THERE is little doubt that when it’s finally completed, the mansion planned for a derelict strip of land in the heart of a secluded part of English countryside will be as fit for a king as it might be for a prince.
Where the debate about the future occupant of the £5 million house really starts however is – which prince?
According to press reports, the best money is on Prince William and the woman tipped to be his future bride, Kate Middleton – who was reportedly seen viewing the property with him a few weeks ago.
But talk to the locals around Harewood End village in Herefordshire, near the Welsh border, and you find more voices in favour of the new house being home to . . . Prince Harry, however odd that may sound.
Both princes have been to the estate – Harry to work with carpenters and a stone mason when he was grounded last year, and William periodically.
Other than the last few weeks, the latter was last on the estate about four months ago.
Such is the speed and quality of the work being done to turn what was once little more than a ghost village that locals see it as being more, much more than just an opportunity for the Duchy of Cornwall to up its rental income.
Many of them have also heard a few choice comments by people who either still work on the site, or have done so in the past.
Walking round the estate and village, the future arrival of the princes is pretty much taken as a given.
Parish Council chairman Frank Davis says: “One can hardly be 100 per cent because it’ll not be until 2010 before the main house is finished.
“But every time I talk to Duchy of Cornwall staff about the prospect of a Royal prince coming to live at Harewood Park, they neither deny or confirm the rumours that are rife round here.”
Talk of princes began shortly after Prince Charles’ Duchy of Cornwall purchased what is now called the Hereford Estate – more than 900 acres surrounding Harewood Park – in 2000.
It was part of a job lot of some 22,000 acres around the UK that the Duchy bought from the Prudential finance group.
Sunk into a small valley surrounded on all sides by gently rolling hills, the estate’s motley collection of barns, cottages, stables and a manor house are invisible from the busy A49 road that runs along one of the boundaries of the estate.
Although constantly busy with traffic to and from the neighbouring city of Hereford – where King Charles II’s mistress Nell Gwynne is reputed to have been born in 1650 – vehicles glide past in the distance with little more than a feint grumble.
But Prince Charles’ involvement isn’t the only reason for the fevered speculation.
After all, his Duchy of Cornwall estate owns more than 141,000 acres around the country.
Instead, it is his estimated £3 million plans for the strip of barren land that was once home to a grand mansion that was gradually blown apart – by military regiments using it for target practice – in the 1950s and eventually raised to the ground up by the SAS in 1959.
Built on the same site for a succession of stately homes since 1324, Harewood Park house had a series of owners after it was sold in 1892 by the local landowning Hoskyns family.
Once a site for lavish hunt balls, during Second World War – by which time it was owned by The Board of Governors of Guy’s Hospital (who put it up for auction in 1951) – it was used as an auxiliary hospital.
The Duchy’s plans are pretty much in keeping with the tradition of properties on the site and is planning to build in its place a grand 10,000 sq ft neo-Georgian mansion.
Building work on the new house – which will feature it’s own ball room, sweeping central staircase, servants quarters and grand reception rooms – is, although some way off from beginning, estimated to run into many millions.
And in a move that could well suit, say, a polo-playing prince with a passion for horses – there are plans to restore nearby stables back to their former glory, although stables further away on the estate at Home Farm have been converted into neat new homes or work studios.
There are also plans to restore the estate’s cricket pitch – a strip of land surrounded by a ring of trees.
These were reportedly put there after the lady of the house at the time lost her wedding ring somwehere in the field and the trees were planted to mark the spot.
The trees still stand but all that remains of Harewood Park house – which is less than 20 minutes drive from the Powys home of ex-Royal nanny Tiggy Legge-Bourke – is a few of the building’s barely noticeable boundary walls, and a fenced off entrance to one of the property’s vast cellars.
They are reportedly big enough for a horse and carriage to enter and drop off its occupants, swing round and depart again.
The lake that once graced the back of the big house is a large dried mud patch filled with weeds.
