As you approach Dorchester from the west, you see a dramatic sight: a fire station that looks like a design from the era of George III. The royal connection is real: this is Poundbury, the model village created by Prince Charles to bring to life his dream of building new communities using traditional architectural styles.
Charles famously campaigned against modern architecture in the 1980s, describing a proposed extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. He made those comments in a 1984 speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects – and incidentally compared the design to that of a municipal fire station. We now know what Charles would like a fire station to look like. The speech killed the proposed design.
Charles later said that he didn’t intend to drag Britain back to the 18th century, or to begin a style war. “All I asked was for room to be given to traditional approaches to architecture and urbanism.”
He had the chance to practise what he preached in Dorchester. The Dorset planning authorities saw Poundbury as a perfect location for new houses for the county. The Duchy of Cornwall, which he controls, owned the land and was able to commit to a decades-long master plan drawn up by Luxembourg architect Léon Krier featuring traditional designs.
We first visited Poundbury in 2009. We enjoyed lunch at the Engine Room cafe, which was a relaxing place to take a toddler. When we returned this week (with that toddler now 12 years old) the Engine Room was as good as we remembered it, despite the complications posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. (The staff are lovely.) And Poundbury’s early buildings are now looking more natural with 25 years of weathering taking away the new-build look.
Above: images of Poundbury
I really like Poundbury. Most of the architecture is pleasing and the layout of the village is attractive, with curved streets and vistas. There are plenty of community spaces – such as Pummery Square, pictured earlier in this post – and over a third of the homes are affordable housing, a higher proportion than most new estates. This isn’t just a dormitory development: there are shops, cafes, a pub and workshops, and over 2,000 people work in the village. Until recently, Dorset Cereals had its factory in Poundbury, before moving to Poole.
I also like the subtle way in which the designers have made Poundbury a welcoming place for pedestrians and cyclists. There are no road markings, which naturally makes drivers cautious. The road layout encourages exploring on foot or two wheels. And the hidden car parking – for example, behind Woodman Court opposite the Engine Room – avoids pavement parking which is such a menace for wheelchairs and pushchairs in many towns.
This is also a place to reflect. Wandering through Poundbury on August bank holiday Sunday I spotted this quiet garden, sponsored by the churches of Dorchester. It reminded me in a way of Postman’s Park in the City of London – a place to pause and contemplate. Opposite is an attractive playground that we discovered in 2010. I confess that Owen and I had a go on the seesaw, despite our combined age of 68…
Since our last visit, the area north of the Engine Room has been developed as Queen Mother Square, named after Prince Charles’s grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. This is where my appreciation of Poundbury falters. The architecture is pretentious and out of keeping in a small town. It’s the fire station blunder again. I presume that Prince Charles felt the Queen Mother’s memory needed a pastiche of Buckingham Palace. (And only something that grand could command prices of £800,000 for a two bedroom flat.) It’s a shame as the rest of the village feels right.
The most pretentious building is Strathmore House, on the east of the square. It’s the work of Quinlan Terry, who designed Richmond Riverside in London. (I work in one of those riverside buildings.) Terry’s work has been criticised as a pastiche, so it was ironic that he was asked to design for Poundbury, which has been unfairly criticised as a fake. A glance at historic Dorchester’s town centre would have shown that this kind of architecture was misplaced in Dorset’s county town. And I hate the lazy English habit of naming places after the royal family: apparently Charles insisted that the pub in Queen Mother’s Square should be named after his wife’s title, the Duchess of Cornwall. How depressingly predictable and feudal.
But these are quibbles. I still think Poundbury represents a noble attempt to create an attractive place to live and work that is in keeping with Britain’s rural traditions. I would happily live there if I were based in Dorset. And it is still growing. We could see the signs of further expansion to the north of Queen Mother Square, with a magnificent view north towards Charminster
As we returned to Prince Charles’s model village this week, I remembered a project I was involved with when work began at Poundbury. Back in 1990, Eagle Star Insurance unveiled plans for Micheldever Station Market Town. The intention was remarkably similar to Poundbury: to recreate a traditional market town to provide desperately needed new homes. Eagle Star produced a memorable advert to explain why a new town was preferable to expanding countless villages: a lovely spot rather than an ugly rash.
Micheldever Station was, and is, a small community around a railway station, as the name suggests. It’s no beauty spot. Bill Bromwich, the quietly spoken project manager for Eagle Star, was an immensely likeable colleague who won respect through the campaign, including this interview in The Independent. But the campaigners won the day – unlike in Poundbury, where the power of the planning authorities and royal authority won the day.
Dorchester remains one of my favourite English county towns. It has the timeless appeal of Thomas Hardy’s Casterbridge, as I blogged this week, and Poundbury has added to its charms rather than diminishing them. That is a tribute to Prince Charles, Léon Krier and the forward-thinking planners of Dorset 30 years ago.