Our pints correspondent took the train to Poundbury for King Charles’ coronation.
It feels a bit like a film. You step off an empty, single-decker bus onto the edge of an empty, misty town square. As it pulls silently away into the abyss, you’re confronted with a vaguely arts-and-craft monolith with a fake bell tower, the gabled awning a distant cousin of an out-of-town Tesco megastore. Visibility is poor, but in the distance you can just about make out the looming nine-foot bronze frame of a war hero, perched broodily on a plinth of Portland stone. Walk closer and from the fog emerges a grimacing five-storey neoclassical nightmare and a weird, yellow porticoed palace. It’s Islington, it’s Versailles, it’s Legoland. Except, over the other side of the square is the unmistakable pistachio signage of a Little Waitrose. The bell tower’s a bridal shop. The palace is a block of flats. The war hero is the Queen Mother. Confused? Welcome to Poundbury.
Much has been written about the first foray into town planning of King Charles III, né His Royal Highness Charles Mountbatten-Windsor, Prince of Wales. It’s either a utopia or a twee hell, depending on who you read. But here’s the top line: the genesis of Poundbury came about in 1987, when West Dorset County Council decided to expand westwards into the fields from the county town of Dorchester. The land had been, since the reign of Edward III in 1337, Duchy of Cornwall land, but rather than sell up to the council for a generous price the Duke of Cornwall, Charles – who had long had an interest in urban development and architecture – agreed to work with them to build his vision of England: a return to tradition, a reaction against estate modernism, the wet dream of a thousand Quinlan Terry fanboys and internet edgelords.
Like every good town, Poundbury needed a place for the local workers to congregate after a long hard day at the coalface. So Charles built two: The Poet Laureate, which opened in 2002, five years after the initial phase of the project began; and The Duchess of Cornwall Inn. Camilla’s Bar was finished in 2016, with the first pint of grog poured lovingly by Her Royal Highness herself for the King who, according to the Duchy of Cornwall’s website, remarked – presumably with the aghast ghost of Kenneth Williams lurking just out of shot – ‘God bless her, and all who drink in her.’
It was outside The Duchess of Cornwall Inn that I found myself, lightly coated with the chalky drizzle of the Dorset Downs, on the afternoon of Charles’ coronation. The Fence had dispatched me and three other sots to Poundbury like faithful pinthounds to assess the scene on the big day, and soak up both the ambience and the local refreshments.
The Duchess is undoubtedly an impressive building. It’s massive. The attention to detail on the outside is staggering, from the Duchy shields adorning the tops of the dormer windows and the prim and proper pilasters to the lion grotesques littering each level. By contrast, the inside of the pub looks like a Wetherspoons. The copper taps, high ceiling, wobbly wooden table and weathered leather seat combo – it’s all there. Even the ambience was as morgueish as a Spoons, which wasn’t helped by the wizened geezer in the corner playing The Connells’ ‘74-’75 on an acoustic guitar. Considering it was coronation day, the vibes were rotten. No flag-waving bonhomie here – there wasn’t even that much interest in the fag end of the ceremony itself, which was playing out on mute on the Samsung on the side wall. Still, I’d come all this way, and I was desperate for something continental and crisp in the 4.9% ABV region, so I ordered my pint, ascended the spiral staircase and sat down at the nearest, wobbly, table.
When I arrived at yet another one of my achingly trendy north London house parties later that night, I was asked extensively about my trip. It sounds so uncanny, the literati replied in unison. That uncanniness was no better illustrated than in the interior of The Duchess of Cornwall Inn. Oil paintings of lords and ladies of yore filled the vermillion walls and intricate candelabras hung from the panelled ceiling. Except, take a closer look, and the paintings are prints; the candles are lightbulbs, with fake wax dripping down the sides; the ceiling is made of flimsy steel sheets. Were the paintings even real people? Or was it all a Midjourney night’s dream; an AI’s rendition of what portraits in a palace should look like? We sat in silence. A woman came and fixed the table. The guitar man started playing Elliott Smith. It was time to go to the next pub. As we left, we bumped into a camera crew from French TV station Canal+. They’d had the same idea as us and had been similarly unsuccessful, bar a pre-arranged interview in a local resident’s house. The rain began to ease off. Still, there was no one around: no group of mates looking for a Saturday afternoon spent laughing down the boozer, no young families off to the park. We pushed on.
