Poundbury, Prince Charles’ most famous attempt at town planning sits quietly at one end of Dorchester. So quietly in fact, that we arrived there completely by accident. It isn’t signposted and doesn’t appear on any of the maps we were carrying, in an "if you have to ask you can’t afford it" kind of way.
It’s a "pioneering example of urban development" built on the pillars of ‘A Vision of Britain’, the Prince of Wales' infamous intervention into architecture. Designed by the European architect Leon Krier, planning started in the 1980s, building in 1993. Phases one and two have been completed and work will continue until 2025 when Poundbury will have space for 5,000 people.
What sets Poundbury apart is that it’s a new town built in an old way. The architecture is designed in a traditional Dorset style and built with local materials. In the centre, Pummery Square is dominated by the traditionally-styled Brownsword Hall (above). Across the street is Poundbury Village Stores, or Budgens to you and I but they’re not allowed to say that on the sign in case it ruins the effect. All aspects of town planning are tightly controlled, with any alterations needing approval from the Duchy of Cornwall. This extends right down to signage which has good intentions, but the lack of visual clutter is really weird. It's all a bit too tidy.
In a strange way, these attempts to ensure that the "character" of Poundbury remains intact ensure that it has none whatsoever. It's astonishingly bland, spectacularly banal. There's an amazing lack of patina - the sort of scuffing or wear and tear that makes a place look lived in. In fact, that’s probably against the rules. You get the feeling if anything did become worn a little man would scurry out to touch it up again. As a result it doesn’t seem real, more like a model village than an actual one.
Instead, the “character” is planned in, and sticks out like a sore thumb. Period elements like bricked up windows (a feature of old English houses during the era of the Window Tax) look really hokey. In Dinham Walk there’s a decorative fountain that wouldn’t look out of place in Portmeirion. Prince Charles was greatly inspired by Clough Williams-Ellis’ fantastic Welsh village and it really shows. The difference is that Portmeirion pulls it off. It has tremendous warmth and a gorgeous higgledy-piddledyness but here it’s po-faced and embarrassing. It’s difficult to work out why one works and the other doesn’t - maybe because Portmeirion doesn’t discriminate where it borrows from and was allowed to grow over time. Here it’s all a bit too exclusive and forced. Trying to keep the modern world at bay isn’t sustainable. An architectural flourish on a double garage just doesn’t seem right.
Despite having one foot in the past, a central tenet of Poundbury is sustainable development. The streets are designed to be “deliberately inconvenient” for cars to encourage alternative forms of transport. The main streets are narrow and congested so that’s that box ticked, but there’s no obvious convenience for the non-driver. Public transport is notable by its absence (and presumably runs on the inconvenient roads anyway, unless there are jetpacks) and there are so few amenities that a Poundbury citizen would almost certainly have to go elsewhere to work and shop. The gold-coloured gravel that covers the pavements looks pretty, and is very noisy to walk on (crime reduction, who knows?) but is a real pain for buggies, bikes and any other non-road user.
It’s so easy to knock it (and so much fun!) but there are some good points too. While the buildings hail from the same overall architectural style, there is a lot of variety in each street. There are terraces, semi-detacheds, town houses and flats all interspersed just like a real town. This is easier on the eye than the usual McMansion development so common nowadays. The problem seems to be at the centre where the public areas are totally devoid of life. It feels like somewhere waiting to grow into itself.
So, in short, wild horses couldn’t make me live in Poundbury but it’s a fascinating place to visit. It’s not the most exciting place to hang out but the important thing is whether or not it’s a good place to live. Only time will tell on that one.
More of Anne's Poundbury photos
How to get there
Poundbury is at the west end of Dorchester. It didn't appear to be signposted but is virtually impossible to miss. There's a great view heading east on the A35.