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Duchy of Cornwall
MAY 2006
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Duchy of Cornwall @ National Geographic Magazine
By  Sandy Mitchell

Photographs by Catherine Karnow

Prince Charles's great experiment is proving a success on ancestral lands turned testing grounds for his ideas about sustainable agriculture, architecture, and community.


Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

Prince Charles gave no warning that he was about to abandon his usual restraint. He simply began slicing the air with his hands as his voice rose in frustration: "I had witnessed this appalling horror of the 1960s, when everything was thrown away, denigrated, abandoned. I watched as woods were cut down, hedges uprooted, wonderful old buildings knocked down. I minded dreadfully.

"My whole aim was to repair the damage, to heal the wounds, as it were, of the countryside." Calmer now, his voice falling to its usual hoarse whisper, he settled back in the silk armchair, smoothing his flawless blue suit. Meanwhile, the uniformed footman at Clarence House, the prince's London mansion, went about his business, sliding in and out of the drawing room.

One day Prince Charles, now 57, will be crowned king (his mother is already 80). Judging from the way he has handled his inheritance so far—more than 135,000 acres of mostly rural land known as the Duchy of Cornwall—the country may be in for some surprises. He has used this private little kingdom as a place to test solutions to the problems of modernity, for the prince believes, fervently, that life in both town and country has gone awry.

"All my life," the prince said, "I have tried to break conventional molds because I think they are mistaken. The only way I could do it was through the duchy, to show there was an alternative way of looking at things."

Prince Charles's duchy legacy stretches back a long way. On March 17, 1337, after "anxious meditation," King Edward III declared that his eldest son, the Black Prince, must henceforth enjoy an income worthy of an heir to the throne. So the king granted some of his castles, manors, and hamlets—largely in the counties of Devon and Cornwall—to his son, along with a spiffy new title: the Duke of Cornwall.

Most of the dukes left the tenants and lands alone. Not Prince Charles, who oversees the estate's work to an astonishing degree. His 72-strong duchy staff has learned not to build any new cottage, or fell an acre of woodland, without first seeking the royal nod. He sends Bertie Ross, his chief executive (officially, the Secretary and Keeper of the Records), a constant flow of detailed notes, handwritten in ink, with ideas or queries. But the day-to-day work of dealing with duchy projects and tenants is left to the staff, spread between the head office in London and four regional outposts managed by land stewards. They are long-serving men—all men—who have absorbed the thinking of "the boss" so deeply that most of them at times slip into his distinctive strangulated voice.

The duchy provides the prince's entire annual income—13.2 million pounds (23.5 million dollars) in 2004—which covers most of the cost of his official duties, his charitable activities, and all his private expenses. It is money that comes as rent from roughly 250 tenanted farms and from, among many other sources, transatlantic undersea fiber-optic cables and a gay bar in London. The only real curb on the prince, aside from easily roused British public opinion, is the government's treasury department, charged by law with ensuring that management of the duchy finances safeguards the interests of future Dukes of Cornwall.

Get the whole story in the pages of National Geogaraphic magazine.

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