diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Head out of Dorchester up the Bridport Road, through the western suburbs, and at first all looks normal. The old town centre makes way for interwar semi-detached houses that could be anywhere in the country, in symmetrical pairs with cosy front gardens. But at the foot of a low hill two fairytale turrets poke up above the rooftops, marking the boundary of one of the most unusual housing estates in Britain. Ahead lies Poundbury, the architectural brainchild of the Prince of Wales, an urban dormitory village with the touch of a future monarch. Step across the boundary and you enter a very different residential world, but whether that's good different or bad different is very much a matter of personal taste.

Poundbury began as a glint in Charles's eye in 1987, when councillors announced their intention to extend Dorchester's built-up area onto Duchy of Cornwall land. The Prince appointed an architect to sketch out a masterplan in line with principles he'd established in a publication called ‘A Vision of Britain’, and work began on site in 1993. The Bridport Road was diverted to the south of the 400 acre site, and development continued in waves across former grazing land, indeed continues to this day. The intention was always to create a high-density pedestrian-friendly urban extension, not a twee village, and to mix all kinds of homes so that the divide between affordable and unaffordable didn't stand out. At the start of this year Poundbury was home to 2500 people, with plans for numbers to almost double by the time the project wraps up in 2025. And by that time either the Queen will be 99 or Charles will be King, in which case presumably he'll have more pressing ceremonial to be getting on with.

The first development quarter was intended to set the tone for what followed, and had the greatest royal influence. A semicircular plot was laid out with cottagey lanes and alleyways, relatively closely packed, around the focal point of Pummery Square. In pride of place is the village hall, raised up on stone pillars to resemble some medieval marketplace, and with free parking (for up to four hours) on the piazza out front. You won't need that long to visit the Village Stores, these merely a Budgens, though probably the most over-the-top Budgens you'll ever see. The (only) local pub is The Poet Laureate, unexpectedly named after Ted Hughes rather than John Betjeman. And behind a run of boutiques is The Octagon Cafe which... ah, appears to have closed for good last Saturday, and Jane and the Team would like to thank you for all your support and friendship over the years. Not everything in Poundbury is picture perfect.

Phases Two and Three run alongside the old Bridport Road, relandscaped and reimagined as a quiet backwater where cars are tolerated rather than encouraged. The buildings here are more varied, more jarringly unusual, and generally taller. The best I could think of to describe the architectural style is a cross between Bavaria and Portmeirion, as if the Child Catcher or The Prisoner could come bounding out of a chocolate-box sideroad at any time, but that's too extreme a view. Indeed Poundbury's not unattractive, neither is any building over-fussy, and there's definitely an eye for detail. But there is a sense that the estate is teetering on folly, and probably falling on the right side of the dividing line.

You get a decent-sized home in Poundbury, with your own front door and a parking space or three out front. A lot of the homes are tucked off down sideroads, in courtyards or down snickets, with shops and services clustered here and there. I was struck by the over-representation of lifestyle boutiques, it being much easier to buy a floral dress or a designer gift than a Mars Bar. There are far more bridalwear shops than a place this size should be able to support, but also at least two bike shops, and a number of service outlets which cater for an ageing population. An artisanal bakery has set up home in the centrally-located Butter Cross, but as for finding a bag of chips anywhere forget it, so what the socially less advantaged members of the population do for sustenance and entertainment I have no idea.

To the north of Poundbury's hexagon is a wide-open piazza called Queen Mother Square. One day it'll boast a statue of Charles's nan, but for now it's just a large car park surrounded by imposing facades and a building site. Dorset's first Little Waitrose lurks in the huge town-hall-style edifice to the northwest, and there's a garden centre in pride of place to the south. But it's the construction site that currently draws the eye, this the beginning of Poundbury's North-East Quadrant which'll eventually run almost all the way down to the Roman Road. A giant arch awaits some Trumptonesque tower on top, while the steel skeleton of a new office block reveals the ugly truth that most of Poundbury's larger brick buildings aren't what they appear underneath. When the final quadrant is complete, Queen Mother Square will be the focal point of the entire development, a resolutely 18th/21st century version of a town square. But for now you can walk right up to the edge of Phase 2, stand by the fence and stare out across unbroken fields where sheep graze, toward distant hills.

Poundbury's an odd experiment, a Georgian throwback with a modern twist, the sort of place you can probably only propel through the planning process if you're heir to the throne. It's not a pure reflection of Prince Charles' true desires, indeed the only building over which he had full architectural control was the neoclassical Dorset Fire Service HQ at the far end of the town. And it appears to have attracted a more affluent, older demographic than the original blueprint might have hoped, setting it aloof from the neighbouring estates of Dorchester West. But Poundbury's fate is more success than failure, I'd say, particularly in proving that residential architecture needn't all look the same. Indeed we could do with something this visionary in London, creating high density neighbourhoods with character, rather than the bland default glass and steel carbuncles overrunning our city.

My Poundbury gallery
There are 20 photos altogether [slideshow]

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