Brithdir Mawr: Trailblazing eco-commune in global appeal for £1m needed to save it

Colin Drury
Goats are raised on the site for their milk: Brithdir Mawr

One of the best things about living in the remote eco-commune of Brithdir Mawr, says Nick Ward, is the fact his home has no toilet.

Every time the 48-year-old needs to go, he must walk the five minutes from his wooden yurt to the shared compost-based conveniences.

“On a clear night,” he says, “you get to see the moon and the Milky Way. I sit down and I can still look at the stars.”

It is an experience, he adds, which one does not get “in the average house lav”.

As more of us attempt to lead sustainable lives, Brithdir Mawr – a community of 10 adults and seven children living off the land in rural Pembrokeshire – may set the gold standard.

Here, residents, who occupy a ramshackle collection of ultra-basic cottages and wooden cabins, grow almost all their own food, produce all their own power – and create all their own compost.

In a bid to opt out of modern-day consumerism – and the eco-destruction that accompanies it – they spend their days tending organic fruit and veg patches, rearing free-range chickens, milking goats and coppicing the surrounding woodland. They have removed themselves from the national grid and installed solar panels, hydropower and a wind turbine. Even the tap water comes directly from a nearby spring.

By night, there are no power-guzzling TVs or games consoles. Rather, the 17 come together for communal wood-cooked dinners in the shared central farmhouse. Afterwards, they gather around the fire for conversation and games. An upstairs room has been converted for producing wine.

“Some people say it’s back to basics but I think it’s back to the future,” says Nick, who originally comes from Birmingham but has lived here for three years. “People are waking up to just how much damage we are doing to the Earth – and they are looking to places like this to show a better way.”

So successful has the community been, indeed, that it has inspired the Welsh government to create a unique planning law with the explicit aim of encouraging others to build similar low impact dwellings, homesteads and communities. More of which shortly.

Yet, for now, there is bad news: this particular Good Life could soon be brought to an abrupt end.

Landlord Julian Orbach – who first set up the community in 1994 and lived there himself for the best part of a decade – has announced he intends to sell the 80-acre site.

He has given the community first refusal but, unless they can somehow raise the £1m asking price by 2020, they will be forced to leave, and the commune will be wound up.

Now, in response, residents are launching a global appeal to attempt to generate the cash and save their eco-society.

“It would be heartbreaking if it just ceased to exist,” says Nick. “Not just for us, but in general. The world needs more places like this, not fewer. But we will do everything we can to save it.”

More than 100 people have lived at Brithdir Mawr in its 25-year existence – some for decades; others mere months – and, arriving here on a sunny September day, it’s easy to see the appeal.

Tucked five minutes down a dirt road in the foothills of the Preseli Mountains, the commune sits amid lush green slopes and mature woodland of birch, ash and alder. The soundtrack is birds singing, wood chopping and children playing on rope swings. Ducks walk lazily about, undisturbed by the community’s two dogs. No one here locks their doors. Many of the eight or nine dwellings don’t even have locks.

“Three months ago I was living in Slough,” says Lea Trainer with an air of disbelief as we sit on a garden bench drinking herbal tea made with spring water. “I was working 12-hour days, just trying to keep up with rent, breathing in Heathrow fumes. Now, I wake up every morning to this.”

The 35-year-old, who came here with his family, waves his arms around: “It’s the best decision we ever made,” he enthuses. “We already feel healthier, calmer, less fatigued. I actually get to see my kids during the day – how many dads can say that?”

Later that night, as we sit by a log fire in the family’s small cottage (kitchen, lounge, a single shared bedroom), I suggest the foursome –that’s Lea, wife Kirsty, 33, and their children Brianna, 8, and Frankie, 7 – don’t seem like your average commune dwellers. He was previously a building project manager, while she was a PA. Their oldest child, Scott, is 18 and in the army.

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“We’re definitely not typical but that’s the point,” says Kirsty. “You don’t have to wear tie-dye or have dreadlocks to be at home at Brithdir. You just have to understand there are better ways of living than the horrible nine-to-five – for both you and the planet.”

She prods the fire. “The joy here is you’re forced to slow down and appreciate what matters: your family, nature, good food. I don’t want to sound all cringe but that connectedness is important.”

They moved after Kirsty, who home-schools the two children, brought the pair here for a week-long educational trip in January. “They were texting me about coppicing and stone walling and bird-spotting while I was at work,” says Lea. “I don’t know what an epiphany is but I think I had one. When I came to pick them up, I said: ‘Let’s come back as a family’.”

