‘We’ve got the knowledge here, we’ve got the potential.’ – Joel, Machynlleth.
The desire for solitude…
I’m starting to feel like the lone ranger, my singleness weighing on me. But it’s not a feeling of isolation, or loneliness… Stranger, a hardening of my boundaries, a reluctance and disinterest in intruding on others, a new feeling of difficulty in looking someone in the eye, or asking about them, whilst my mind and its imagination inflates into a pop up universe of its own. It’s like the mind can incorporate external stimuli like sights, stories, experiences before a certain threshold is exceeded. Or maybe it’s fatigue, of a mental kind, or the changing of the seasons I am experiencing and immersed into a daily, hourly degree, more intensive than ever before. The dark is drawing in, and weeks of cold, grey and wet weather has us turning inwards, towards the hearth and the familiar figures and sensations that surround it. Maybe I’m tiring out, as other travellers have done who I’ve read, their last days a grainy and gloomy blur. I hope not. I’m finding such rich secrets already in north Wales, and more is promised.
Maybe I need a break from all this. I’d like a day off, a day inside my imagination. To dream, to sit down and compose music or paint all these landscapes and impressions locked inside my mind like moths in a pint glass. At this hostel in Kings, a few miles away from Dolgellau, untouched by televisions, phone signals or internet access, one has the time and freedom to contemplate a little longer the spectrum of greens in the trees, the differences of hue, form and the textures of their skins. I cycle through its surrounding forests, some steeping into dense and overgrown groves where lichens and moss camouflage even the barks in verdant colours. A river flows nearby pursuing the desire of its course, pulsing, ever changing but remaining the same.
I want to live encircled by the trees, away from the tyranny of communication and productivity. In a shack knotted miles in from here down an unmarked path. I’d make a clearing and attempt to grow vegetables, enough for now, others to pickle and preserve in winter. I’d cut down the trees for what fuel I’d need, and find some water source for my sustenance. I’d learn to do without electricity, without a phone or laptop, and surround myself in paints, books, and an instrument of some kind. Bags of wheat and rice I’d acquire in a fortnightly trip into the nearby village, where I’d pick up a newspaper to remind myself of the phantasmic fears of the modern world, and a pint or two, an occasion to practice my speaking.
The peace and tranquility would become difficult after a couple of weeks. There is no love or loving in such a place, and I’d wither. Socialised into a culture and way of life that needs immediate gratification and distraction, my paints and piano would weigh on me and bore me like last Christmas’s toys. It is an impossible fantasy. But today it comforts me.
I awake at Kings after a good night’s sleep. The dorm is full but my room mates are each quiet and reserved, and there’s no wish on anyone’s part for small talk. This hostel is a refuge. I take arrogant pleasure at the sight of the drying room, my cheap sweatshop high-street tees and shirts hanging like lost property with all the expensive waterproofs and cycle-specific clobber. I’ve been riding for three months in this stuff, the kind one would wear to a nightclub or to the shops. The guests in the kitchen talk about their respective routes, slow roads to the south welsh coast. One man shares his experience of cycling Land’s End to John o’ Groats, twelve days of just cycling but looking down, seeing nothing, for the sake of completion. The manager of the hostel is a large friendly man here only a year but welcoming and warm. This is a fine place to retreat.
‘Nothing is real, everything is fake’ – Ballard’s nihilism speaks something today. There’s a degree of post-adolescent frustration in it – ‘real’ and ‘reality’ are meaningless terms if they can’t be experienced, fake would be real, or the belief that reality needs to be rescued, that one’s symbolic mother and father have been duped by a greater conspiracy. But this society and culture are based on a narrative that is made, and that we tell ourselves. It’s historical but affirmed in the present. Something like ‘mustn’t grumble’, or ‘money makes the world go round’, or ‘they’re all as bad as each other’ are narratives that close up the possibility of change. This taste for dystopias in popular science-fiction, of the popularisation of environmentalism on the back of a certain apocalyptic feeling, each indicate a cultural condition of pessimism that conveniently stifles creative action. But it’s the mood music of the new I read, the conversations I have. It’s hard not to feel angry and depressed at events around us, and the powerlessness of popular movements to transform all this. Better to gaze at these trees, listen to this stream’s gentle jingling, the breeze’s sighs between the trees, and the chirruping of swallows flitting above one’s head, or the croaky cries of the distant kestrel.
