The Nature of Royalty
Highgrove Is Where Prince Charles Cultivates His Organic Worldview

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


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.

Charles spoke of the sacred aspects of stewardship in a BBC lecture broadcast from Highgrove in the millennial year. "If we are to achieve genuinely sustainable development we will first have to rediscover, or re-acknowledge a sense of the sacred in our dealings with the natural world," he said.

Is Charles the most overtly spiritual member of the royal family? "Very much so," said his biographer Penny Junor. She said his spirituality embraces not just his gardening but all the other aspects of his life, including farming, his brand of organic foods, his charities and concern for the inner city and youth. "Everything he does is all joined up," she said.

Which isn't to say that Charles doesn't enjoy getting his hands dirty. He likes to "lay" living fences, a traditional skill for cutting and weaving hedgerows. Before he and the Duchess of Cornwall left for their summer in Scotland, he was in the walled vegetable garden clipping the decorative rosemary hedge around the central fountain. He gave up after a long while, later telling Howard, "Here, I've started it for you."

The vegetable garden, with its sun-trapping brick walls and sense of enclosure and tranquillity, is one of the prince's favorite spots. Here he can check on the ripening of heirloom varieties of apples and pears, see how his favorite potatoes are faring and luxuriate in the perfume of a sweet pea arbor.

Nothing much is done by the nine full-time gardeners without the prince's say, and he holds weekly sessions with Howard to discuss current tasks.

"I do a weekly report for the prince, whether he's here or away," Howard said. "Just because he's up in Scotland doesn't mean he can't get on the phone and say, 'What's happening this week?' or 'Why isn't it happening this week?' "

Donaldson notes that 27 years ago the prince came to an estate with no meaningful gardens, offering a blank slate. He worked closely with many leading expert designers, plantsmen and artists to forge the distinct garden areas that have since been built. He grew, learned and has become a confident expert "like we all do when we garden," she said. "I think of things I grew in my 20s I wouldn't touch with a barge pole today."

Among the abiding figures in his journey have been Sir Laurens van der Post and Dame Miriam Rothschild, both now dead. Van der Post was a South African author, adventurer and diplomat who became a mentor to Charles. A disciple of Carl Jung, van der Post imparted Jungian ideas of intuition and of the power of symbolic, mythological and spiritual components in both the unconscious and conscious realms of one's life. One of Jung's major archetypes was Mother Earth.

Prince Charles acknowledges that as a young man, his worries about the environment were based more on intuition than scientific knowledge. "I can only say that for some reason I felt 'in my bones' that if you abuse Nature unnecessarily and fail to maintain a balance, then She will probably abuse you in turn," he writes. A bust of van der Post is positioned prominently in his Cottage Garden.

Rothschild was one of the last great eccentric boffins in 20th-century Britain, a brilliant biologist who had seen new agricultural practices destroy the biodiversity of the flora and fauna of the English countryside. In 1982, Charles went to see her at her Northamptonshire home, Ashton Wold, and found a country estate set into deliberate decay and reversion to nature. Rothschild developed wildflower mixes to restore the native plants threatened by modern farming practices, including one she called "Farmer's Nightmare."

Thus Rothschild helped Prince Charles establish the largest single feature at Highgrove, a 4 1/2 -acre wildflower meadow that seeks to restore a balance of grasses and wildflowers while reintroducing more than 100 species of wildflowers once commonly seen in this corner of Gloucestershire.

After its early-season succession of buttercups, camassias, oxeye daisies and common sorrel, the meadow is kept mowed until the winter, when a flock of sheep grazes, reducing the field to a sea of mud. This regimen allows the self-seeded wildflowers to perpetuate and prevents the meadow from reverting to grassland.

Walk on into woodland and you find a mind-boggling collection of hostas interplanted with other perennials, as well as shrubs and trees, around a pond. As all hosta fans know, slugs devour the leafy plant, but here, late in the season, the vast majority are still looking whole and attractive. This is because the slugs and snails are kept in check by a host of natural predators, from songbirds to toads to hedgehogs, Howard said.

Beyond the pool, a classical folly holds a relief of his beloved grandmother, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. Turn the corner and you see, amid lush, tropical-like foliage, a wall of salvaged and sculpted stone pieces, and one senses encountering a ruined temple in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Walk on, and you find the Stumpery, a Victorian conceit given contemporary meaning with the placements of old root stumps arranged in artful piles. They are of old chestnut and oak trees felled in a tempest that swept England 20 years ago. Bonelike, they impart a primal, almost menacing quality to this leafy glade. When Prince Philip toured it with his son, Philip is said to have muttered: "When are you going to set fire to this lot?"

The path leads to another classical temple forged of green oak, its pediment decorated with the bones of more trees. Here, a relief honors the poet Ted Hughes, whose brutal verse seems an odd fit for so sentimental a patron. But Hughes, as poet laureate, wrote many poems for royal occasions. And, interestingly, Hughes was a gentleman farmer who had seen destruction not just to the environment but to the way of life that mirrored Charles's formative view of England.

The infrastructure at Highgrove includes a rainwater collection system from house and outbuildings that holds 35,000 gallons, and a natural wetland sewage treatment system where aquatic plants are used to cleanse wastewater. Howard ends the tour in the compost yard near the stables, where organic waste is turned into a continual supply of top dressing and soil amendments that fulfill the central imperative here of feeding the soil, not the plant.

One of the newest features at Highgrove is a walled Islamic garden filled with Koranic symbolism. "The [whole] garden has all sorts of religions brought into it," said Junor. "There are different plants from different parts of the world. It' s not just a whole heap of plants made to put on a good show. It's saying something."

The book talks about the Highgrove experiment extended to his gardens at Clarence House, the prince's London headquarters, as well as Birkhall on the edge of the Balmoral Estate in Scotland. Here, writes Charles, "my darling wife has a keen eye for this garden and also for the cutting garden, from which she conjures exquisite flower arrangements."

But it is at Highgrove where Prince Charles has spent much of his life bringing nurture to nature. It is his official residence, his life's work, and where his heart is. He likes to be there "as much as possible," said Junor. "He's happiest there."

"I remember longing to heal the countryside," he wrote in 2001. "To bind up its wounds and to reclothe it in its rightful form."

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