Many people have been attracted to living in Wales by the promise of a greener, less fraught and less material lifestyle. Even if they haven’t thought through the whole sustainability challenge, instinct draws people away from the intensity of urban life towards something a little gentler and potentially more rewarding.
I have to confess I was one of those people. I was born just over the Welsh border in Shropshire but as I like to say, I came here the long way round. Via Montreal, Reading, Chandigarh, Nairobi and Chimanimani in Zimbabwe before I ended up back in Reading in 1993. Somewhere along the line I had decided that I wanted to live a different kind of life. Closer to nature and less complicated but also by then I had discovered permaculture design, something that had really taken off in Zimbabwe since Bill Mollison had delivered the first African permaculture design course in Botswana back in the ’80’s.
Permaculture is about designing from nature, understanding that the natural world is the template for sustainable systems and also in understanding how deeply unsustainable most modern practices are.
Coming to Wales for me was more by accident than design. A happy co-incidence shall we say. When I was living in Zimbabwe in the late 80’s and early 90’s I had met a series of people who led me firstly to the opportunity of care-taking a permaculture designed farm and then the chance of applying what we had learned on the first farm to the neighbouring property which had sat derelict fo 10 years or more. It’s a long story and I will spare the details but we opened it up as a traveller’s lodge, in a place that received few visitors but somehow it worked and it still thrives today 25 years later. Heaven Lodge, Chimanimani it is called.
In my time there I kept two cows and grazed them on the land and made cheese from the milk. Local villagers keen to be involved set up their own self-help job schemes and before long the house was stocked with fresh bread, vegetables and we were offering full meals that contained many self grown ingredients to our visitors. The formula worked and the lodge became successful, one of our early visitors was a young outward bound instructor from Shrewsbury and whose first job after school had been at the Challenge Outdoor centre, based at Llanfyllin Workhouse in mid Wales.
This was my first link to the Mid-Wales dispersed community of creative, independent people who worked in emerging areas like alternative technology, permaculture, renewable energy, co-operatives and all sorts of new and interesting areas I had never before seen as realistic options. I remember saying to myself that would give Wales 6 months, what did I have to lose? I moved to near MachynlIeth in 1994 and have never looked back since. Wales instantly became my home and I recognised the possibilities and potentials of living here and set about realising my own dreams. I consider it an honour and a privilege to live in this amazing country but that does not mean I don’t have my criticisms.
Much of Wales, although it looks so beautiful and natural is actually nothing of the sort. It is a landscape laid bare by industrial farming. Heavy sheep stocking levels and the use of nitrate fertilizers to improve pastures has led to much of the natural diversity disappearing. Wetlands and bogs have been drained, forests cleared, soils exposed to give way to a green baize of pasture ideal for fattening stock but at the expense of just about every other living thing.
Don’t believe me? Well look no further than Mid Wales’ own famous naturalist Iolo Williams. When he spoke at the Senedd in Cardiff in 2013 on the launch of the State of Nature report his anger was palpable, pointing the finger at the beaurocrats and legislators who had allowed the decimation of the natural world in Wales to happen almost unabated.
What I have to come to recognise is that we all need to question almost every aspect of our lifestyles and habits and find new and different ways of behaving that benefit both ourselves, our communities and the natural world. The third part is the big one as much of what the western economies have done is to sacrifice the natural world to extract minerals, fossil fuels and to clear the forest for intensive farming. This short-term wealth has come at a great cost and it is now clear that if we carry on this path then only war, eco collapse and worse await around the corner. This is our chance to learn and make this transition to another way of behaving.
Chickenshack co-operative was created in 1995 as a permaculture community to explore how we might live together differently and to have a different relationship to the land and resources. Bigger, older properties can be shared, greatly reducing costs, allowing tenants to invest these savings into insulation, renewable energy, planting productive trees, taking care of the land and restoring damaged ecosystems. When you look at this view over the property, even back in 2005 when this picture was taken it is apparent by the sea of green in the centre of the picture that the landscape has already changed significantly.
What was once primarily bare, sheep nibbled grass has given way to a diverse, richer and more mixed landscape. The land holds more water, is more productive and varied in its outputs, it is teaming with birds and wildlife in a way it demonstrably wasn’t 10 years previously and is far more attractive a place to live in. Just imagine the impact if millions of people started to apply these same ideas to their own homes and lives.
Permaculture design has the potential to steer human ideas of development in different and new directions, the possibilities of this reality is what motivates me to get out of bed every day!
In 2009, when I first moved to the Llanfyllin area I became involved in a project to renovate and save the old workhouse in Llanfyllin, the very same one my travellers lodge visitor friend had told me about back in Zimbabwe in 1991. One of the many projects I did there involved making a 6 part TV series for BBC Wales called ‘Changing Lives, Going Green.‘
I saw it as a chance to share some of the insight and inspiration I had gained from my own personal experiences and I started conversations with the production company to try to steer their ideas of what being green was all about towards a more permaculture informed viewpoint. In the end they offered me a part in the show as the host and guide for the chosen family’s green journey.
Filming whilst trading off the needs of the TV people, our guests and our own ideas and convictions was a lot of hard work and ridiculously long hours but we were proud with the resulting series. We had to fight hard not to allow the TV people to trivialize what for us were really serious and important issues and to a large part we just about managed to keep it on the right side of serious whilst being genuinely funny and fun at the same time. All credit to the family we worked with, they were such great sports.
All of this leads me back to Llanfyllin Transition Project and my continuing mission to open up debate and challenge people to see new possibilities where they might otherwise see problems and limitations.
I now live in Llanrhaeadr Ym Mochnant, at Dragons Co-operative, the 4th co-op I have helped found and I am still working hard for permaculture, community and sustainability.