After walking for ten minutes down a wide grassy knoll, past all manner of mishmashed trad architectural styles, we wormed our way into the cobbled alleys of Poundbury Phase One and to The Poet Laureate, just as the rain began to beat down again. The Google Maps images for the pub, being as they were composed entirely of plates of food photographed with the flash on, weren’t promising. But on entry it seemed we’d found the answers we were looking for. Look, there’s an avuncular landlord wearing a Union Jack bowler hat! There’s sport, albeit rugby, on the TV! There’s actual people, talking and drinking and eating and laughing together! I chatted briefly to the man behind the bar, who confirmed that they’d had the coronation on, as well as a live band, presumably not playing Everything Reminds Me of Her on repeat. The weather had scuppered BBQ plans, but even now, a few hours after the ceremony had ended, there was still a reasonable amount of families having a spot of lunch, although their number dwindled as the afternoon went on. Waiting for a round as the pub thinned out, I asked one woman at the bar if she’d watched the coronation.
‘We did! Although it was really an excuse to get down the pub and have a drink with everyone. Did you?’
Well, no, not really. We were storm-chasers, seemingly always 30 minutes behind the royal action. Our quest for Poundbury content hadn’t been the most fruitful, so it was decided that we should get back to Dorchester. Partly because there was a break in the rain and partly because the landlord of The Poet had claimed, when I asked if they were showing the Liverpool-Brentford game, that he ‘hates the Scousers’, before laughing it off and muttering something about not having Sky. I had assumed that there would be some kind of barrier between the old and the new on the walk back; some patch of trolley-stricken edgeland or open field acting as a kingly dividing line between the proper and the improper – but no sooner had we left the pub and turned eastwards, were we immediately in England again. Real England, not the grand palazzos and corniced terraces of King Charles’s traditionalist Albion, but the everyday meat-and-potatoes reality of this sceptred isle. England is a nation of cul-de-sacs; of sprawling, pebbledashed two-up-two-down suburbopolises that stretch out into the vast cirrused expanse; a playground for bored teenagers and their curtain-twitching antagonists; a privet-hedged dreamland that plays the same tune, whether its Becontree or Beverley, Bristol or Barrow. For all of the trad prettiness of Poundbury, this felt eminently more real and liveable. And the pubs, as we discovered, felt more alive.
I’d picked out The Bakers Arms on a pre-trip pub recce, and walking in I wasn’t disappointed. If I had access to the Crown’s wealth and an abundance of free time, this is how I would design my ideal pub: backstreet, carpeted, welcoming. A generous selection of drinks. Chatty locals. It was these locals that piped up as we sat down, eager to find out what four wet London blokes were doing in their boozer. I explained that we’d been in Poundbury for the coronation, but had found no one to talk to. Immediately, the handsome 40-something bald man to my left piped up:
‘The problem with the place is the rendering. They did it all on the cheap. If you walk round Poundbury, did you notice all that red and white running down the side of the buildings?’
‘Bad build that. It’s all well and good building these fancy-looking places, but if you cut corners, you’re going to end up with something that needs replacing in five years’ time.’
I never did get his name. But it turned out that my glabrous new acquaintance was a builder, and had worked on some of the initial phase of P-Town. He’d also since been back to fix the problems that those buildings had subsequently had years later.
‘It’s just a load of people who’ve come down from London who’ve moved in. There’s no real sense of community like there is round here,’ opined an older, gravel-voiced gent from Northern Ireland. He’d come over to Dorchester as a young man and never went back. And it’s true: from the Waitrose to the banning of satellite dishes to the Prezzoesque pubs, Poundbury offers a home for a certain type of person. According to the town’s website, 35 per cent of housing available is, or will be, that vague catch-all term, ‘affordable housing’ – whether that’s for rent, shared ownership or discounted sales. A noble enough percentage, but that’s before you consider most lower-income households’ barrier to Poundbury, the gas-guzzling elephant in the room: the car. It had been there with us from the start. Queen Mother Square? Car park. Grassy knoll? Notched with parking spaces. The fact that the bus that got us there only ran once every 30 minutes? Not conducive to an accessible town. For all of Charles’s environmentalism, Poundbury is beholden to the personal motor vehicle, and all the noxious, class-based trappings they entail.
We walked the ten minutes back from The Bakers to Dorchester South station. We had a three-and-a-half hour train journey ahead of us and several bottles of Smirnoff Ice and crisps to procure.
What did we learn? Well, Poundbury’s two pubs aren’t amazing. The residents didn’t seem all that arsed about the coronation, which perhaps reflects a wider national malaise in the midst of a cost-of-living crisis. The town itself was eerie. It really does feel a bit like a film set where all the grips and stars have clocked off for the day and left behind their cars. Poundbury is King Charles’s vision of how English towns should be. ‘You can’t buy history’, football fans often say about rival clubs who spend quickly and vastly in the hopes of becoming a European giant with real heritage. In much the same way, maybe you can’t buy the nuances and liveability of a proper English town, even if you are the King.