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The good life.

A small community in Wales is battling to save it's `experimental village' from demolition by the planners. Julie Cohen went to Pembrokeshire to find out why.

IN THE SHADOW OF MOUNT CARNINGLI, hidden within Wales's sprawling Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, lies a village that until last year was a well kept secret. The only clue to the community's existence was a small sign beside a winding road that said simply Brithdir Mawr. This translates roughly as `large speckled land'. But through the gate and down the long muddy path lies a village that is very different to those most of us are used to. There's a magnificent domed-shaped building, a wooden round house with a turfed roof, a windmill and a water turbine.

If it weren't for the two cars parked in the yard you would think a time machine had transported you back many years. A man with a long beard and piercing eyes waves as he comes out to say "hello". He is the group's founder Julian Orbach, a brilliant academic who with his wife Emma, opted out of a comfortable middle-class existence to pursue a green lifestyle.

Ideal community

For the last four years the couple have been attempting to create their ideal community: a frugal, largely self-sufficient and mutually supportive mini-society with values harking back 150 years to a time when rural England was dotted with groups of people living simply off the land. Eleven years ago Julian, who left Oxford with a first class honours degree in history, and Emma, a graduate in Chinese, moved to South Wales. Julian had been doing historical research for the Department of the Environment into listed buildings, and Emma was working with disabled children.

Their dream was to live a simple life close to nature. They sold their 185,000 [pounds sterling] Wiltshire home, where their neighbour was the then Northern Ireland Secretary Tom King, and left to set up the first commune near Cardigan in Wales. However, there were only three families living there and the Orbachs' aim was to be part of a bigger group that could live off the land.

Five years ago they found the perfect place. The 165-acre farm was a near ruin with no heating or drainage but it was perfect for their needs. They paid 150,000 [pounds sterling] for the site and set about recruiting members. Now nine adults and seven children live in the experimental `village'.

"Permaculture, that's the important word," says Tony Wrench, a brawny and cheerful law graduate who gave up a promising career as a local council's performance review officer to live his life simply. "We want to work with the land using minimal intervention. Our aim is to be sustainable, not self sufficient."

Tony now earns 40 [pounds sterling] a week making wooden bowls and playing in a local folk band with some of the other villagers. Walking down a muddy track, he pauses to pick and eat some plants growing on a stone wall. "Mmm, sorrel has quite a sharp taste and this penny wort is crunchy and a good flavour in salads," he says.

Walking through the woods to his home he points out a badger sett. The huge hole is recently dug and he finds where they are making more tunnels. He says it's going to rain soon and sure enough, within ten minutes, the drizzle starts.

Picking up a fallen log he leads the way to his round house. On the way we pass a canvas lean-to. "That's the toilet," he says. The villagers don't want sewage to get into their water system so they have compost toilets. A toilet seat rests on top of a plastic lined box which is open to the ground. There is no flush, so after using it handfuls of ash and wood shavings are placed on top. When it is full the box is sealed.

"It takes six months to kill viruses like Hepatitis but after that all the bacteria is gone," explains Tony. "We are left with beautiful compost that we put on the land. Often I find strawberries growing because that's what I like eating and the seeds grow in the compost.

The only downside is that his toilet's outside. "It's not too bad, you get used to it and you find you don't need to use it in the middle of the night," he says. Your body gets used to a certain rhythm."

Cleansing plants

Outside his house is a bed of reeds. An underground pipe takes the `grey water' from the bath and sink and lets it out in the reeds. These plants have water cleaning properties so the waste can go safely into the ground without polluting anything.

The round house was Tony's own design. His mother said he's wanted to design a round home since he was ten years old. It is made of 13 upright logs. The roof is made of a rubber pond-liner covered with 120 bales of straw bound together for insulation, some canvas and then the turf roof. The walls are made of logs and mud, and the floor is clay.

Sadly it was the skylight in the centre of the roof that gave away the village's existence. In August 1998, the pilot of a small plane glimpsed the sunlight reflecting off Tony's house and alerted Cathy Milner, development control officer for the Pembrokeshire National Park Authority. Her staff were staggered when they learnt about the community. Not only was there Tony's round house but a dome, workshops and dens, a pigsty containing banks of ex-Ministry of Defence submarine batteries to generate power, and a wooden goat shelter with turfed roof.

