IT'S ironic that one of the few public figures who seems to have any serious idea of what is going on in the countryside is the most maligned member of a generally maligned family.

If anyone could be expected to be remote from the worries and horrors of ordinary country life, it's the heir to the throne.

Launching his own campaign for the regeneration of rural communities, Prince Charles spoke of the low incomes, even before the foot-and-mouth disaster, and of the jobs lost in agriculture; of the loss of services and the lack of affordable housing. Above all, he openly acknowledged that we were far from the "tail end" of the foot-and-mouth epidemic and expressed his fears of an autumn upsurge as the weather grew cooler.

Behind the statistics, a way of life was collapsing, he said.

He also went to one of the few major rural events to survive this year, the Game Fair, though the event was shunned by politicians who seem to be behaving more like royalty than royalty just now. Kenneth Clarke went "on a walkabout" at the weekend as if crowds would flock to say hello; the logistics of the prime minister's holidays begin to smack of a medieval "royall progresse" .

It's a topsy-turvy world.

And the prince is said to be considering whether to give up his polo, and take up everyman's sport, golf.

Quite understandable, in that he may well have had several broad hints that it's not a good idea to have the heir charging around on, and maybe falling off, a pony which seems to turn on a sixpence.

"Why golf?" said one to whom golf is not "a good walk spoiled" but a good walk, and a decent bit of rolling scenery as well, utterly and totally ruined. "Why not darts?"

Well, darts would certainly go well with the Prince's recent suggestion that the village pub could become the hub of the community and house the shop and the post office, too.

The Hare and Hounds at Westonbirt is one of the nearest village pubs to his home at Highgrove, except that, in spite of its name, it's hardly a pub.

I can't remember if there was a dart board in the one bar which did resemble a village local and sold good real ale, but the rest of it is "hotel" down to its skirting boards.

Even so, and it was grand enough to put up guests for HRH's 50th birthday party, it plays its part in the local community.

One evening we had to bide our time before we could sit in the residents' lounge (no, of course we weren't there for that party). It was occupied by a meeting of the parish council, or possibly the parochial church council, and would not be available until that had finished.

No doubt the meeting adjourned for a social drink afterwards; people buying groceries or collecting their pensions might do that, too, especially now many pubs offer coffee.

It's a thought - as long as the burden of running all the extra services doesn't fall on the licensee and his (or her) family