A journey through a better way

The more you look for sustainable alternatives, the more you’ll find. In this personal travelogue, Daphne Tomlinson shares experiences from local places and people, and insights into repair culture, leisure choices, and our food and energy systems. 

Camping In Wales

“Camping in Wales?  Are you mad?”

Most of my friends would have understood, but I was talking to a well-heeled member of the Cotswold Set – gite in France, yacht in the Caribbean, climate change “a socialist plot.”

“I’m not mad. Wales is beautiful.”

“Yes, but…….camping?”

“Great fun.”

I didn’t mention that I’d be traveling by train and push-bike. The scorn might have buried me.

Packing was tricky. You can’t fit much into a small back-pack and two panniers. And Wales equals wet weather gear. Could I sling wellies over the handlebars? Luckily, I’d been promised a bed in a barn or caravan,  so tent and sleeping bag not needed.

I’m not very fit. Low carbon living is physically tough. So it’s a daily run followed by yoga. Then press-ups in front of the telly (to distract from the pain). I probably ought to give up sugar. Apparently, it exacerbates arthritis, the last thing I need when it’s just me and the bike on a lonely Welsh road.

The bike is 20 years old and rattles a lot. I think the front wheel might fall off. So I take it to Access Bike, a charity that reconditions bikes to pass on to children and young people. The workshop is friendly and welcoming, a place where those who don’t fit well in our “normal” world can feel at home. After 3.30, youngsters from local schools come to tinker with bikes and hang out. Whoever tinkered with my bike did a good job. I don’t think the front wheel will fall off and the back brake works.

The first part of the journey was easy. Four miles along a cycle track to the station at Stroud, then a lovely rest on the train to Bangor. I wasn’t looking forward to the last bit – 7 miles uphill to Bethel, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it North Wales town. Mine was not the only bike on the train. As concern about Climate Change rises, more and more people are travelling as I did. Train companies have yet to catch up and provide enough space, but staff were friendly and helpful about squeezing us all in.

At Bangor, I was met by my daughter Holly, who lives at the farm where I’d be staying. We delayed our uphill trek by going to a meeting of North Wales XR. Opposition to this group is tempered by people’s worries about Climate Change and relief that someone’s doing something, as well as the serious non-violence of XR’s actions. Plans for a cycling blockade of roads and support for a school children’s strike were discussed.

Holly and I then took to the hills, our journey broken by spectacular views across the Menai Straits to Anglesey. My next few days were spent cycling, farming, cooking, eating delicious meals in great company, enjoying the views and sleeping like a log.

Mountains and Polytunnels

Tyddyn Teg is an organic vegetable farm which runs a local veg box scheme. It is a co-operative whose members live and work on the farm. As well as regular planning forums, the team meets once or twice a day for meals, cooked by members on a rota. Only cooking occasionally makes the job  more interesting and much effort goes into producing wonderful meals to reward your mates for their hard work. Some chores are monotonous. Planting 13,500 leeks can get boring. But as a team it’s more fun and thinking about the next meal helps.

In the commercial world, vegetable production is labour intensive, usually hierarchical and reliant on badly-paid migrant workers. Small farms can be lonely places with a high suicide rate. Workers at Tyddyn Teg have their own caravans, so can mix communal living with privacy. For the first 2 years of their marriage, Holly and Jono lived apart – he in Tyddyn Teg and she 200 miles away in Stonehouse. “When I lived in Stonehouse, I often felt lonely. I had friends and family nearby, but seeing them required effort and I was usually too tired after work. Since joining Jono at Tyddyn Teg, we live in our own space but share meals and common spaces with other people. I can socialise or be by myself as I wish.”

Tyddyn Teg strives to break even, but the project is not money driven. Financial lack can cause awkwardness outside the farm – you can’t always pay your round in the pub. But within the co-op, consumerism loses its grip. Before she joined Tyddyn Teg, Sally had a well-paid, stressful job from which she relaxed by going on frequent holidays. She does not need to do this anymore. The discontent which drives retail therapy is not in evidence.

Co-operative life provides steep learning curves. There is no room for unregulated egos. The interests of others have to be given equal weight to one’s own. “Us not Me” is tough for those raised  with neo-liberal values. On the plus side, there is dignity in the equality of decision making. All are in control. The sharing of ideas and projects can be exciting and stimulating. Speaking one’s mind is not just important for communal living, but also psychologically healthy. Skills can be shared and learnt from each other. When someone’s pipes froze, another member was not only able to fix the problem, but also share his knowledge. Climate chaos will force change on the world. Diversity of skills, social and practical, will be essential.

Energy Local

Near to Tyddyn Teg is the small town of Bethesda, where hydro-electricity is generated in the surrounding mountains.

Most people in the UK get their electricity from a national supplier who trades in the energy market. Suppliers buy electricity at different prices at different times of the day, depending on level of demand and generation available. This variation is not passed on to the customer, whose bills reflect a uniform price at the higher level throughout the day.

Energy Local is piloting a scheme in Bethesda which allows customers to save money by matching their electricity use to the time when maximum power is generated. Residents and generators within the area served by the same electricity sub-station as the hydro-electric plants have formed an Energy Local Club. Members are provided with Smart Meters which track costs every half-hour throughout the day. Householders can thus monitor their bills. The club chooses a partner energy supplier that sells the extra power needed when there is not enough local electricity generated.

The scheme addresses a major drawback of renewable generation, which is variation in supply. The sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, the strength of a river’s current varies. In effect, if Energy Local were nationwide, the UK could substantially reduce its reliance on fossil fuel.

A further advantage to the scheme, due to its localism, is the efficiency saving achieved by avoiding transmission losses which occur in high voltage parts of the National Grid.

Penny lives in Bethesda and is a member of the Energy Local Club. “It is wonderful knowing that my electricity comes from a renewable source and is generated by the river that runs past the bottom of my garden. Even if it cost me more, I would still think it’s great. In fact, it costs me less.”

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