People when travelling often share what is important to them, I find, whenever I stay at a hostel. Parents talk about their children, walkers talk about trails and rivers, or birds, students talk about what they see in the world and what they might make of it. People often blow off steam, safe in the confidence of strangers they will never see again. There are complaints about partners, doubts about one’s choices, usually extinguished or closed with a kind of sarcastic and sometimes cheery resignation – what can you do eh? This extends up and down, from politics to childhood whims. I believe everything can be changed. Pushing hard on the pedal, forcing open a closed door, uttering words that were unspeakable – each is alarmingly then thrillingly much easier than one expected. If reality is a kind of dramatic stage set, then acts can change at those rare decisive moments when power is within us.
Maybe the trees are allowing that day inside the mind… It’s easy to get lost in one’s thoughts out here in rural mid-Wales, between the counties of Gwynedd and Powys, where there are few villages or settlements, where the road is accompanied by gentle forests and fields. I’m not travelling far today, and after around ten miles I reach the Centre for Alternative Technology or CAT, a few miles north of Machnylleth.
The centre’s nestled within the remains of an old quarry in the Dyfi valley, and was established back in 1974 as a working community to develop and test alternative technologies and lifestyles. Over forty years, volunteers have transformed the site into a large complex that exhibits and teaches about forms of sustainable living. It’s run as a cooperative, and retains a large core of volunteers and a smaller number of staff, many of which live on the site. CAT is a self-funding social enterprise, but its income still heavily depends on visitor numbers and enrolment on its postgraduate courses. I’m later told that they’ve struggled recently with numbers in both.
It’s a fun place to visit. After parking my bike, I join several families inside the carriage of a cliff railway that whizzes us up to the main complex. It’s entirely powered by water! The site itself is fairly large and filled with curious buildings and organic gardens. I have some lunch and coffee in the café before joining a tour of the site lead by Joel, a friendly chap who ordinarily runs CAT’s free information service. We wander around the site, and seemingly conventional-looking timber buildings and features acquire new significance.
The site is powered by a microgrid that draws on solar, wind, water and trees to keep the site running. There’s a self-built timber house. Surely it’s freezing cold in winter, surely rot is eating it away? It’s insulated with earth, and posted on metal dampeners to prevent rot. Then there are other structures built from straw bale and clad in lime. The material is porous so it keeps out moisture unlike concrete, and doesn’t release any carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We’re shown a wood burner, and told that wood, elephant grass, straw, oilseed rape and animal wastes release far less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. CAT is committed to a vision of a zero-carbon Britain by 2030, and Joel believes that the UK has the technology to power itself on entirely renewable energies. I’m enchanted by the prospect, but all this itself feels unsustainable and remote. How would timber houses, wood-burning, or lime-clad walls ease or empower the residents of Loughborough Junction, Leicester or Liverpool?
Joel points out the huge government subsidies being given towards nuclear energy at the moment, and in the past. Mainstream gas provision in people’s homes required a huge programme of state investment and subsidies for something we now consider a normal feature of homes. Why is that that far more assistance is being given to more dangerous and expensive forms of energy than renewables? Yet the UK has an abundance of tidal and wind power, this being a series of islands blasted with bad weather and stormy seas. Why not take advantage of it? If the UK were to harness just a third of its available wind resource, it would produce sufficient power to meet the population’s needs. Offshore farms near major cities would be a more sustainable choice over the piecemeal turbines that were built over the last ten years, and which to a degree have been built to fail. B&Q’s popular roof-top turbine can only ever produce more energy than it requires to operate in rare conditions. But fed into the national grid, these larger farms could power communities. At the same time, communities will need to keep working to reduce their electricity consumption. If one thinks about the popularisation of recycling, or of turning off devices and lights, all within the last fifteen years, then there’s no reason to think this is not possible.
