|“Visions of Alternative Futures” is a series featuring intentional communities I visited for my research on values-based approaches to transformative change. This is an experimental study working with principles of decolonial research, as well as more conventional methods such as questionnaires and interviews. Ultimately, I am hoping to learn more about which psychological values are relevant to transformational change, and how we can use those insights to promote social justice and more ambitious environmental policy. I am spending some time in each community, immersing myself in their everyday life and letting my research be guided by participants. It was of particular importance to me not to engage in researcher-centric, extractive methods but to give back to the communities so that they can also benefit from my project. These articles are part of this endeavour and serve to amplify the wonderful work the communities are doing.|
The last community on my travels was Brithdir Mawr, a breathtakingly beautiful piece of land just a short walk away from the coastal town of Newport in south Wales. Surrounded by intact woodland, it is a rare sight amongst the depleted landscapes of Pembrokeshire, which are characterised by vast stretches of agricultural land along a picturesque coast.
The Brithdir Mawr Community are completely off-grid and generate energy through solar panels, a hydroelectric system and a wind turbine.
View on the Bottom Garden at Brithdir.
The Brithdir Mawr Community identifies as a low-impact eco-community with a focus on self-sufficiency. The community keeps goats, ducks, chickens and bees on its 80 acre farm and grows fruit and veg in polytunnels and gardens according to permaculture principles. The Brithdir Mawr Community see themselves as stewards of the land and aim to work with, rather than against nature. The land is organised around the farmhouse – which acts as a community hub – with members living in surrounding buildings and caravans. There are four different permaculture gardens – Top Garden, Middle Earth, Bottom Garden and the Field Crops area.
“We coppice wood for fuel, bake bread, preserve produce, and use our own materials such as wood and willow for craftwork. We take care of the land, recycle and conserve resources. We use compost loos and are off the grid for electricity and water.” – Brithdir Mawr Community
The Brithdir Mawr Community is built around three main principles: Sustainability (working towards a lifestyle that leaves the local and global environment healthier for future generations), Community (flourishing by working together, rather than separately), and Education (sharing and exchanging skills and helping others towards a more sustainable lifestyle). On my first day at Brithdir I joined a community-led tour, learning about the beautiful land, history and everyday life at the community. I was particularly impressed by the diverse landscape and the pond, which was built by volunteers and is teeming with wildlife.
View on the farmhouse from the Bottom Garden. Photo: Benjamin Mathews
An eco-building on Brithdir Mawr. Photo: Benjamin Mathews
The community’s compost toilet. Photo: Benjamin Mathews
The story of the Brithdir Mawr Community began in 1994, when founders Julian and Emma Orbach purchased the farmhouse and 160 acres of land – which used to be a sheep farm called Brithdir Mawr – at an auction. Julian and Emma started renovating the buildings, growing their own food and raising the family. As people passed through, the community started growing and being built around principles of sustainability, resource sharing and living with a minimal impact on the environment.
When the founding couple split up, the land was divided into three. Emma’s land, Tir Ysbrydol, is now used for eco-retreats, where people can experience living in harmony with nature, with no electricity or phones to distract. The community initially started building eco-homes without a permit, and when the local government discovered the community, a legal battle began – most famously around the roundhouse, which is on a much smaller portion of the land than Brithdir or Tir Ysbrydol. This raised the profile of Brithdir, Tir Ysbrydol and the Roundhouse internationally, and contributed to policy changes in Pembrokeshire which paved the way for more low impact developments.
When Julian left the community in 2002, a period of re-visioning ensued, and the housing cooperative was formed so the community could continue living on the land.
Brithdir’s goats by the volunteer-built pond.
The community’s wood storage shed.
In the last 20 years, Brithdir has seen many people come and go, and thousands of people have visited, volunteered, and participated in Permaculture Design Courses. Before Covid, Brithdir hosted a volunteer week every month, which is also the gateway to becoming more involved or even a resident. Prospective members can return to volunteer in the community for a month, followed by a whole year after which the community decides whether to welcome the new resident. This ensures that everyone in the community is comfortable with who they live and work with.
One of Brithdir’s poly-tunnels, where they grow a lot of their food.
Brithdir Mawr are self-sufficient throughout most of the year.
Brithdir Mawr Community today
The community aims to grow all their food in the top garden with annual beds, fruit trees and edible shrubs; the Bottom Garden with vegetables which rotates its crops to keep soil healthy; polytunnels in which tomatoes and other heat-loving vegetables are grown; the larger field crop area with staple vegetables which is also worked by hand; and various fruit trees which are either eaten fresh or made into chutneys, jam, cider or wine. In order to be self-sufficient throughout the year, the community pickles and preserves crops which are abundant in summer. Brithdir makes compost from animal manure to keep the soil healthy, and saves its own seeds – with some donated to a local seed company.
The surrounding woodland supplies the community with all the wood they need for cooking, heating their homes and building and maintaining structures. Most of the work is done with hand tools, and wood is stored in allocated sheds. Some of the community members eat meat and cheese, which is sourced from the small number of farm animals- but generally, most community meals are vegetarian.
Nick, one of the residents who I interviewed for my thesis. Photo: BBC
Fresh produce grown on the land. Photo: Benjamin Mathews
I had visited Brithdir Mawr the year before, and there was something comforting about seeing the place barely changed by the pandemic – apart from the community having shrunk to nine adults and four children as some of the previous residents have moved on. Since then, the community has been working hard on developing their internal processes with the help of Will, a new resident and former activist with a plethora of experience in group dynamics.
My week at Brithdir was spent interviewing community members and volunteering in the garden. In the summertime, there is always something to do. I helped weed the area around the beans, picked up slugs in the bottom garden to feed to the ducks, and harvested a bucket of redcurrants. During the week, the community comes together for lunch breaks and communal dinners; on the weekends, people are free to spend their time as they please.
One of my favourite things about the house – apart from the gorgeous view on rolling hills and woodlands I enjoyed from my room – is the low-impact community shop on the ground floor of the house. Instead of having to go to the shops, residents, volunteers and visitors can buy bulk items such as oats, pasta and rice, tinned goods, cooking ingredients and even chocolate. People write down whatever they take in a little booklet and then pay the sum at the end of the week. This saves not only transport emissions but also reduces unnecessary impulse-buying – at least it had that effect on me.
Ponies grazing on Brithdir Mawr by the pond.
One of the abundant vegetable patches in the Top Garden.
The Future of Brithdir Mawr Community
The original lease of the land is coming to an end this December, and there is uncertainty regarding the future of Brithdir Mawr. The community have been given another five years to raise the money to buy the land and are now planning out their next steps. Get in touch with the community if you want to help, and make sure you sign up to their email list to stay updated!
The bottom garden, where I helped remove slugs and picked redcurrants.