Now the community is battling to save its village from demolition by the planners. "We never wanted this to be a secret," says Emma Orbach, the founder Julian's wife. "We just knew if we asked the planners they would say no but we wanted to prove it was possible to live like this. The village is a living experiment that we hope will provide beneficial knowledge. We've invited people in the local area to see what we're doing and they've all been very positive. We just want the chance to try a different way."

Behind the farm building where Emma lives is a large field where vegetables are grown. There is certainly no shortage of variety; potatoes, onions, garlic, strawberries, spinach, sprouting broccoli, cabbage, parsnips, beetroot, carrots, several varieties of lettuce for the salads, tomatoes, cucumbers, aubergines and nectarines are all grown.

Holy cow

They do have to buy in flour, rice, beans, cooking oil, muesli and porridge for which every adult contributes four pounds a week to cover the cost. At the moment goats provide the milk, but a cow is arriving soon. This has presented the villagers with a dilemma.

"Well, we've all sworn oaths to take our turns milking the cow," says Tony Wrench. "But the trouble is that to produce milk the cow must have a calf. Our dilemma was what to do with the calf if it is a bull. We are collectively vegetarian, but some of us do eat meat. In the end we decided to use it for meat. It was very difficult for some people. "We sat around and discussed it at our weekly meeting, which is when we make collective decisions about the running of the village and air any problems. The trouble with meat is it doesn't keep and we have no fridges or freezers. They use up too much electricity and are not needed with our lifestyle. When we need food we get it fresh from the gardens. That's why we collectively don't eat meat.

"We have a lot of water around so in the summer we keep milk and yoghurt in a box in the water to keep them fresh," he says.

The villagers believe they should work with the soil and use minimal intervention. "We want to disturb the top soil as little as possible," says Julian Orbach. "We start by laying sheets of cardboard on the ground to suppress the grass. Then that is covered with spoilt hay, bracken and mulch from the compost toilets. We plant the seeds on the soil we've created rather than digging down and depleting the soil. We never use pesticides, but as most gardeners know slugs are a real problem. So we're going to get some ducks so they'll eat the slugs. We're still very much at the experimental stage with growing food, but we're trying to expand. We hope to be growing wheat and black oats for the animals soon."

At the end of the vegetable garden is a magnificent dome-shaped wooden construction. This was assembled for the eco-veteran of the community, Letty Rowan. In the main farm building there is the communal kitchen and larder where home-made jam is stored. Upstairs is where Martha Orbach, 17, and her brother Ruben, 14, have their bedrooms. Martha is a testament to the benefits of home education. She now attends the local college in Cardigan two days a week to take her English A-level. She already has two A-levels in theatre studies and sociology. She hasn't decided whether or not she wants to go to university but she is certainly capable.

Martha's bedroom, like so many other teenagers, contains stacks of CDs. There's also a copy of High Fidelity, the novel by cult author Nick Hornby. She's just finished reading Bridget Jones's Diary and loved it, but she's glad she hasn't got a boyfriend for the moment.

Beside her bed is a wood-burning stove and a pile of logs to keep it going. "I was about six when we moved out of a modern house so I'm very used to the way we live," she explains. "My friends are really into the alternative ways of living, they don't think it's weird at all.

"Our lives are different, the pace is a lot slower and we live a lot closer to nature. Every Wednesday we do communal tasks together like chopping and gathering the wood. We have wood-burning stoves to provide all our heat. We practice coppicing, which basically means that the branches of certain trees are cut off to allow them to create new shoots and reach their maximum heights. We never chop trees down.

"We probably use two cartloads of wood a week in the winter. Collecting the wood brings us closer together. If you had a full-time job you just wouldn't be able to find the time to grow crops and collect wood. It's a vicious circle: you work, so you need to shop somewhere and store the food in a fridge and cook it quickly in an oven or microwave that works by just flicking a switch. Things are different here, we plan what we want to eat, grow the vegetables and then pick them when they're ready."