Indeed, subsidies for solar panels and wood-chip burners have made them cheaper whilst funding a boom in UK companies producing these. Innovation and growing production lowers their costs further, and a legal stipulation that all new homes should be built with solar panels would also help, something that has worked in Spain, we’re told. A programme of investment now might prevent the lights from going out in the future. Unfortunately current government policy is a confused muddle of supporting expensive and dangerous energies, and the large companies behind them, and mere inaction.
The CAT is a worthwhile place to stop at, and leaves plenty to think about. It’s only a small place, but its modest attempt to develop and present new forms of sustainable living are a cogent reminder of the possibility of an alternative society, and the real advantages that would come from developing these fledgling renewable technologies into something that can fully serve the national grid. I like it.
A few miles south is the town of Machnylleth itself, where I’m staying for the night. It’s a small market town, wizened with age, pleasant and languorous in mood. The town claims to be the ancient capital of Wales, given that Owain Glendwyr, our man in Corwen, held the first Welsh parliament here in 1404. Its applications for city status have rightly been rebuffed. There’s evidence that the CAT has attracted an annex-community of ecologically-minded folk, and the town’s has a fair share of quaint organic cafes, wholefoods places and small businesses and charities. I stop in the Quarry café, where for hot drinks one has the option of a barley cup or a dandelion coffee. I choose the latter, which has the remarkable taste of a weak black coffee but with none of the bite. Readers may wonder ‘why bother?’, but when in Mach…
I pop into the nearby Red Lion for a drink of something more substantial. It’s a marked contrast to the oversized cheque shirts and folk leanings of the CAT community. It’s around five PM and the bar’s manned by a team of heavy-drinking discordant folk with an accent a little tangier than that of north Wales. One fella’s spent the best part of the afternoon inspecting the quality of the lager and is now worse for wear. Something offensive is said to the lady beside him, and a furore’s afire, voices raised. Being a regular he’s not exactly barred, but after harsh words he’s sent home. The place is fine, and there’s a local writing group that meet here. This is a more familiar side of north Wales, and reminds me of Dolgellau, of Bangor, of Llangefni. The barmaid says that ‘I applied for loads of jobs before I got this one’, though doesn’t feel so beloved about it. Low skills employment is often the hardest to find. ‘Look outside’, she says to the insulted lady. ‘I bet you can’t wait to get to Egypt.’
I meet Sylvie under Mach’s distinctive clocktower. She’s kindly offered to let me stay at her place for the night, again found through the couchsurfing website – something I highly recommend to anyone travelling on a budget in rainy weathers. Sylvie’s originally from Brighton, but came to the town to volunteer at the CAT. She worked in its information service until it became apparent that the organisation was financially struggling, and job positions looked increasingly precarious, ‘the writing on the wall’. She now works for a local solar panel company. She tells me that many former CAT volunteers now work and live in the town, including all of her five housemates. Most are English, and only one in their household can speak Welsh ‘after three attempts’. I’m left with an impression of a division in the town between locals and sustainable living enthusiasts that also fixes around cultural, national and class divides.
A couple on bicycles greet her as we wander back up to her place. They’re behind the Public Interest Research Centre, a small research charity and information resource that aims for a more democratic and equal society through the communication of information and transformation of attitudes. I enjoy the high level of idealism around here. I’m introduced to Sylvie’s housemates and wander around their wonderful home, where former forest ordinance maps serve as wallpaper. There’s a plethora of freshly-grown vegetables picked from her housemate Bryn’s allotment.
Together we cook the most extraordinary meal: baba ganouche made with marrows, home-made hot salsa and tzatziki, roast marrows with mozzarella, roast peppers and mushrooms, with a large helping of couscous with apricots. It’s enough to feed the six of us, and delicious and nutritious fare. Over food we talk about walking and exploring the Welsh coast. There’s some wonderful terrains further south, I’m told, which Bryn and Judith have explored on foot, wild-camping as they go. Sylvie’s been involved in anti-fracking protests too and has also met Silver Fox, my friend near Preston. It’s an evening of informative, friendly and laid-back conversation. Mach’s a good place, quiet and small but well worth taking time to explore. I sleep early and well.