Innovation or eyesore? Inside the curious town built by our new King

·7-min read
Queen’s Mother Square, poundbury duchy of Cornwall travel day trips visit poundbury king charles towns uk dorset holidays - Alamy
Queen’s Mother Square, poundbury duchy of Cornwall travel day trips visit poundbury king charles towns uk dorset holidays - Alamy

“When I set out on this venture, I was determined that Poundbury would break the mould of conventional housing development in this country, and create an attractive place for people to live, work and play. Many people said that it could never succeed but I am happy to say that the sceptics were wrong and it is now a thriving urban settlement alongside Dorchester.”

I contemplate this statement, laced in the victorious tone you’d expect from a future King, while wheeling a pram through one of the country’s most talked about experimental towns in rural west Dorset. Having reached a certain speed, all the newness melts into a Bloomsbury-style haze of perfect proportions and symmetry, but the moment I hit the brakes, the youthful glow of the brick, the unusually clean windows and distinct lack of genuine antiquity hits. I’m stumped, unable to square the absence of dishevelled splendour with this era of architecture – like most Britons, I’m accustomed to a degree of dirt and decay in towns built several centuries ago.

Houses in Poundbury, Dorset, England UK king charles III holidays travel - Alamy
Houses in Poundbury, Dorset, England UK king charles III holidays travel - Alamy

But Poundbury is as new as Georgian gets. Conceived back in 1989 by the then Prince of Wales, the pioneering 400-acre project, which marries sustainable philosophy with architectural conviction, was helmed by distinguished urban planner Leon Krier. Krier and his team were tasked with the not-so-easy job of fashioning an autonomous (and not incongruous) extension of Dorchester on a patch of Duchy of Cornwall land that adhered to the historical county aesthetic, as well as the future King’s unofficial blueprint for this venture, ‘A Vision of Britain.’

It’s in this 1989 book that King Charles first ruffled the feathers of modernists, arguing for the preservation of distinct character and tradition, and the practical as well as psychological impact of reverential (and beautiful) architecture. Like Poundbury, the book sheds light on the monarch’s key values.

King Charles Poundbury - Alamy
King Charles Poundbury - Alamy

The first, and perhaps the most important, is looks, all of which, according to HRH, must honour Dorchester’s historical aesthetic. Beyond its Georgian keynote, Poundbury draws inspiration from other grand architectural epochs. The vast Corinthian pilasters lining the yellow, neoclassical facade of Strathmore House feel more Catherine the Great than Hardy’s Wessex, while to its right, the equally hefty Duchess of Cornwall Inn, with its layers of intricate arched windows, riffs on Palladio’s Convento della Carita in Venice. Then there’s the imposing Royal Pavilion, the jewel in Poundbury’s polished crown, whose opulent blend of Greek revival and Roman arcaded architecture reference the styles of John Nash and Sir John Soane.

poundbury architecture duchy of Cornwall - Getty
poundbury architecture duchy of Cornwall - Getty

Among locals, there’s a feeling that Poundbury began life more in tune with the rural surroundings, but that the arrival of palatial buildings in the subsequent construction phases took people by surprise. “Some people say the properties around the fire station and the Queen’s Mother Square are a little over the top,” confided one resident. There are other grumbles, with clauses in the covenant preventing residents from visual wrong-steps such as painting their doors the wrong colour or, God forbid, using undesirable flowers in their front gardens.

The second principle is integrated social housing. Rather than pushing social housing to the fringes of town (a la Paris), Poundbury absorbs them into private housing pockets, until they become indistinguishable from one another. Despite occasional reports of petty crime and vandalism, there is an overwhelming feeling that this resulting mosaic has been a success. Nevertheless, a 'them-and-us' mentality is at play in other ways, with the old town of Dorchester  – connected to Poundbury by the causeway-style Bridport Road – often perceived as smug and superior in its authenticity.