So will Martha stay in the village and live in the way her parents do? "I think I will live in a city at some point because I want a more conventional full-time job but I don't know whether I'll like it or whether I may end up living in this way. I definitely think that what my parents and the other villagers are trying to achieve is a good thing. Things like mad cow disease and genetically modified foods show us we've gone too far."

Pop goes the weasel

And what about Agnes, Martha's 11-year-old sister? "I don't like the compost toilets but I understand why we have them," she says. For an 11-year-old, Agnes is very articulate and beautifully spoken. On Thursdays she learns maths and English with her mum Emma. A friend teaches her geography, and Julian is in charge of French and history.

"We've got a television in the main house and I do like watching some programmes," she says, while curled up on a cushion playing a card game with one of the young boys who also lives there. She'd like to be a journalist, not in an office but travelling around, or maybe an actress. "I love my drama classes. I've got friends there who go to school and the only difference between us is that I prefer to be outside climbing trees. We listen to the same music. I went to see the band Catatonia last week with Julian," she says excitedly.

Emma believes in encouraging her children to develop their own interests and pursue those subjects they find interesting. "I find that all of them have been very self motivated," she says. "Agnes, for example, read Wild Swans and that led to her having a fascination with China so we taught her all about it. Schools have to have very strict timetables so they couldn't possibly have the time to let a child delve in depth into a subject he or she stumbled upon and loved.

"School also puts a lot of stress on children. Agnes has only been to the doctor once about a verucca, none of my children have had childhood illnesses, even though they had no vaccinations. I think this has a lot to do with the amount of exercise we have naturally in our lives and a lack of stress.

"So many people seem to be on a treadmill, just working to keep afloat. I believe if you go back to a simple way of doing things the quality of life improves. The things we have in our lives to make it simpler, such as a microwave, have to be paid for. So do electricity and processed food. It's far easier in the end to grow good nutritious food and cut out all of that and the need for the money to pay for it."

The only thing the villagers pay is the four pounds towards the food kitty and the money for petrol to run the combined cars. Julian does a few days of freelance work on listed buildings just to make enough money for improvements to help their lifestyle, for example the windmill and tickets to the local cinema.

The windmill may look grand as you enter the village, but in fact there have been a lot of problems with it. It is supposed to produce 12 volts of electricity but the blustery Welsh winds mean its sails often have to be removed for fear of them splitting. The water turbine is a far more reliable source of energy and there is always the bank of batteries to provide power.

With no fridges, freezers or cookers, the only electricity used is that powering the television, lights, radios -- oh and the word processors. The villagers may be living simply but there are some things they don't want to do without. There is also a shared telephone in the main house.

Hot water is produced by solar panels; these generate enough power for two baths a day in the main house. But many of the villagers have their own baths, either using their own solar panels to heat the water or boiling it over the wood-burning stove.

In Tony Wrench's round house, three solar panels are the main source of energy. Tony and his partner Jane, formerly a psychologist who was brought up in London, use candles on winter evenings when the power runs out after six o'clock. Paul Wimbush, a 26-year-old graduate in architecture who has been living in the village for a year, is the `horse whisperer' of the group. Quinn, a five-month-old foal nuzzles his nose into Paul's body. Paul is preparing him to pull the cart that brings logs up to the settlement.

His affection for animals encompasses all things great and small. As his son Jarvis, nine, is about to bounce on a trampoline Paul stops him to rescue a fly from being squashed. Jarvis lives with his Mum in Didcot but stays with his Dad during school holidays.

Paul also helps to keep the bees that produce honey for the village. Each hive produces ten kilograms of honey but at the moment he is struggling to keep them healthy as they have been badly hit by disease.

"Not everyone wants to live like this but when people ask me if I ever think about the things money could have bought me I just think about what they miss: seeing the full moon at night through the trees, riding the horses, watching your own food grow. People may think money can buy a good quality of life but to me the way we live is a truly high quality of life. I just hope the planners recognise it and allow us to carry on."
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Title Annotation:self-sufficient commune in Wales
Author:Cohen, Julie
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:4EUUW
Date:Jun 1, 1999
Words:2776
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