After that second visit in March, they applied to move into the site’s only vacant cottage. The rest of the commune approved.

The evenings, too, have a certain magic here. Dinner is announced by that day’s cook blowing a horn. Residents sit around a vast oak table and tuck into curries, broths and soups mopped up with homemade bread. On the night I stay, ratatouille is served with potatoes and salad. “Everything you’re eating is grown right here,” Ann Andrews-Mason tells me. “Apart from the butter. We can’t make that. Yet.”

The mass gathering – which this evening includes four volunteers staying at the commune for a week of work – somehow has the strange feeling of Christmas. “I get that,” says Lea. “When you produce your own food, eating it becomes a celebration. Dinner becomes an event every night.”

It is a way of life well known to student Grace French.

Although she no longer lives on site, the 19-year-old was born here – in the room next to where we speak – and stayed until she was 16.

When she talks of her childhood, it is of mud pies, camp fires, outdoor swimming. “I suppose it was pretty unique,” she nods. “But I never knew anything different. I enjoyed it. Until I became a teenager, maybe.”

And then? “I was on my phone a lot,” she says. “The lack of reception could get annoying.”

Lea Trainer in the communal farm house kitchen – complete with wood-burning oven (Colin Drury)

Certainly, life here has its challenges.

Rent is around £200 a month so most residents work part-time jobs in nearby Newport village as well as labouring on site. Electricity supplies can be unpredictable and sometimes go down. And decision-making, even for minor things like changing the cleaning rota, can drag on for weeks.

“You put proposals to a weekly meeting,” explains Lea. “Then they get discussed, amended, considered, taken forwarded, amended again, then, eventually, there’s a final vote. And all you did was suggest something like tidying the wellies more often.”

Probably the community’s finest hour was inspiring a historic change to Welsh planning law which has made it easier for others to set up similar off-grid homes and communities.

That achievement dates back to Brithdir’s creation in 1994.

Oxford University graduates Julian Orbach and wife Emma bought the farm and land as a place to live out their ideals of simplicity and spirituality. But, as others joined them, a number of low-impact wooden buildings were constructed without planning permission.

When they were seen by the local authority in 1998 – an official in a low-flying plane spotted a solar panel glistening in the sun – the residents were ordered to pull the buildings down.

The discovery was described at the time as a “lost tribe” being found in Wales. Several newspapers, including this one, dispatched reporters to the scene. Many were confounded to find the place signposted and common knowledge in the area. “It’s quite surreal to hear you’re part of a lost tribe,” muses Tony Haigh, a Cambridge University maths graduate turned gardener who has lived here for 21 years. “Especially when you only live five minutes from a main road.”

The compost loos (Colin Drury)

Either way, a decade-long legal battle to retain the buildings ensued with the community arguing that, because the wooden structures allowed people to live self-sufficiently, while having almost zero environmental impact, they should be allowed to stay.

The Welsh government, with one eye on the need to reduce the country’s ecological footprint, eventually agreed: in 2008, it passed the One Planet Development law allowing the building of low-impact homes in protected planning areas as long as they provided their own energy and water.

More than 40 such developments have been approved across the country since.

“We always knew we were in the right,” says Tony. “I could never understand what these officials hoped to achieve by trying to move us. But then what does officialdom ever hope to achieve?”

The 69-year-old – originally from London – is the collective’s longest current resident: “I just like this way of life,” he says. “I like the community, the peace, being active every day. I’ve never wanted anything else.”

Having been here so long, he is confident Brithdir Mewr can now win its new fight for survival, too.

“They’d have to carry me out, anyway,” he says. “This is my home – I won’t be leaving quietly.”

For the time being, the 17 residents are hoping things don’t quite come to that.

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They have been given until early 2020 to show they can raise the money and will, this week, kickstart a crowdfunding campaign. It will be launched with an onsite party featuring – but of course – circle dancers.

If that initial fundraising goes well, they then plan to open a community share scheme offering anyone anywhere in the world the opportunity to invest in the set-up. The idea from there is that, if they raise enough to buy the land, they will then generate future income by setting up a range of onsite social enterprises including a Welsh language school, a farming retreat and a holiday campsite.

“It won’t be easy,” admits Lea, who is leading on the scheme. “But we have to try. We live in a time when governments everywhere are declaring climate emergencies because of the environmental damage our societies are causing the Earth, so it makes no sense to let Brithdir fail. The world needs what we are doing. It needs our 25 years’ experience in doing it. It would be a tragedy to lose this place.”

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