Fron The Guardian blogs – Some commenters can’t distinguish their understandable contempt of royalty with the commonsense that Charles embodies in his agricultural philosophy concerning sustainability; its refreshing to have a person with so high a profile (even if that is an accident of birth) who is so supremely connected to the fundamentals of life.
By The Observer’s Tim Adams
There is a sign as you turn into the drive at Highgrove that reads: “Beware. You are entering an old-fashioned establishment”. After the best part of the week following the sign’s owner, Prince Charles, around the country – from Dartmoor to the Yorkshire Dales and back to Gloucestershire, him mostly in a helicopter, me mostly on a train – I have been struggling to work out exactly how old that “old-fashioned” is.
There has been a strong whiff of the early 1930s about a lot of it. At the bunting-festooned Great Yorkshire Show, HRH has been touring pig pens and tasting pork pies carrying a shepherd’s crook and surrounded by red-faced men in bowler hats. You half expected William Brown and the Outlaws to emerge from under a trestle table. At other times, though, as he has mused on the latent spirituality in hedgerows, we could be at the Wordsworthian beginning of the 19th century before steam engines and progress came along to ruin everything. The prince is frankly unapologetic about this. More than once I hear him say: “People think what I’m doing is about going backwards.” The implied subtext is: “And what on earth could be wrong with that?”
The occasion of this particular bout of time travel has been the inaugural National Countryside week, created to coincide with the first anniversary of the Prince’s Countryside Fund. The fund is designed to reweave some of the fabric frayed by urbanisation and industrialised farming; to encourage big agriculture-related business to support the rural communities that supply it and to attempt to reconnect city-dwelling families with farming and food production. Like all of the prince’s work, this is heartfelt, highly ambitious, energetically pursued on many fronts and beset with more than a few contradictions. He seems to feel both inspired and fated to have taken it on: “If I didn’t do it, who would?” he asks me, in passing.
At two events at Highgrove, during Countryside Week, the prince lays out the thinking behind the fund. At the first, a party to celebrate a spirited organisation called Garden Organic, which promotes urban horticulture, he politely declines his vice-president Raymond Blanc‘s invitation to join him in a chorus of the Marseillaise for Bastille Day and goes on instead to talk with some fervour about our role in the grand scheme of things. “Somehow we have been told, because of the entire education system and the current world view, that we can just go on depleting nature and exploiting it as we want to,” he suggests. “We need to reconnect young people with where their food comes from. We need them to grow something and eat it and not just get it from a clingfilm packet…”
The next day, meeting delegates from the Royal Agricultural College conference, he comes face to face with the clingfilm-loving head buyers from Sainsbury’s and Waitrose, as well as a range of farmers and foresters. Working groups are divided into four: “Trees”, “Upland/Lowland”, “Integration”, “Spirituality”. You have the sense they are talking the prince’s language. On a chair an important bit bigger than everyone else’s, he sets out where he is coming from. “As a child I remember very well that we pulled up our hedgerows and knocked down the centre of our towns,” he says. “There was this slash and burn philosophy. It just seemed to me to be insane. You push at nature and nature gives you an equal but opposite push back.”
The prince is almost reflexively self-deprecating – the first words he utters to me, on day two of our grandish tour, are: “I do hope all this isn’t boring you too much” – but he also insists on claiming the slightly martyrish role of the prophet misunderstood in his native land. He has stood firm, and definitely not Canute-like, as the tide of opinion has gone against him. He insisted on organics when all about him were up to the tops of their wellies in chemicals.
“I just,” he tells the Royal Agricultural College meeting, “wanted to be a repository for all the things that were being thrown away.” To this end he became patron of the Rare Breeds Trust, ensuring native animal breeds were not lost; and he has lately bought a fruit trial centre “where we now have 1,000 apple trees of 1,000 different varieties”.
“In the media,” he says, with a slightly withering glance in my direction, “they would no doubt describe this as me jumping from one bleeding subject to another.” He has no choice in this, though, he is a fighter of fires, and if he didn’t do it, who would?
I’m invited to walk with him through the garden at Highgrove where he expands on this thinking. This chat is eavesdropped by a private secretary, a press officer and a couple of minders, making sure he or I do not stray off-message. Still, strolling in his extraordinary garden, he seems relaxed enough, one hand in the pocket of his pale grey suit, a homegrown cornflower in his buttonhole. I wonder why he thinks as a nation we still give so little space to rural issues?
His sense, he says, is that “in the five or six generations that we have departed from the land a divide has grown up”. He characterises that divide not just between urban and rural values, but also within individuals. “We behave one way in our business lives and another in our homes,” he says (not, I’m pretty sure, on this occasion, employing the royal we), “and between our interior and our exterior.”
