A visit to Poundbury

Poundbury has been variously dismissed as ‘fake’, ‘Truman Show-esque’ and pretentious, and, admittedly, my first glimpse of Prince Charles’ new village seemed to bear out those opinions. Having squeezed through the narrow main street of Dorchester, which seems to have changed little since Thomas Hardy modelled Casterbridge on its winding roads, I entered Poundbury up its main street. Building sites and dusty new walls put me in mind of Barrett Homes, and the little squares seemed devoid of life. Yet I was soon to feel ashamed of my hasty judgment when I joined my fellow members of the Young Georgian Group for a talk and tour with Ben Pentreath, architectural designer and one of the principal drivers of the Poundbury vision.

Those who despair of young people today should take heart from the Young Georgians—a group of people under 30 who share a passion for architecture (and are not averse to country-house weekends augmented by lashings of Pimm’s and Champagne). Some 30 of us gathered in Poundbury’s main square, where sunlight slanted in to light up a spacious, beamed room set above a colonnaded space in the style of a traditional market square, where all kinds of events from art exhibitions to weddings take place. Ben began by speaking about the sprawl of the housing estate, in particular American suburbia (suggesting, strangely, that because Americans rely on the car for absolutely everything, those living in such areas will simply starve to death once petrol is used up).

Such suburbia has an extremely low population density and almost no amenities—few retailers want to open shops or pubs in an area where people are going to be in residence for such a limited proportion of their day. He explained that the idea behind Poundbury is that everything one needs should be a mere five-minute walk away—so one can walk to work, go to the pub for lunch, pick up groceries from shops in the square and walk home. Amazingly, it seems to work, and the passion and belief behind the plans is palpable.

Wandering around the streets, we were passed by people walking their dogs and small boys on bicycles—the running joke was that Ben had slipped them tuppence to appear thus, and an extra pound or two to say thank you when we got out of their way! Yet people genuinely seemed happy, polite and friendly. Contributing to the feeling of slightly Roald Dahl-ish unreality, there is a real live chocolate factory close to the centre, where residents work after dropping their children off at the nursery. The street leading uphill from the chocolate factory does suffer from a slightly unhappy selection of buildings, with pretty stone cottages jammed up against an ugly expanse of brick, but the views on the far side of the Dorset hills are glorious. Poundbury’s jumble of architectural styles does sometimes jar, but it works much better when the planting has matured and the stone has weathered. The town will never feel perfectly authentic, but it is attractive and welcoming.

After a delicious lunch in the pub (which was snapped up recently by a brewer for £850,000) we crossed to the new part of Poundbury, still partially a building site. Ben’s neo-Georgian crescent is extremely attractive and, apparently, cheap to build and very eco-friendly. Eventually, it will mark one end of the grand main square, known as Queen’s Square, aggrandised by a huge colonnaded building by Quinlan and Francis Terry which is still in the planning stages. Sadly, this end of town has been severely damaged by a combination of poor planning and health-and safety—a Georgian balustrade on a red-brick building has been hideously enlarged to meet the requisite height of 1.1 metres until it looks like, in the words of a true lover of architecture, a ‘monstrous carbuncle’ sprouting from the wall. Around the corner, a street that will be one of the principle thoroughfares leading off Queen’s Square, suffers from all the criticisms with which Poundbury has been bombarded. A poorly constructed Bavarian-style building looks confused and meaningless, the windows of the terraced houses opposite too small, and the whole street is so wide and empty it reminds one of exactly the kind of suburban street Poundbury is trying to escape from. Halfway down on one side is a mock converted stone barn, which was very expensive to build and is supposed to look as if it has been there for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, it simply looks out of place. If the Georgians had been building a grand residential street such as this one, they would have razed everything to the ground and built anew. This could have been a beautiful road like Pulteney Street in Bath, and it is such a shame to see something so ugly and ill-conceived in such a prominent position.

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Nonetheless, despite the odd aberration, Poundbury is a success, and its central ideas are ones that should be at least considered, if not adopted wholesale, by all those involved in fulfilling the reputed need for new housing. Visit www.poundbury.info for more information.