And all that remains of a modern red-brick bungalow that was built on the site of Harewood Park house are the slates from its roof, laid out in neat piles by a telegraph pole – one of the many dotted around the estate.
Indeed, despite its idyllic location, the place is criss-crossed by a network of the things – irritants Prince Charles has commented on.
A worker, who asked not to be named, said: “He told me he hates, absolutely loathes them.”
What’s not recorded so far is his views on another irritant common to these parts – low-flying.
Helicopter gunships, jet fighters and massive military transport planes regularly swoop up suddenly over the brow of the hill over-looking the Harewood Park house site before dropping down the other side of the gentle valley.
A friend of a builder on part of the Hereford Estate development that overlooks the empty site said: “I’ve a friend who worked there and he said it can be quite scary at times.
“He was working on one of the barns one day when he suddenly looked up and saw two massive helicopter gunships heading straight for him, vertically with their noses pointing downwards.
“He could see the faces of the pilots very clearly.
“They get jets and all sorts over the area all the time. It’s a brilliant spot for low-flying training.”
It’s not the only training that goes on in the area.
Locals talk of treading on SAS soldiers hidden in undergrowth during exercises while out walking their dogs at night.
Others talk of vans abandoned in woods near the estate, left empty by teams of soldiers dropped off for an exercise.
One said: “Security is tight enough whenever any of the royals are around.
“The police are like little ants, crawling all over the place, and checking hedgerows days in advance.
“It’s as if the whole place is a bit of a high security zone, what with the SAS being based not far away and using the area for training.”
Home Farm – which is Phase One of the Duchy’s ten-year redevelopment plan for Hereford Estate – was completed more than a year ago and officially opened by Prince Charles, who planted a tree in memory of the occasion.
The small collection of refurbished cottages, barns and stables nestles in a small community of its own over-looked by mechanical diggers working on the estate’s sandstone quarry – clawing out materials for buildings on the estate.
Although, some locals – keen to grab a bit of Royal cache – have helped themselves to some of the stones, using them as doorstops.
The next settlement is a few minutes walk from Home Farm along a tarmacked bridle path to Grange Farm – phase two.
This site includes barns, stables, a large wattle and daub and oak-beamed manor house, as well as St Dennis’ – an old chapel built on a site that has been used for chapels since the 13th century.
Tellingly, and given Prince Charles’ interest in art – this is not only being restored to its former glory, but the 140-year-old building is also being temporarily turned into an artist’s studio.
The plans include a floating floor, which can be removed at a future date when, presumably, church services resume.
To the side of the Harewood Park house site are ornate but dilapidated old stables, a few barns and what was once a huge dog kennels – sited by the remains of the estate’s famed walled gardens.
The dogs in the kennels were used for animal testing and animal rights activists protested against its work on a regular basis.
Clashes with riot police were a common occurrence.
Locals remember the running battles between police and protesters, as well as the police helicopters flying overhead at night with their bright search light beams combing the area.
Indeed, as soon as the Duchy moved in, one of the first things they had to do was remove 100 tonnes of razor wire from fields around the kennels.
When the kennels were eventually closed down, Linda McCartney was one of the people who stepped in to find home for a number of the dogs.
Anthony Snell, chairman of the local National Farmers Union and a local businessman whose land lies opposite the Harewood End entrance to Duchy’s Hereford Estate, is one of many happy to see the development in full swing.
Of the rumours about Prince William and Harry, he has little doubt one will take up residence at some stage.
He said: “I don’t think there is much doubt about the place being used for a prince.
“Far too much money and attention is being lavished on the site for it just to be let out to other people.”
He added: “I’ve heard the leases are not only very expensive but also generally short-term lets, so that it will be easy to clear people out when the time comes.”
Renting a property on Home Farm costs anything from around £750 to £1,700-a-month.
Little wonder that so few of the available properties are occupied.
Proof-reader Sally Sargent was one of the first tenants to move in.
Unlike her neighbour who was only happy to speak if this reporter got clearance from The Duchy of Cornwall first, she said: “Yes, the rents are high, but this is what you would expect to pay for a high quality property in this kind of location.