There’s also a distinct lack of youthful residents. Bar the odd family piling into Waitrose or the Great Field’s elaborate playpark, everyone seems to sport a silver top. “It’s great for retirees looking for a nice area or those who have already bought houses, but not so great for young people trying to clamber onto the property ladder, who are being priced out,” another local told me.

poundbury village dorset former prince of wales - Getty
poundbury village dorset former prince of wales - Getty

The third principle is a pedestrian-friendly setup, and roads loop around the key public areas rather than slicing them apart. It makes life tricky for drivers, however, and Poundbury’s maddening roundabout system tends to swallow you up for a few bemusing minutes before spitting you out on the wrong street. The ubiquitous gravel paths – the Capability Brown kind that King Charles is no doubt accustomed to – are another bugbear, if only for those pushing prams.

The final principle is the blending of retail, offices and public areas. There are upsides to this. Car use is lessened, for example, with residents able to walk to work or the supermarket, while even the smallest craft workshops can do business in the town’s most attractive faux-Georgian blocks. But with no clearly defined high street and cafes tucked away amid offices, it can be discombobulating, and Poundbury lacks the beating heart around which most towns coalesce.

“It’s all very grand,” remarked one local largely fond of the experimental village, “but its centre has kind of ended up being Waitrose and a car park.” Considering the Duchy of Cornwall’s partnership with the high-end supermarket, this may be no accident, but it's certainly a paradox for its car-free founding philosophy to contend with.

What struck me most about Poundbury is its ability to elicit strong opinions. For every negative sentiment – the writer Stephen Bayley was particularly scathing, calling it a “sterile, suffocating dormitory town which we are told is the prototype for all our tomorrows… an insult to contemporary possibilities” – you’ll find somebody fulsome in their praise.

Queen Elizabeth II Duchess of Cornwall Inn royal visit Poundbury days out - JUSTIN TALLIS
Queen Elizabeth II Duchess of Cornwall Inn royal visit Poundbury days out - JUSTIN TALLIS

“Overall I think [the King] has done a brilliant job and he’s rattled the cages of modernists responsible for dire development in other parts of the UK, such as Milton Keynes [in Buckinghamshire] and Bracknell in Berkshire,” said a Dorchester resident.

Their comment touches on a contradiction that lies at the very heart of the Poundbury project. Its road and building names speak the language of a feudal age, of Coach Houses and Buttermarkets, while its social philosophy feels remarkably progressive and utopian, where digital agencies share work spaces with solicitors, and the environmentalism our King is renowned for remains front and centre. Such a blend of traditionalism and progressive thinking endures as the village moves into its final development phase. Whether the King will continue to display the same enthusiasm towards this urban experiment with its completion slated for 2025 remains to be seen.

I was initially sceptical, and made Truman Show comparisons, but having mercilessly teased my husband for spending Saturday mornings there with my daughter, with the West Country his oyster, enjoying the stellar new playground and the trendy Pavilion in the Park cafe, I’m now a convert. It’s easier to do a food shop in Dorchester, which is closer to our village, but I keep finding myself in Poundbury, participating in the pastiche I had mocked. Why? Because in its weird little way, it’s actually rather nice.

poundbury days out - Jay Williams
poundbury days out - Jay Williams

Where to stay when you visit

The Kings Arms, Dorchster (thekingsarmsdorchester.com). This recently refurbished 18th-century coaching inn, with a good bar and rich Thomas Hardy heritage, sits on the main stretch in Dorchester’s old town.

The Duchess of Cornwall Inn, Poundbury (duchessofcornwall.co.uk). To soak up Poundbury’s faux Georgian trappings of roll-top baths and wood-panelled rooms, with a sprawling boozer just downstairs.

The Acorn Inn, Evershot (acorn-inn.co.uk). A ruddy-faced pub in the nearby time-warp village of Evershot – a 16th-century exhale following a safari-style tour of Poundbury.

Do you think Poundbury is a mark of innovation – or just an eyesore? Please tell us in the comments below