well, yes, it is. And, once you get beyond its delightfully weird place-out-of-time appearance, it really is just a suburban property development, one conceived along the “new urbanist” principles that governed many suburban housing developments in the 1990s (higher population density, garage-shed laneways, etc).
“Personally, I like living here because you can live in a nice Victorian house that doesn’t have all the thermal and energy problems of a real Victorian house,” says architect Duncan Jagger as he picks up his two small kids from the Prince of Wales school. He’s not an anti-modernist, but, as he notes, neoclassical house designs and rural-village streetscapes have been a popular fashion in housing developments for decades, and master-planned towns are certainly nothing new in Britain.
“If it wasn’t for Charles’s name on it, this would just be Milton Keynes,” he says, naming the most famous of the planned “new towns” built along commuter-rail lines in the English midlands in the postwar years, often to a very high, albeit modern, architectural standard. “It’s hard to categorize it – it’s not a town, it’s not a city, it’s not a suburb – it’s simply a planned housing development on the outskirts of Dorchester, an extension of the town.”
For kids who’ve grown up here, Poundbury isn’t so much an idyllic experiment as a typically sleepy suburb, one where fun often means getting on the bus and travelling across the empty space between Poundbury and the larger town next door.
“It can be a bit of a ghost town sometimes – very, very quiet,” says Hannah Davis, 17, who’s lived here since she was 10. “I work at a café here, and people are divided over whether it’s just so cute and charming, or really boring and empty. But I suppose that’s just the cost of being Prince Charles’s place.”
That boring quality can be welcome to many – including the approximately one third of residents who live in some sort of “affordable” housing, including some social-housing flats. (British regulations require 10 to 12 per cent of units in new developments to be affordable; Poundbury exceeds this).
“The flats are better, but most important is you can go about at night, and people don’t try to start something,” says Kristan Best, 30, a pub worker who used to live in a public-housing development in Dorchester itself, which he said was noisy and sometimes violent. “People just know their place here. They don’t mess about.”
But Poundbury is bound to be judged differently, because it was meant to be a proof of one man’s values.
On one hand, it is a very progressive place by urban-planning standards. It is built to be very walkable, with a high population density, no yards surrounding houses, and streets designed to deter fast driving – there are no lines on the roads or signs beside them, so drivers have to concentrate. It is a mixed-use town, with retail and residential sharing the same space, including urban-style flats on top of shops. It is very ecological, with, for example, a regeneration plant that generates electricity from waste. And it’s theoretically “tenure agnostic,” so you can’t visually tell the social-housing flats from million-pound luxury homes.
At the same time, it is indeed rather stodgy and conservative aesthetically, though often in a way that makes it fun to observe. The oldest developments, dated 1994, are meant to look like the lovely nineteenth-century row houses of Dorset, including fake age damage on the walls. Later neighbourhoods look like the nicer parts of London, or the Georgian limestone buildings of Edinburgh, or even like Mediterranean villas – often on the same street. Many streets look like those anonymous, vaguely classical architectural features that appear on euro banknotes. Poundbury is full of fakery – classical columns, keystones, lintels and so on that are merely appliqués, without any structural purpose.
The most recent developments are meant to look like Victorian warehouse buildings that were abandoned for years before being converted to lofts – down to having bricked-up basement windows that appear to have been half-buried by decades of road construction. That clashes with the keystone bearing the Roman-numeral date “MMXV.”
And then there’s the new grandeur of Queen Mother Square. Its lofty colonnades and huge campanile-style tower look like nothing other than St. Mark’s Square in Venice, or perhaps a posh part of London that resembles Venice. “Can you believe this? It’s over the top,” says Anthony Thorpe, a retired software engineer who’s happily lived here for seven years, but finds the new buildings have forgotten the small-town feel Poundbury was meant to evoke. “I feel like saying, Now, Charlie, you have to remember that this is Dorset. It’s not London, it’s not Venice.”
Charles did believe that the wedding of aesthetic and organizational tradition with social progress would create a tight-knit place, on a human scale, that would foster a more harmonious community. And in the view of many of the people who live here, it has.
But the limitations of Poundbury are rooted in that very top-down, centrally planned model that Charles admires in so many spheres.
For one thing, despite intentions to the contrary, it’s ended up being very car-dependent. Queen Mother Square’s centre, potentially grandiose, is instead a huge parking lot, always full. The residential streets, to the disappointment of planners, are lined with parked cars – people are using their rear garage sheds for offices and hobbies, and littering the place with automobiles. That’s partly because there’s no train station here, only infrequent buses. It’s also because Poundbury, by order of its master plan, is segregated from Dorchester itself by a huge wild field (appropriately called the “Great Field”).
And the barrier created by that planned empty expanse, along with the considerably higher housing prices in Poundbury (current listings show two-bedroom homes for around $550,000 – very high by Dorset standards), means that Charles’s development hasn’t integrated itself into the town itself, either physically or socially.
Dorchester residents tend to look scornfully on Poundbury – in Mr. Thorpe’s words, “They say, ‘ah, a stuck-up bunch up there.’ When I tell the woman working at a Dorchester sandwich shop that I’m headed up to Poundbury, she laughs: ‘Oh, that lot – they’re a world apart, aren’t they?’ ”
The wedding of stodgy, timeless tradition and carefully planned progress – so central to Charles’s vision of the Crown, and prefigured in his experimental town – has not been a total failure in Poundbury, which is indeed a pleasant place to live. But it has indeed created a place that’s a world apart, disconnected by plan from the real world on the other side, separating the King’s people from the rest of us.