The Nature of Royalty

Far from the madding crowd: A classical temple in the Stumpery is among the reverie spots at Highgrove, the rural retreat the Prince of Wales acquired 27 years ago.
Far from the madding crowd: A classical temple in the Stumpery is among the reverie spots at Highgrove, the rural retreat the Prince of Wales acquired 27 years ago. (Photos By Andrew Lawson)

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By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 5, 2007

HIGHGROVE, England

He calls it the Sanctuary but it is, in fact, his sanctuary, a quirky small retreat of stone and plaster, blessed by the bishop of London and laid out as four semicircles attached to a cube in adherence to sacred geometric principles. The bowed wooden door has no lock but four wooden knobs.

When he wants to be wholly free from the glare of a world that has been judging him all his tangled life, Prince Charles turns the doorknobs in ritual sequence and enters his hermitage. Inside, he finds himself in what must be a dark space, lit only by candles and the flames of an open fire. Above the door, in a script of the ancient British tribe called the Picts, are the words: "Lighten our darkness we beseech thee O Lord." Here, alone or with close friends, the future king of England (and the rest of his domain) goes to purge his soul.

Charles has spent most of a lifetime in a soulful waiting game that has, at times, gone badly awry. He married Princess Diana in 1981, but the couple split in 1992 and divorced four years later. Diana was killed with Dodi al-Fayed in that Paris car crash 10 years ago last week. Cast for a while as the villain, Charles married the love of his life, Camilla Parker Bowles, in the spring of 2005.

Throughout the turmoil, the prince has remained the constant gardener. It is quite astonishing that when he bought Highgrove as a run-down country house the year before he married Diana, Charles was adamant that both the development of the garden and the agricultural practices of the nearby farm should be entirely organic. The estate is set in the picturesque Cotswolds region, about 150 miles west of London.

For years made the butt of jokes for talking to his plants, he is now seen as an environmental prophet who railed against ecologically damaging practices long before it became chic to be green and to worry about the health of the planet.

Today, that lifelong stance has positioned him as a visionary. Whatever his future reign brings, Prince Charles has secured a reputation a prescient environmentalist. He has lived long enough to see his worries reformulated and embraced by scientists, politicians and citizens of Planet Earth confronting global warming.

"Prince Charles has been a forward thinker on environmental issues since the 1970s, on issues ranging from sustainable agriculture to climate change," said former vice president Al Gore, speaking in January in New York at an award ceremony for the Prince of Wales.

In his oblique, Victorian manner of speech, Prince Charles points out that "one of the great difficulties associated with the adoption of organic or, perhaps more appropriately, sustainable principles at the time I started turned out to be convincing others that you had not taken complete leave of your senses."

This is from the foreword of a new book he has written with Stephanie Donaldson, "The Elements of Organic Gardening." In conjunction with its U.S. publication this week, the prince granted The Washington Post and five other American news organizations a tour of Highgrove last month, led by head gardener David Howard.

Howard is tall and mustachioed and, at 49, appears in robust health. He represents a new generation of estate gardener in England: articulate, confident, media-savvy and in lock step with his master when it comes to a total organic approach. No chemical cabinet at Highgrove, he says more than once during the tour.

What also emerges after four hours is the clear notion that the garden at Highgrove is the embodiment of Charles's long-held views on healing the planet, but it is a place, too, where Charles heals his inner self. Indeed, there is no distinction between the two. This is a sensitive area for the prince's handlers. His office declined a request to publish a photograph of the Sanctuary ("The Palace" felt it was "too personal"), even though it is pictured in the book. The Sanctuary may be the holy of holies, but throughout Highgrove's 15 acres of formal gardens, meadows, vegetable garden, orchards and woodland, there are clear cues that the organic-gardening credo is not merely about touchy-feely horticultural techniques as a philosophy of one man's harmony with nature that rises to spiritual levels.


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