The Prince shares his thoughts on urban and rural redevelopment projects and his broader vision for Britain
To enter Clarence House, the official residence of The Prince of Wales in London, a short carriage ride from Buckingham Palace, is to step backwards in time. I have been shown into the Morning Room on the ground floor. The powder blue hues, the black and white photographs, and 18th-century porcelain from The Queen Mother’s collection point to an earlier age of deference and order. The silence, apart from the ticking clocks, is deafening.
This is The Prince of Wales’s first in-depth interview with a journalist in five years, and it is the climax of an elaborate courtship. (The Prince is notoriously wary of the media.) Our aim was to coax The Prince to talk about his numerous but curiously little-known urban and rural redevelopment projects in Britain and celebrate them in a special issue of House & Home. We also wanted to probe the future King on the question of leadership, not on pesky matters of foreign affairs (his views on Vladimir Putin are by now well known) but on his broader vision for Britain.
After several delicate overtures, I received an invitation to Scotland to observe The Prince in action at one of his favourite retreats: the estate of Dumfries House, the exquisitely restored Palladian country mansion and centrepiece of one of his most successful experiments in “heritage-led” regeneration.
Upon arrival one early Friday morning in May, I knocked at the wrong door of the mansion and was greeted by a friendly Scottish woman servant: “Good morning, Sir, are you here for the squirrel symposium?”
“No, I am not here for the squirrels,” came my reply, “I am here for Prince Charles.”
That surreal exchange prefigured a fascinating day on the estate. (I gave the afternoon symposium on the endangered red squirrel a pass.) It was an essential introduction to The Prince’s work and also to the man himself, now 65, who, in his own self-effacing words, has been “around a while”.
One month later, coincidentally on the day after King Juan Carlos of Spain announced his abdication, I am ushered into the Yellow Drawing Room on the first floor of Clarence House to take my seat on a dark cream sofa alongside The Prince’s formidable communications secretary, Kristina Kyriacou. A manservant arrives with a tray of coffee and tea. He directs me to place the bone china cup of char on a nearby table, well away from The Prince, who is wearing a double-breasted suit and City black shoes.
Our 50-minute conversation begins with Dumfries House. The Prince intervened in June 2007, mobilising a consortium of charities and heritage bodies to purchase the house, which contains the finest collection of Thomas Chippendale furniture in Britain. It was a bold move, coming just before the outbreak of the global financial crisis, and attracted some controversy because it involved The Prince using a £20m loan from his charities. The money has since been repaid, but has the overall gamble paid off?
“I do think it is beginning to achieve what I had originally hoped,” says The Prince. He highlights the good works on the estate: the restoration of the house itself and its 2,000 acres of gardens; the creation of an outdoors centre; a cookery school; and soon-to-be-converted cottages into guest rooms for weddings. These form part of a comprehensive business, social and environmental approach designed to kick-start regeneration in impoverished East Ayrshire, where mining communities once flourished.
“Just by getting things done on the estate, by bringing the house back to life, by starting to build different new things and do up buildings, using them for skills training purposes and raising aspirations and self-esteem – all the things that I wanted to do – bit by bit the atmosphere, that feeling or whatever begins to spread locally. Hopefully, it gradually starts to feed into rising levels of self-confidence.”
Dumfries House is employing and training many young people who come from families with three generations of unemployed. The boys and girls visibly warm to The Prince. He is on first-name terms, knows their families and monitors their progress from apprentice to (usually) full-time employment. He is a good listener and his attention to detail, said to have been inherited from The Queen Mother, is striking. He peppers staff with questions, from the precise placement of trees to the correct pruning of the rhododendrons.
The Prince’s ambitions for reviving the community are practical. He is creating an engineering centre at Dumfries House to revive skills in an industry that he considers vital to the country. Inspiration came from a workshop he convened for headteachers from all over Scotland. “There was this extraordinary feeling among the teachers that engineering is dirty, filthy and manufacturing was dead and gone, all that. So, funnily enough, these workshops helped to bring greater awareness to the possibilities and potential.”
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