The black Audi sedan pulls up at the Lakeland Livestock Centre at exactly 11:40 a.m. and a middle-aged man in a smart gray double-breasted suit and gleaming cordovan brogues leaps out. He heads straight for Marjorie Faulder and her West Highland terrier.
"Haven't I seen him before?" asks Prince Charles.
Prince Charles, third from left, tours Poundbury, an English housing development he initiated that embodies Charles's vision of what a humane, well-organized urban community should look like.
(Barry Batchelor -- WPA Rota)
"Actually this is the third time," replies the retired shop assistant, clearly thrilled by the power of the royal memory bank. She makes a point of showing up with her dog to greet the prince whenever he ventures to this remote rural corner of northwest England.
Back in London this morning the tabloids are serving leftovers for breakfast: the news that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip still intend to skip the civil wedding ceremony of their son and Camilla Parker Bowles on April 8, despite the fact that all of Charles's siblings and children will be there. Up here in the county of Cumbria, near the Scottish border, however, the Prince of Wales will spend the day meeting and offering encouragement to dozens of local people -- from the mayor of Cockermouth in his ceremonial gold chain of office, to farmers talking crops and cattle and recent flood damage, to the 18-year-old girl who gives the prince and his entourage a demonstration of her skill in backing a Land Rover and farm trailer into a tight space. The only talk of the wedding are expressions of heartfelt best wishes for the prince and his bride-to-be.
This is Charles in one of his most cherished roles: champion of the English countryside and the people who live there. Away from the hothouse atmosphere of London, almost everyone he encounters is respectful, thrilled and honored to meet him. Two minders keep a small pool of journalists a safe distance from the royal presence. There are no tabloids, no Princess Diana fanatics, no rude anti-monarchists.
"Whatever they say in the papers, up here he's got a lot of fans," says Ann Risman, a retired school principal who runs a local agricultural charity.
The announcement of his engagement and wedding has focused attention once again on the long-running national soap opera that is the 56-year-old prince's private life -- his tempestuous, failed marriage to the late Princess Diana; his chilly, difficult relationship with his parents; and his longstanding, and formerly adulterous, love affair with the divorcee who is about to become his second wife.
The relentless focus on these intimate details has obscured the prince himself, his life and his works. For nearly three decades, Charles has sought to carve out a public role for himself. He has emerged as a spokesman for traditional values, a rainmaker for charities, and a voice for those he deems voiceless. He has passionately promoted environmentalism and organic farming, questioned the wisdom of genetically modified crops and the ethics of stem cell research, defended Britain's Muslim minority, opposed a ban on fox hunting, opposed transforming the House of Lords into an elected body, and extolled back-to-basics education.
There is no blueprint for this do-it-yourself role, and no other Prince of Wales has ever sought it before. Many of his activities and public pronouncements have triggered controversy. Some critics brand as flaky or reactionary the positions he takes on specific issues. Others contend his entire effort transgresses the royal family's traditional place as standing above and beyond politics.
But Charles carries on, convinced that his future subjects demand he not merely look regal but perform a public service -- the value-added monarchy. At the same time, say those who know him and have worked for him, he is wracked by self-doubt, fearing that his contributions and good faith are unappreciated and misunderstood. At times, they say, he feels under siege not only by the tabloids and the critics but by his own parents, who would prefer him to play a less controversial role.
The result is a leader who alternates between bouts of aggressive defiance and petulant despair. More than once, in private conversations leaked to the press, he has threatened to leave the country if his views on certain subjects were ignored. His constant self-deprecation -- a trademark of almost every public speech he gives -- is not an act, friends say, but a deeply ingrained part of his character.
"He is the most frustrated person I know," says his friend Jonathan Dimbleby, a broadcaster and royal biographer. "Both because he can never win the argument and yet he will keep on making it."
A Champion of Causes
In his biography of the prince, Dimbleby recalls that in November 1953 -- just after Charles turned 5 -- his mother and father embarked on a six-month global tour. Charles and his younger sister, Anne, did not see their parents again until the following April. This was not an act of intentional cruelty, friends insist, but rather a reflection of the queen's deep-seated belief that duty came first, even before her maternal obligations.