What an amazing place, I thought, believing I had arrived in Dorchester; so many classical buildings, everything so pristine, such wide streets, no litter anywhere, and it’s so easy to park, at least on the wide, gravelled side-streets. Visiting Dorset on the south coast in August, being able to park came as a big shock. I wandered around for a while in a happy daze, though slightly perplexed by a grand Palladian palace on a hill nearby which I’d never seen in any photo.
The centre of the town appeared to have been hit by a small radiation weapon; fine 18th century terraces stood perfectly preserved but the population were obviously all dead. There were no shops visible in the main square. No cafes, pubs, bars. Dorchester is a famous old market town, but there were no tourists, and no noise from birds, children or dogs.
My friend and I were uneasy and confused until we spotted a ten-foot-tall, shining black cast-iron statue of the Queen Mother, and a flat notice saying ‘Queen Mother Square’. We were in Poundbury, somewhere on the outskirts of Dorchester. There are no road signs at all, and nothing to guide you there on the map. Arriving unexpectedly creates a bit of a ‘Brigadoon’ effect, both unsettling and unreal.
Even the seraphic smile on the round face of the QM did not reassure us. Something was wrong; the grand palace on the hill turned out to be the HQ of the Dorset Fire & Rescue service. We found a garden centre and a tiny Waitrose, but they were tucked out of sight. There is a plan to build a pub/hotel opposite the Queen Mum’s statue, but it’ll be called after the Duchess of Cornwall, her sister will design the interior, and its facade is going to replicate the Ritz in London, once the QM’s favourite town watering-hole.
Built by Prince Charles in the early 1990s, Poundbury was intended to be his idea of a model village; it looks as if it’s been emptied out of a royal toy box on to the west Dorset countryside. For all the ancient stone and slate used on the houses, a lack of anything truly old or original is disconcerting. Perhaps we have become too used to the filth, ugliness and squalor of our modern towns, but this was like wandering around a 400-acre garden on an aristocratic estate, a rich man’s folly, dominated by the effigy of his beloved grandmother. I’m sure we’d all like to put up statues to our mothers, grandmas and even our cats, but something about seeing her there seemed embarrassingly personal. Obviously the whole place belongs to him.
Apparently 2,500 people do live there, with plans for 5,000 more residences, but strangely no school. Perhaps the prince doesn’t like children. Some critics are afraid that the carefully planned town will soon be sprawling as far as the Iron Age hill fort Maiden Castle, ruining the Dorset landscape, just like any other high-density modern housing estate. But unlike the average anodyne housing estate, Poundbury is very personal. Phase two of the plan includes ‘Strathmore House’, named after the Queen Mother’s father, the 14th Earl of Strathmore. It will be a replica of Buckingham Palace, with eight apartments costing £650,000 each. There’ll also be an upmarket retirement development called Bowes-Lyon, the QM’s family name.
The prince originally had some kind of rural workers’ village in mind, but even a future king has not been able to solve the problem of affordable housing against the force of capitalist greed; only 35 per cent of the properties in Poundbury are in that category, and prices there are now 29 per cent higher than anywhere else in Dorset.
I was sad to find Poundbury little more than a museum dedicated to the Queen Mother, a solipsistic fantasy, as I am an ardent monarchist. I still feel angry about the death of Charles I, and like Prince Charles I detest most contemporary architecture in Britain. I feel Richard Rogers should be tried in The Hague for crimes against humanity, or at least against the citizens of London. I mourn the loss of our capital’s skyline, sold off to developers first by Ken Livingstone, who wanted to turn it into Manhattan, and then by Boris Johnson. I want an end to the constant building in steel and glass. But poor Prince Charles’s answer to all that, despite tons of finely dressed local stone, has somehow failed.
Our next king, now approaching 70, has created a grief-for-his-Gran theme park replete with fake domes and empty towers. There aren’t even any bats because there is no genuine belfry. He is, of course, a well-meaning man, very like George III whom he closely resembles. But there is nothing about him that speaks of the viable future. He has always looked old, even when he was a student at Cambridge – not his fault, but he somehow remains redolent of the 1950s or perhaps even earlier. There is also the memory of his selfish adultery, when he set up with Camilla in his beloved Highgrove (which he must surely be very reluctant to swap for Buckingham Palace), abandoning his wife and sons in Kensington.
That blot on the landscape of his life is apparently going to be commemorated in the new Poundbury pub named after Camilla. The fact that Charles can plan such a thing suggests a distinct lack of reality in his outlook. Pubs are usually called after popular monarchs or raffish characters. Perhaps he doesn’t realise that most of us are not sure that she should ever be Queen.
We all quietly wonder what will happen when Elizabeth II dies, and it is increasingly obvious that her eldest son should hand the throne to his son William. That won’t involve the breaking of any sacred vow; the Queen is an anointed monarch and will continue until death. The succession can pass easily to her grandson. Unlike Charles, who has been beached by history – again, not his fault – William offers youth, vigour, a young wife and above all a growing family.
The Cambridges present the essence of freshness, optimism and cohesion; a view offered in the early 1950s by the Queen when her children were very young, before they all became so distinctly odd, perhaps reflecting their repressive upbringing and a sadly restricted gene pool. We must go back to the early marriage of Queen Victoria to find another William and Kate, and a similarly blazing vision of the Royal Family as a healthy, wholesome middle-class family.
Victoria didn’t disappear like most of the other reigning monarchs in Europe after the revolutions of 1848 because, unlike them, she reflected bourgeois tastes rather than remote aristocratic sensibilities. Her image still appeals, currently winning her a successful soapy Sunday night drama on ITV and a new film starring Judi Dench.
Victoria and Albert’s popularity was assisted by paintings by Winterhalter and Landseer which were as influential as current celebrity magazines and TV shows. Although facile celebrity is now the main attraction in our popular culture, the idea of Christian family life expressed in images of the contented royal couple, their infants and dogs, was once a real and positive aspiration for many thousands of Britons.
We are not currently a happy nation, with Conservatives no longer ‘conserving’ and the Left embracing its radical past. Advanced capitalism has not provided homes and secure jobs. ‘Broken’ is an over-simple but popular term for us. Instead of social mobility, we are again divided by class, wealth, and now also by race and culture. Despite that, the Queen is generally recognised as a unifying force. The press ignore her deep Christian faith which she mentions in every one of her Christmas broadcasts, but keeping that at her centre she manages to remain all things to almost all of her people. Even Corbyn, heading his hordes of furious, frustrated young, does not dare to demand a republic.
Following her success, seeing William crowned in that moving medieval ceremony, which he is less likely to tinker with than his Dad, and images of a young royal family, would have a terrific impact and be an incalculable boost to the country. A new, accessible, untried family at the top might give young and old a feeling that they belong to something again. The kingdom would be united by a charming and kindly young man, his lower-middle-class wife, raffish brother and pretty children.
The ghastly, now tedious problem of Diana would finally be resolved, and all those images of post-war decline, failure and confusion, evident in Charles’s red, mournful face, could be expelled for ever.