Prince Charles's model village is taking shape in deepest Dorset, but experience shows it is hard to conduct social engineering through architecture. (Dorset, England)

Author/s: Paul Barker
Issue: July 18, 1997

Thomas Hardy's heart is buried at one end of Dorchester, in Stinsford churchyard. Or a large part of it is. Rumour alleges that a cat ate much of it after it was cut out. (The body went to Westminster Abbey.) Here he is surrounded, as he wished, by other Hardys. But the buzz in the air isn't bees. It is the ten-year-old Dorchester bypass. A cluster of new executive homes is being built outside the church gate.

Prince Charles's heart, or at least part of it, lies at the other end of Dorchester. Here is his new urban village of Pound-bury, intended to back up his architectural criticisms, and show how we could all live now. "The Prince is quite obsessive about it," they tell me in Dorchester. "He's down there almost every Friday."

A less friendly voice adds: "It's all he's got left, isn't it, apart from Camilla?"

It must have been his Friday off when I was there. The Duchy of Cornwall offices are in a farmhouse where, eight years ago, I watched "HRH" (as his staff call him) helicopter in to launch the project. I saw no sign of him this time.

I reached Poundbury from Stinsford round the bypass. It is not, in fact, a village. It is a new suburb of Dorchester, on the town-edge farmland nearest to the brooding neolithic ridges of Maiden Castle. No one else would have got planning permission. "But at least," a hostile Modernist murmurs, "someone is getting the chance to build what he wants."

What that is has greatly changed. The first design, by Leon Krier, caused an outcry locally. It looked like an Italian hill town. Poundbury is a long way from that now. Most houses are like a Dorset village: two-storey cottages with small back gardens. Every so often, for contrast, there is a sunburst of classical architecture. The grandest of these (paradoxically?) houses a hi-tech "enterprise centre", motto: "New Technology with Purpose".

For the moment Poundbury is tiny. The recession held it back. Though Charles is Duke of Cornwall, the Duchy is a separate legal entity. It has a duty to nurture the estate's economic interests. So far 120 houses have been built. Another 80 are on the way; so is a town square. About a fifth of Poundbury will be for rent, from the Guinness Trust housing association.

The only way to tell the tenures apart is to peer into back gardens. In pursuit of some ideal of over-the-garden-wall chats, the social housing has much lower fences. Everyone seems to get on: "the Ford Escort class and the Volkswagen Golf class", as one of them puts it. "After all, we both go round the bypass to Tesco's."

The happy feeling of being a pioneer, and the sheer joy of being in the middle of the Dorset landscape, help to override the usual English social obsessions.

Houses sell fast. The current phase costs between [pounds]75,000 and [pounds]139,000. I thought there would be a lot of long-distance commuters, but most Pound-bury people work fairly locally. (A future building phase includes more workspace. In Dorchester a huge new hospital is being created. Both will help.) The main risk is of becoming a retirement village, like all too much of the Dorset countryside. About a quarter of the houses have been sold to the retired or redundant. This proportion is sure to rise.

I would have liked to see Poundbury built in the middle of Dorchester, on some of the many acres devoted to bleak car parks. Dorchester has the same urban troubles as many other market towns. Hardly anyone lives in the centre. The streets are as dead as a dinosaur at night, apart from bands of roaming drinkers, going from pub to pizza house, and back to the pub.

What strikes you at Poundbury, first, is the smallness of everything: gardens, houses, and the "village" itself. (Is it built to Charles's own human scale? The Windsors are not a hefty family.) But next, and most important, is the sheer quality of the work and the materials. It will be an attractive place to live. It is already having an influence. I met two Berlin estate agents, depressed by the tackiness of much British house-building, who had come to see something better. Who cares whether its aesthetics are "modern" enough or not?

One good analogy is with the honourable English tradition of model villages and suburbs. Not Bourneville or Port Sunlight, built by philanthropic industrialists, but the early Garden Cities (Letchworth and Welwyn) and Hampstead Garden Suburb, built with the intention of bringing the classes together in attractive, vernacular housing. (The fact that this target was missed only confirms how difficult it is to conduct social engineering through architecture.)

An even more precise analogy is Bedford Park, London's first garden suburb, and a masterpiece of the Arts and Crafts movement. The less arty mocked it:

Now he who loves aesthetic cheer And does not mind the damp, May come and read Rossetti here By a Japanese-y lamp.

Poundbury, I'm told, already has a surprising number of watercolourists.

COPYRIGHT 1997 New Statesman, Ltd.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group




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