A large part of the Highgrove garden is a kind of Cotswold-Asian fusion. Some ornately carved gates the prince brought back from India have been set into a little pagoda made of local stone; at another shrine, which I’m told used to display a bust of Ted Hughes, there is now a head of the late Queen Mother emerging from a kind of sunburst. The prince talks animatedly of the unity of all things.
It’s quite Buddhist all this, I suggest. Isn’t it?
By way of an answer the heir to the throne asks: “Have you read my book Harmony?”
Of course not, I don’t say.
In one corner of the garden is the temple-like folly of a hut to which he retreats when he is here – every man needs a shed. He does his thinking there. The idea for the Countryside Fund came, though, he explains, when he was staying with friends in Cumbria. “Everyone has their favourite B&B,” he suggests, “and mine belongs to Joe and Hazel Relph in Borrowdale”. The prince first met the Relphs – upland sheep farmers – when foot and mouth had devastated Cumbria in 2001. He has, he says, been back to visit and sometimes stay every year since. A couple of years ago over supper, Joe Relph was telling him about the issues farmers like him faced. In the previous year British hill farmers had made an average loss of £3,000. The average age of a farmer was 58 and, with no incentive for sons and daughters to take on the work, skills were no longer being passed on. “They had lived that life for hundreds and hundreds of years,” the prince says, “we can’t just get rid of it for ever.” I speak to Relph later by phone: “It’s the way of life as much as the farming that he always wants to know about,” he tells me. “Always the way one thing depends on another…”
To date, the dozen or so major donors to the Prince’s Countryside Fund – one of which is his own Duchy Originals – have contributed around £1.5m in grants to projects devoted to that interdependency, including apprenticeship schemes to train young hill farmers. The Countryside Fund comes with a kind of kitemark, but it appears all you have to do to stamp one on your pasties (if you are Ginsters) or your burger boxes (if you are McDonald’s) is to demonstrate something of a commitment to British farming and put a bit of cash in. The fact that global corporations and the buying habits of some supermarkets may be contributing to the problems of small and sustainable farmers doesn’t seem to register or is accepted as a necessary evil.
There are further ironies – the ecologist helicoptering around arguing the virtues of shire horses – but the prince, as it were, ploughs on in good faith, with his special brand of touring theatre. In the course of my week in his shadow, I watch him discussing the hardships of moorland farming at a Duchy farm in Devon, in the company of a Dartmoor pony with an enormous erection waiting to get back to his mares. I see him stand in the middle of a circle of six men in suits talking earnestly, sir, about the special quality of their biomass and emissions. I see him tap a dutiful foot at an enthusiastic troupe playing on homemade “utterly-butterly ukuleles”. The prince gets through most of this with two dependable expressions, a nudge, nudge conspiratorial look, and a lairy grin that looks as if it might precede a clap on the back or a flick with a wet towel, but never does.
The strongest argument that the prince makes for his methods and philosophy, though, is a tour of Highgrove and Home Farm. Doubters are invited to behold the willow beds into which the royal lavatories empty, and the miraculous clear water that eventually results. David Wilson is the prince’s inspiring representative on earth at Home Farm, a vicar’s son trained in “ICI farming” who has seen the light of organics and sustainability. If you wanted evidence that the prince talks sense on those subjects you would visit the glorious fields of red clover, by which Wilson fixes nitrogen in the soil, as a rotation crop. Or you would look at the Welsh lambs grazing, as fat and white as any sheep I have seen. Or you would visit the orchard of 1,000 apple varieties weighed down with fruit, or the sustainable larch wood that supplies all the timber for farm buildings and the chippings for the boiler.
The prince’s current obsession is with the overuse of antibiotics in cattle. His herd routinely produces milk for six or seven lactations, while in some industrial farms they are lucky to get more than two. The prince, Wilson says, is never happier than when he is laying hedgerows in the traditional way – he takes me to see a stretch of hawthorn made by royal appointment. You imagine the hedge laying is a good metaphor for what the prince hopes his fund might make a start at achieving, the weaving of disparate elements leading to sustainable growth.
He may be concerned with the spiritual connections behind this fabric, but he is also attuned to the politics. In his garden he is keen to emphasise to me the importance of protecting and developing Pillar 2 of the European Common Agricultural Policy, which links subsidy with sustainable rural community.
“The thing is,” he says, summing up an argument at one point, “we need to be examining our souls a little more.” Or at least I think he said that. It might have been “soils”. But in any case, in his eyes, I guess, the two words are pretty much interchangeable.
- Saying it with Trees (debbieyoung.info)
- Prince of Wales announces fund for women entrepreneurs in the countryside (telegraph.co.uk)
- Highgrove House: The Prince of Wales’s Home and Garden, A Documentary (royalcorrespondent.com)
- Prince of Wales launches National Countryside Week (telegraph.co.uk)