“I had been looking for ages for a suitable property and couldn’t find one.
“At the end of the day you get what you pay for and as far as I’m concerned the rents are appropriate for where we are.
“As far as the leases being short-term, I’ve heard people saying that but that doesn’t mean anything.
“I’m on a very long-term lease and do not see myself being turfed out of here any time soon. As one of the Duchy of Cornwall staff told me – they are in the business of making money, not throwing people off the land.
“And as far as any princes coming here, I haven’t seen any and know absolutely nothing about their future plans.
“That said, it can only be a good thing not just for the estate but also the area.
“You can already see for yourself the benefit to this area from the involvement of Prince Charles.”
Others also see the benefits.
A local businessman who lives across the road from the Harewood End Inn, said: “I’ve heard all the talk about one of the princes coming and can believe it.
“For a start we’ll get more police and secondly, I’d imagine the price of our properties will shoot up.”
Whatever about the rumours, the landlord of Harewood End Inn was keeping his take on the talk to himself.
Laurie Cork said: “We get a lot of people from the Duchy in here and this just isn’t one of those issues we want to be drawn on.”
A framed letter dated 12 March, 1996 and from St James’ Palace and the Lady in Waiting to HRH The Princess of Wales sits by the bar, underneath signed photos of actresses who have visited the area.
It reads: “Dear Stephanie, the Princess of Wales has asked me to thank-you for your lovely card addressed to Prince Henry.
“His Royal Highness was grateful to you for taking the trouble to send this and hopes you will understand that Prince Henry cannot reply personally.
“I am sorry to send you this disappointing reply.
“Never-the-less, her Royal Highness has asked me to send you her very best wishes.
“Yours Sincerely, Mrs James Lonsdale.”
The letter was addressed to Laurie’s then eight-year-old daughter in return for a Valentine’s card she had sent Prince Harry.
Mr Cork said: “She was so chuffed when she got that letter and was amazed that Princess Diana had gone to all that effort of asking one of her staff to write to my daughter.
“She certainly hadn’t expected to get a reply.”
He just smiles when it’s suggested by a local drinking by the bar that the chances of his 18-year-old daughter bumping into Prince Harry are now markedly higher than they were ten years ago.
“Who would have thought they could end up as neighbours?” they said.
Although he is said to have been in the area recently, a number of people last saw Harry in the hamlet about a year ago.
According to a drinker in the pub, he regularly entertained fellow workers with a string of jokes that “left a lot to be desired”.
One was: “What do you call a sheep tied to a pole in a Welsh field? Answer: A leisure centre.”
Indeed, as well as his playful banter – Harry didn’t shirk on his work duties.
During a hail storm, his Royal Protection officers sheltered in their car while he carried on working with the other workers.
He jokingly goaded them for being scared of getting wet and urged them to get out of the car.
One reportedly told him: “We are not paid to get wet. We’re paid to look after you and we’re staying put.”
Duchy of Cornwall tenant and a next door neighbour to Grange Farm, and the planned “new” Harewood Park house, Frank Davis remembers Harry’s visit well.
He said: “I think he had been grounded by his father at the time because of all that fuss about the pictures taken of him wearing a Swastika.
“Prince Charles had put him to work on the estate and he was working with a stone mason for a few days.
“I think he was also doing some carpentry work.
“I met him when I was near my home and he had popped down to take a look around.
“He was just walking around and he had some detectives following along behind.
“Harry popped over and introduced himself and we had a brief chat.”
Frank, whose family has lived and farmed in the area for centuries, added: “He was a really nice lad – relaxed, down-to-earth and I really liked him.
The retired farmer – who, when he asked what Prince Charles thinks of him talking to journalists, was told to “say whatever you like” – said: “I don’t know for certain if he will one day move in to Harewood Park house.
“But every time I talk to Duchy of Cornwall staff about it when they are around, they don’t exactly deny it.
“That said, they certainly don’t confirm it either.
