Could this be my future? Do I want it to be? We passed via a Welsh mountain settlement on the way up to see my folks for Halloween (some ghostly pictures below – brace yourself).
A few weeks ago I bumped into a good friend Rachel in the local Waitrose. Yes, I was buying a few things, I hate to admit it. Rachel introduced me to a couple she has known for years – Mandy and Adrian. We only spoke for a minute or two, trying to resist the gently urgent tide of people going about their shopping chores. In that short time we realised we shared life ambitions.
And so it was that I was driving my family up a winding lane in the mountains of North Wales, with my mother behind, following the complicated instructions Adrian had just given me over the phone as to how to get to Ty Newydd from Bodelwyddan. We parked up hopefully at the bottom of a muddy, rock strewn drive in the hope I’d managed to break a habit and follow some directions.
After a few minutes of comfort breaks for the little ones and debates about footwear, we trudged up the hill, and were relieved to be met by our hosts. We were invited into their welcoming, rustic house for a welcome mug of tea. After distracting little baby James with a box of dominoes, which he decided to deliver to me one by one, we got on to their life story.
Over 20 years ago the couple moved into a shell of an old farm house on the Welsh mountainside. They set to work covering up the open windows and fitting a ramshackle Rayburn stove to cook and keep warm. They had little money, less paperwork and no experience. But with determination and the help of the wooded mountainside, they slowly turned their inhospitable abode into the idyllic place to live that it is now, bringing up their family into adulthood at the same time.
They built their wood timber home and barn themselves. It’s completely off-grid, with power generated in the main from solar panels – they have a room full of batteries. They do have a back-up petrol generator in case, with the tensions that brings when the grown kids want to use that little extra electricity. Most of their food is grown on site.
Adrian has built up a business managing the wood, with his own saw mill. He has designed a house that can be built truly affordably – no more than £40,000 – in a way that doesn’t compromise the future. He works hard to keep costs as low as he possibly can. Mandy and her daughter weave the most exquisite baskets from willow. Their two sons carve beautiful objects from the trees, in their barn workshop.
They are now looking to expand the settlement. The idea is that they build a number of these low cost houses across the valley, again off-grid and with food grown on-site. They are in the process of looking for planning permission from the council.
At times, this life can be difficult. When the sun is covered and there is little wind, the battery power can start to wane they can struggle to get enough electricity. They can run into problems with other local people who have a different value system. They also had the ordinary, day-to-day issues to deal with such as squabbling kids.
They see the future as being one where people migrate back to the country from the cities and are looking to help get it started.
I agree. When we can no longer rely on fossil fuels to run our farm machinery, fertilise our crops and transport the results to our door, we will need to find another way to feed ourselves. Small scale, high yielding, low machinery food growing methods such as permaculture become the way forward. That will mean a lot more people growing food.
Either way, I am interested in the lifestyle. Even if a mass migration to the country isn’t part of the future, my family doing so would mean that we would further reduce our impact and would be sheltered from the coming storm. I’m not necessarily sure my wife would agree, but that’s a different story.
We finished the visit with a tour of the managed woodland and a look at the saw mill and the designs for the houses, before heading to my childhood home on Anglesey with my mother. Thank you very much to the wonderful Mandy and Adrian for showing so much hospitality to a vague acquaintance.
A few days later we were in a Halloween party in the Canolfan, organised by said mother. Maddie looked very realistically ghost-like. I wonder if you can guess what I am dressed up as? (and, yes, that is Maddie getting more ethereal by the minute in the foreground).