Keep London. Just give me that countryside (National Post, April 3, 2006)

Last week, while touring the Middle East and India, Prince Charles and Camilla visited an organic farm in the Punjab. Clearly in his element, Charles engaged his hosts with gusto, closely questioning them about everything from the purity of their carrots to the efficiency of their donkeys.

The highlight of his day was an inspection of a compost manure shed. Charles couldn't tear himself away. The back of his neck burning from the intense sun, he chatted merrily on while accompanying press threatened to keel over from the heat. As Camilla bent to the ritual task of planting some saplings to "unite the people of the Punjab and the Royal Family ... in organic farming," the Prince was heard to burble: "You plant them so beautifully, darling ..."

Who but an English Royal could find romance in the planting of a twiglet in organic soil? Yet another reminder that hearty country girl Camilla rather than neurasthenic urban hothouse Diana always was Charles's real soul mate, and in the larger picture a loyal handmaiden to a cherished tradition.

For the British Royal Family perform their rounds of urban duty with disciplined attentiveness, but are happiest in the pursuit of country pleasures. When off duty, all the Royals love to flee London, don corduroys, strike out on a country walk with dogs, or exercise their ponies. In London, the Queen, kitted out in her boringly matched coats and hats, puts on a crisply cheerful face; but on holiday up in bosky Balmoral in a "babushka," raincoat and wellies, she beams with unmediated contentment.

Their country homes are actually mansions, but simplicity and family privacy have for hundreds of years been the guiding principles of country life for the English aristocracy. As architectural historian Witold Rybczynski has observed, "It is revealing that after the 17th century, the English less and less referred to their homes, however grand, as anything but 'houses' -- there was no special word such as 'chateau,' 'palazzo' or even 'villa' to distinguish the large from the small, the grand from the merely mundane. To the English they were all houses."

In their devotion to country life, the history of the English aristocracy was the opposite of the French. In France, social life centred on Paris and Versailles. Aristocrats might own elegant chateaux (never just a "house") in the country for entertaining, but the fashion-dictating court was the locus of political and social life. Country life was considered provincial, reserved for those who had been banished from court or hadn't the means to keep a decent city establishment.

The more powerful, independent English dukes did not defer to the frumpy, often dour English court. They lavished time, energy and huge amounts of money in realizing their country fantasies (one only has to watch a few Masterpiece Theatre series to see the magnificent results of their efforts). As an observant American diplomat once remarked, "Scarcely any persons who hold a leading place in the circles of their society live in London. They have houses in London, in which they stay while Parliament sits, and occasionally visit at other seasons; but their homes are in the country."

Life in the country dovetailed with the Englishman's yearning for seclusion, impatience with high (feminized) culture and profound pleasure in creatures great and small romping across great swathes of natural landscape. Those of us who like meandering gardens and prefer comfy over-stuffed Georgian furniture covered with faded cabbage roses to stiffly upright brocaded furnishings abounding in gold fleurs de lys are heirs to the British country house tradition.

England's most famous writers preferred country settings: Agatha Christie for murders; Dickens as a peaceful and innocent counterpoint to the filth and corruption of London; Wordsworth as the proving ground for character; Jane Austen as society's moral crucible.

Samuel Johnson famously declared, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life." Well, that may be true for barely solvent, untitled scholars, but for anti-intellectual English aristocrats, a little of London goes a long way. The British Museum is interesting, of course, but to the future king of England it can hardly hope to compete with a really fine compost heap.

© National Post 2006