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Jonathan Duffy
"Walking through the gates is like stepping back a century..."
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Friday, 9 March, 2001, 13:14 GMT
The land that time forgot

Fighting for his eco-home: Tony Wrench
For years they lived in seclusion, until one day the authorities stumbled over Wales's "lost tribe". They fought for their alternative lifestyle, and won. But now they face a new battle, writes Jonathan Duffy.

It's hard to imagine anyone - let alone a whole community - could disappear for long in modern-day Britain.

But obscurity was what the people of Brithdir Mawr wished for and obscurity was what they got, for almost five peaceful years.

Gate at Brithdir Mawr
In that time the community, which is tucked away in a corner of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, toiled hard towards its aim of becoming self-sufficient.

It's a bitter irony that this drive for autonomy eventually helped betray them to the outside world. Photographs taken by a survey plane revealed a solar panel glinting in the sun.

The game was up.

When the park's authorities went to investigate, they were stunned to find a community of about a dozen adults, some with children, living contentedly and quite comfortably off the land.

Electric Reliant Kitten
This old car has been fitted with an electric motor
The story went out of a "lost tribe", journalists and TV crews showed up, followed by curious members of the public, and district planners pondered whether to pull down much of the development, which had no planning consent.

Three years on, and the community is prospering, if such a word can be applied to people who shun all common notions of wealth and success.

But the battle with the authorities is not over. While initial orders to demolish several buildings dotted over the 165-acre site were dropped, planners have not relented totally.

Brithdir Mawr...
...means large speckled lands
The national park is insisting on the demolition of a turf-roofed roundhouse that is a home to two community members.

Last month, the Welsh assembly's planning inspector upheld the decision, although it gave the occupants, Tony Wrench and his partner Jane Faith, 18 months grace.

Hydro electric wheel
With solar and wind power, this hydro-electric unit powers the community
The order came as a serious blow to the pair, not just because they would be losing their home but also because they had gone to extraordinary lengths in planning and building it.

From the off, Tony Wrench wanted a home that would stand in harmony with the local landscape. He set out some basic ground rules: the house should generate all its own power and all materials should be natural and biodegradable.

Cement was a strict no-no because of pollution during its manufacture.

Instead it was built around larch timbers cut from a sustainable wood inside Brithdir Mawr. The walls are a combination of logs, straw and mud; the turf roof was laid on a rubber pond liner that rests on larch timbers. In the centre is a skylight.

Brent Brown
Engineer Brent Brown gave it all up for the quiet life
The roundhouse, which is 34ft across, is sited several hundred yards from the main cluster of old farm buildings that are home to most of the community, next to a low grass bank, which provides shelter from the elements.

Even its circular shape draws on ancient Celtic influences, a fact endorsed by Malcolm Parry, professor of architecture at Cardiff University, who has visited the house and given it his seal of approval.

On a chilly winter's day it is warm, bright and cosy inside. Shards of green and blue sunlight stream in through the coloured bottles that are set into one of the walls. It may only have cost 3,000 to build, but the roundhouse is a welcoming retreat.

The guesthouse
Like everything at Brithdir Mawr, the roundhouse was executed with utmost esteem for the environment.

While the outside world ravenously chews up the Earth's finite resources in the name of comfort and convenience, inside the gates of Brithdir Mawr nothing is wasted.

Their mantra is sustainability, or, to be more precise, permaculture - the means by which man can live harmoniously with nature.

Living in the community
The settlement covers 165 acres
Meals are shared four times a week
Children are taught on site
Members don't claim benefits
Some do part-time work outside the community
As one resident put it: "Our aim is to live on this Earth and touch it as lightly as possible."

Despite these passionately held views, members have not banished the "real world", as might a religious cult or a commune of Luddites.

They have a television, video, computer (and a website) and mobile phones, all powered by electricity generated on site, through a combination of wind, solar and hydro power.

Inquisitive passers-by drop in about once a week, and there is a hostel in the grounds for backpackers.

It's hard to imagine how the inhabitants of Brithdir Mawr lived unnoticed for so long.

Jane Faith
Jane Faith prepares a communal supper
The truth, says Jane Faith, is that this "lost tribe" were never really lost.

"We were never hiding from anyone. We just got on with life, which sometimes meant going to the town for shopping. Local people knew we were here, we just didn't shout about it."

Emma Orbach, who set up the community with her husband Julian, bluntly analyses the philosophical gap between Brithdir Mawr and the outside world: "What we're doing is directly opposite to the goals of this society, which is to consume more and to make more money."

The couple bought the land in 1993, set about restoring the neglected old farm buildings - Julian Orbach is an architectural historian - and invited similarly minded friends to live there and share what they had. (They are in the process of transferring the estate into a trust that will be jointly owned by members.)

Clothes line
It looks like a hard life. There are no fridges, deep freezes, washing machines or microwaves. The lights are dim, since they run off the 12-volt supply, and most of the food they eat is nurtured from the soil.

"I just think it's a matter of attitude really. I don't find it difficult at all," says Emma. "I haven't had a fridge for over 20 years, I haven't used a washing machine for perhaps 25 years and I've had three children in that time."

Members must give three days a week to the community - work varies from laying hedges and tending the livestock to looking after the fruit and vegetable gardens and building fences. They can earn their own money on the other two working days but claiming benefits is not allowed.

Vegetable garden
Food for the future grows in one of the three vegetable gardens
There are four communal meals a week and, each Wednesday, the collective gathers for a meeting to vote on key issues.

Children are educated on site and encouraged to learn at their own pace. Some have gone on to take exams at a local college.

Nothing is wasted, not even human waste. The toilet huts are separate from living quarters but inside they look much the same as a normal loo - right down to the stack of reading material next to the pedestal.

Instead of flushing, you throw a handful of sawdust down the pan. After several months of aerobic composting, the result is "top quality" manure, says Tony Wrench.

Light into house
The light streams into the roundhouse
Compost loos, like so much else at Brithdir Mawr, characterise a highly unorthodox way of life. But while wood-burning stoves, rickety electrics and subsistence farming may look more 19th Century than 21st, some believe the community may be living more in the future than most of us.

For all its renegade appeal, the collective has earned some highly orthodox support.

Some of its work is sponsored by the Environmentally Sensitive Areas scheme and the community has been visited in connection with a Welsh assembly report into sustainable living.

Tony Wrench
Tony, a former local authority worker, say he will never return to a "normal life"
But the official backing clearly does not extend to Tony Wrench's eco-house, which will have to be demolished next year unless planners can be convinced to overturn the order.

Despite the approval of respected architecture critic Malcolm Parry, who gave evidence at a Welsh Office hearing into the future of the house, the authorities want it gone.

The national park objects to it being built in open countryside while the Welsh Office inspector called it "seriously out of keeping".

Tony Wrench, whose bulky frame and Grizzly Adams beard belie his placid nature and almost whispered tones, gets letters of support from the public every day.

The 55-year-old who once had a career on the other side of the fence, as a local government employee, believes his house is not a blot on the landscape, but a beautiful vision of how man can live happily with Mother Nature.

"You could say that it's our fault for building such an unusual house somewhere that isn't within a settlement," says Tony, who earns an income as a part-time woodturner.

"But I don't want to live in a stone, square house anymore. I don't actually find them particularly dry or warm and they're very expensive."

Despite the letters of goodwill and great public sympathy for his plight, this is a man who clearly longs for nothing more than a quiet life.

Local landscape
This land is our land: Tony surveys the local landscape
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08 Nov 00 | Wales
Eco house may have to go
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