“Whatever does happen, it is great for the area that his father has taken such a keen interest.
“Before he bought what is now the Hereford Estate, the buildings in this area had fallen into ruins and it was terrible to see the neglect.
“Now what Prince Charles is doing is leading to a complete revival of this area and it can only be good.”
Another local – who did not want to be named – said although the best money was on Prince William moving into the house, she is convinced it will be more of a base for Prince Harry.
She said: “I was told by a person who was working on the new development that preparations are being made with Harry, not William in mind.”
For whoever moves in, it will be an ideal Royal location and it’s not too far from either other royal homes or – depending on your mode of transport – London.
With the type of twin-engined helicopter favoured by the Royals, Bristol Airport and Prince Charles and The Princess Royal’s homes at Highgrove and Gatcombe Park near Tetbury in neighbouring Gloucestershire are only about 25 minutes away.
The trip to London could be done in around an hour.
Although secluded enough, trees are being replanted all over the estate to replace woodlands long since cut down.
Tellingly, a lot of the new samplings surround all the main properties on the estate. By the time they mature, it will be very hard to see many of the properties, even from the rights of way that cross the estate.
And – rightly or wrongly – few locals believe these will all remain open. Many are convinced access to the estate will be gradually restricted – although this is hotly denied by Duchy of Cornwall staff.
Indeed, a bridle path that runs along the side of the Harewood End Inn has become virtually unusable and over-grown, with Hereford City Council admitting they do not have the resources to maintain it.
But like so many pathways in the area, they were established when local farm workers used to walk from their cottages to work on the local estate.
When the estate fell into ruin from the late 1940s, so did many of the paths.
Any lack of care regards rights-of-way across the estate are however resolutely denied by Prince Charles’ office at Clarence House.
A spokeswoman said: “The Prince of Wales and the Duchy of Cornwall take very seriously the issue of public rights of way.
“Any suggestion that bridle paths on the estate would be closed to the public is misleading and inaccurate.”
Parish council chairman Frank Davis, who lives on the estate with wife Sylvia, agrees.
Commenting on reports that various rights-of-way signs had been removed since the Duchy of Cornwall bought the land, he said: “Far from it.
“Only recently did the council arrange to have new ones put up.”
But there are those who feel that if a Royal prince is to take up residence at Harewood, access across the estate will be at the very least – reviewed.
Rights of way gradually disappeared at Highgrove and some locals are convinced the same will happen on the Hereford Estate.
Regardless of what does eventually happen to the bridleways, there are few people living locally who don’t welcome the fact that the estate is now run by the Duchy of Cornwall.
And it is obvious that Prince Charles is working hard at nurturing the loyalty of anyone who lives on the estate – old and new.
Indeed, a year after he took over – the prince made a point of paying Davis a visit to wish him well in his retirement.
He has also made similar personal gestures to other individuals.
Davis, 70, said: “It was all arranged in advance, with his security people calling and visiting to check the place out first.
“I think the original plan was for Prince Charles to just have a chat on the doorstep, but in the end, he came into the house and stayed for about half-an-hour.
“We were very surprised that he had even known I was retiring let alone wanted to pop by and wish me luck.
“But then that is the way he is.
“During the foot and mouth crisis a few years back, a local farmer on the estate had had to slaughter his entire herd and he was surprised to one day get a call from the Duchy office.
“A voice at the other end of the phone said the prince wanted to speak to him and although he thought it was some kind of joke, sure enough – Prince Charles came on the phone and said he was sorry to hear about what had happened to his herd.”
Another local sees this as yet another reason to believe that a member of the Royal family is likely to start spending more time on the estate in years to come.
They said: “There is just too much care and attention being paid to this part of the county.
“As well as the millions being lavished on the buildings and the surrounding countryside, I get the impression Prince Charles is going out of his way to ingratiate himself with the locals.
“He’s doing a good job of it, and I suspect that will serve him and his sons well if they decide to live in the area because the growing sense of loyalty to a landlord that finally gives a damn about the area is a very novel experience for most people round here.”