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A Princely Pioneer

5 minute read
Christopher Redman

Once upon a time there was a prince who unwisely confided to the media that while tending his beloved garden, he often talked to his plants. He also warned his future subjects about losing touch with their natural surroundings and their rich cultural heritage. But the people scoffed and said it was the fuddy-duddy Prince who was out of touch. And as for talking to his plants–well, they shook their heads and remembered the madness of the Prince’s forebear, King George III, who famously struck up a conversation with a tree that he had mistaken for the King of Prussia.

These days Britain’s Prince of Wales is still considered a tad eccentric: after all, who in his right mind would have lost the love of the fairy-tale Princess Diana? But increasingly, Charles Philip Arthur George Windsor (who is not only Prince of Wales but also, inter alia, Duke of Cornwall, Lord of the Isles and Great Steward of Scotland) is winning applause for his not-so-crazy campaign to combat what he calls “the wanton destruction that has taken place…in the name of progress.” For 30 years the Prince has been in the forefront of efforts to promote kinder, gentler farming methods; protect Britain’s countryside from urban sprawl; improve city landscapes; and safeguard the nation’s architectural heritage. And whereas his was once a lonely if plummy voice crying in the wilderness, the Prince has seen many of his once maverick opinions become mainstream.

Charles is not the first royal concerned about nature. Mad King George dabbled in botany when he wasn’t losing his mind or the American colonies, and Charles’ father, the Duke of Edinburgh, has long supported wildlife causes. But it is Charles who has become the crusader, with a vision of Britain that may border on the romantic but is in synch with Britons alarmed by what is happening to their green and pleasant land. He has the energy and dedication to get things done. “My problem,” he has said, “is that I become carried away by enthusiasm to try and improve things, and also feel very strongly that the only way to progress is by setting examples and then hoping others will eventually follow.”

An example people are following is organic farming, which Charles has adopted wholeheartedly on his own farmlands in the Duchy of Cornwall and surrounding his country home at Highgrove in western England. Charles once noted that when he decided to go organic, which means forswearing artificial fertilizers and pesticides, the experts were very polite, “but what they were saying about this latest demonstration of insanity once they were out of earshot can only be surmised.” Today the experts have been confounded. The duchy’s Home Farm near Highgrove is 100% organic and highly profitable and serves as a model for farmers around the country at a time when farm incomes are falling and organic produce is in high demand, fetching premium prices in shops and supermarkets.

“Seeing is believing” is one of Charles’ favorite sayings, no doubt repeated when the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture recently paid Highgrove a visit. And it’s a safe bet that the American visitor received an earful on Charles’ other farming concern: genetically modified crops. Once again the Prince has shown himself to be ahead of the curve. Back in December 1995 he pronounced himself “profoundly apprehensive” about the brave new world of genetically modified organisms and complained of the “confidence bordering on arrogance” with which they are promoted. The Prince practices what he preaches, and a sign by the lane leading up to his Home Farm announces that YOU ARE ENTERING A GMO-FREE ZONE. Charles’ philosophy is simply expressed. “We should,” he says, be adopting a “gentler, more considered approach, seeking always to work with the grain of nature in making better, more sustainable use of what we have.”

Charles is throwing himself into another pioneering project: a radical way to meet Britain’s need for new housing. Appalled by suburban developments made up of identical boxlike dwellings that eat into the countryside, the Prince is creating a model township called Poundbury on duchy land adjoining the town of Dorchester, south of Highgrove. The houses–220 so far, with an additional 2,280 planned–are not identical but come in different sizes and styles that pay homage to traditional English architecture and materials. Some are privately owned, others government subsidized. All are highly energy efficient. The town layout prefers people over cars: front doors give onto streets that are safer for children because the roads are too winding to allow cars to speed. A 1998 British government report cited Poundbury as an example for future developments because its efficient use of space permits a higher population density, thus fighting sprawl. As a skeptical journalist noted after touring Poundbury, “the Prince of Wales has got it right.” To which the Prince could reply, “Seeing is believing.”

–Reported by Helen Gibson/Poundbury

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