Saturday saw me tootling off to meet a select few from the RNA Dorset Chapter. I’m honoured to be allowed to still attend as I’m now in Devon (although only just). Lots of members live in north and east Dorset and often meet in Bournemouth which is a bit too much of a trek for me. I’ve mentioned before what a surprisingly large county Dorset is. Add in poor public transport, heavy tourist traffic and one main west to east (or east to west, depending on your point of view) A road it can mean hours of driving to get anywhere.
Even so, it was no hardship to drive along the coast road, with the sun sparkling on a vividly blue sea on one of the first truly warm days of spring. Everything had greened up so much, it hurt the eyes to look at the bustling hedges with their frothy cow parsley.
My destination was Poundbury. An odd place, there’s no denying.
Conceived as an experimental new town on the outskirts of Dorchester, it provided an opportunity to design a living space from scratch. The idea was to create an integrated town with mixed housing, business and retail units and to encourage footfall rather than car use. Heavily influenced by Prince Charles on whose land it’s built, the buildings are traditional and, from the outside at least, look Georgian.
I like it. I like the lack of road markings, the lack of signage. It makes it feel uncluttered and streamlined and – because it’s confusing to the motorist – makes the car driver slow down. The houses, a deliberate mix of social and privately owned, look gorgeous (and have prices to match, you don’t get much mock-Georgian mortar for your dollar). I’m less keen on the Royal Pavilion tower in the Queen Mother square which seems on too grand a scale.
I’ve watched the town grow over the years and, when house-hunting, one or two properties popped up in the search. I’m not too sure why I didn’t seriously consider one. There is now a supermarket, a couple of pubs and restaurants, a garden centre, shops and cafes. A couple of high profile businesses such as Dorset Cereals moved in, providing employment (although the cereal company has since moved on to larger premises in Poole).There’s a park and playing fields, and on the sunny Saturday I visited, it all looked glorious. With the wide open concreted squares and boulevards, the hot sun beating down and the odd whiff of sun cream, I could almost have been sitting outside in a Spanish resort.
But I couldn’t shake off the idea that it felt like a film set. I’m old enough to remember being terrified by the sixties TV series, The Prisoner, filmed in Portmeirion. Sipping my sparkling water in the sunshine and being stared at by the statue of the Queen Mother, I couldn’t help glance but behind me half afeared there was a giant ball about to give chase.
Poundbury divides opinion. Some love it (and it’s certainly a vast improvement on a new town being built near Exeter) while Stephen Bayley in The Guardian described it back in 2008 as, ‘grimly cute.’ Certainly the overly grandiose fire station is risible.
To keep to the vision, there are strict restrictions in place. No Sky dishes, no caravans or boats parked on drives and to paint your own front door you have to apply for colour approval from the Duchy of Cornwall’s estate. Some say the pedestrian only alleyways encourage anti-social behaviour and a recent survey concluded car use is higher than elsewhere in rural west Dorset. A shame as one of the design mission statements was to encourage people to walk more.
Maybe you can design the perfect town but it’s only as good as the people who live in it?
Still like it. Still think it’s weird though. Although, for me, a place has to have history for it to have soul. And Poundbury hasn’t got that yet. Mind you, if anyone wants to give me the five-bed mock-Georgian townhouse I saw on sale for £900,000, I wouldn’t say no!