In 1951, the Llwyngwern slate quarry in central North Wales closed down, causing many redundancies.
In 1973, on the same site, something new, something very new, opened. It is now the area’s largest employer.
So what happened? Well, back in the ’60s and ’70s, alternative lifestyles were the “in thing” among people who’d decided to opt out. Hippies and others turned their hairy heads away from the environmentally destructive lifestyle of mass production/consumption and explored more earth-friendly ideas. These included wind power, solar power and organic gardening — along with more usual activities such as strumming guitars, wearing hemp caftans and getting stoned.
Although their ideals and goals were largely admirable, according to Gerard Morgan-Grenville, Old Etonian, British-army veteran and businessman, such groups were “mostly muddled and disorganized, fragile. Most failed.”
Morgan-Grenville was determined not to follow suit. He, too, was looking for a saner, non-destructive way of living in harmony with the environment, but he wanted it to actually work.
Which was why he first came looking for a place exactly like the old wreck of the Llwyngwern slate quarry.
Morgan-Grenville, despite his background wasn’t (and isn’t) what you’d call “Establishment.”
A fervent environmentalist, he arrived at Llwyngwern to find “something of a jungle, scattered with ruinous buildings from which birch trees grew in profusion.”
Here, he decided, as golden leaves fell in the windless autumn air of “this still and private place,” he would establish a center of environmental excellence — an organization to bring into the mainstream ideas that many folk still associated with the lunatic fringe.
And you know what? It actually worked.
The result is the Centre for Alternative Technology, one of Wales’ principal tourist attractions and the most prestigious establishment of its kind in Europe.
CAT is more than a fun day out — it’s an absolute education.
If you really want to enter into the spirit of the place, leave your gas-guzzling, pollution-emitting car behind and go by public transport. There are trains to the nearest village of Machynlleth from the English transport hubs of Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton and Birmingham.
Upon arrival, rent a bicycle and — if you don’t get killed negotiating the 5 km of narrow, winding road that leads to CAT — your efforts are rewarded by discounted admission at the ticket booth. Arrive by car and, I’m afraid, you pay full whack.
The first sight to greet the visitor is a funicular railway, powered entirely by water. The principle is simple. At the summit is a small artificial lake. Water from here is pumped into a ballast tank attached to the rail car at the top. When the tank is full, gravitational force pulls the top car down and — neat! — pulls the bottom car up. “To stop both carriages accelerating up and down and crashing, they are slowed down by a system that stores the energy of braking by compressing gas in cylinders,” explains Morgan-Grenville.
This stored energy is used to pump some of the water back up the hill. A 4-kW turbine 45 meters lower down uses the rest of the water energy to generate electricity, then lets the stream flow off and away. Very little goes to waste here — even the sewage and dirty water is filtered through reed beds and emerges as pure and clean as fresh rainfall.
At the top of the funicular railway, the business of CAT starts in earnest. There is no one center, rather a series of different buildings, gardens, working farms and displays. These range from a wind- and solar-powered public telephone box and wave machines to the Mole Hole — the latter “shrinks” its visitors by re-creating a mole tunnel at many times life-size, giving insights into how soil “works,” and what lives in it and keeps it healthy.
Some of the ideas on display might appear a trifle outlandish. There is a house built out of bales of straw (no jokes about pigs and wolves, please) and compost toilets (“We welcome your contribution!”), which operate without water and provide odorless fertilizer for the center’s fruit trees. On seeing these concepts put into practice, however, the visitor soon realizes that they make a great deal of sense.
Many of the ideas — wind pumps, coppicing, waterwheels — have been around for hundreds, in some cases, thousands, of years. CAT has simply polished them, adding a splash of refinement and a dose of lateral thinking, then packaged them in a way that appeals to a modern mentality. There’s lots of new stuff, too, though, including the best insulated house in Britain and an urban garden without natural soil.
Where Morgan-Grenville has really succeeded, however, is in making what is a worthwhile but potentially dreary subject come alive. CAT is a very hands-on place, with lots of buttons to press, knobs to twiddle, things to eat, plants to sniff — and brain cells to stimulate. It also has a noticeable sense of humor.
In short, there’s little risk of being bored, whether you’re a child, a casual visitor or a serious businessman in search of “green profits.”
Then there is the added attraction of CAT’s location, not far from Snowdonia National Park and an easy drive (or shattering — if eco-friendly — bicycle ride) from the picturesque North Wales coast. Don’t waste too much time on the west coast, though. Dull.
Two final points.
1. CAT offers residential courses on everything from “Green Funerals” and “Build Your Own Wind Turbine” to “The Role of Renewable Energy in Business” and “Domestic and Community Composting.”
2. For those wishing to become more involved, CAT welcomes volunteers to augment the efforts of its 80 staff members, on either a short- (one week) or long-term (six months) basis. The volunteer program is extremely popular and tends to be fully booked by March each year. So, would-be CATers, it’s time to get cracking!
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