Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Moving from the epitome of urbanity to an eco-centre in rural Wales - A Writer's Diary

When I first talked to Laura Wilkinson about writing a regular column on: Moving from the epitome of urbanity (central London), to an eco-centre in rural Wales; I said that my main concern about coming to the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT)1 in Machynlleth, Powys, was that the idyllic countryside and utopian lifestyle could prevent me from writing. Laura pointed out that that was an interesting idea in itself, because essentially it's like I'm off to spend six months in the environment of a writer's retreat: something most would expect to bear the most fruitful of prose. But I find that a lot of my work has been angst driven: a blatant escapism from the urban trappings and excesses of a typical London lifestyle.

I have come to CAT as a Long Term Volunteer (LTV), working 9-5 in their Publications Department. In London, I worked as the Publications Office for the Nursing and Midwifery Council, editing their quarterly magazine; a job I may well return to at the end of this six months. I have been lucky to get one of the few sought after LTV places on site. So I'm living as part of the intentional community, which represents the origins of CAT (in the seventies, a few crazy pioneers2 came up to this abandoned slate quarry, did up the tumbledown miners cottages, and started what is now the largest eco-centre in Europe). I live in what's known as The Bath House, the smallest and most basic cottage. There are 12 other people that live on site, all ages, one of them just six. We eat together twice weekly and pay subs for our food which is delivered three times a week; all as local, vegetarian and organic as it can be. We garden and grow, recycle, compost, are about to build a new communal building out of straw bales and timber, and we use minimal electrical appliances (no toasters, electric kettles or coffee machines). We live as sustainable a lifestyle as possible, as an ongoing experiment and to my mind, as an example that it can be done.

MAN is it different to my shared flat in Bethnal Green! But I knew it would be, and that's why I chose to come. In terms of getting in touch with my resources, I shall never, ever just be able to twist up a radiator without appreciating it again. Also, we have our own water supply here, completely off the mains, and it tastes absolutely delicious; there're compost loos (which don't smell at all, although it is still coldish) with the rest rainwater flushable; a brisk walk to the shower, or a jump in the icy reservoir if you're braver than me; and of course, there's the ever-fluctuating power.

The Diary - Weeks 1-4
Roaring in its metal box is my little heat creature. I light its belly each morning and evening, and it belches black smoke at me; its hinges squeak as latch shut the phoenix-embossed iron door and often it grows so hot that I have to open the window and let some air out. When it rains it sounds different: not just rain falling on concrete, like London rain, the rain I knew; but rain falling on soft things, leaves, round twigs, the earth roof of my house, running off gutters and falling on piles of slate: wetter somehow, damp, refreshing sounds that treble against the bass of the fiery belly of my stove. And then there's always the tapping of these keys, my subconscious heavy hits where the 'r' and the 'd' have started to stick; making me feel like the handicapped writer in Stephen King's Misery. But always, at the heart of the sounds, is an enthusiastic purr, reminding me that before Stove came along, Laptop was my favourite mechanical thing.
These past few weeks, as a newby at the CAT, have seen my writing, as I expected, take something of a back seat. But not for the reasons I anticipated: it's because my little heat creature, Stove, takes alot of looking after. He is a gobbly little greedbag. He needs more attention than I ever had to give anything. I imagine that having a woodburning stove is not dissimilar to having a baby, and like a mother loves her baby: I love my stove. When he's too quiet I worry and check on him; is he still breathing? Sometimes, after a quiet spell of neglect, I look inside his hot belly and am dismayed to see his heart has died to a rich embery glow; but now (after four weeks of solid experience) with just a few dry splits of wood and a gentle well-positioned blow, his flames lick up to life again and I shut the door and he roars away happily.
Stove and I have a fairly good relationship now: it initially started off with some distrust from me (will he burn down my small, wooden, house-on-stilts down while I sleep above him in my thin Heidi-style mezzanine bed?) he repaid my mistrust by refusing to light, belching out copious amounts black smoke and then suddenly becoming ridiculously hot. The latter was my fault. I the inexperienced was stacking him up to sauna-heat-levels. Now, Stove lights up in minutes and is quite well behaved - unless of course I have a guest, and then he shows off and resolutely keeps his cool.

So Stove has dominated my life here. I get up as early, as I did in London, at about 6.30am, in order to write. But instead of the ongoing Adventures of Norah Fleex (my novel-in-progress), week one was taken up with the diary led: Adventures of Hannah Davey. It cathartically archives my initial grapple with many new faces, a very rural life, a non-hierarchical working environment, communal living and whole heap of culture shock. But from week two until now (week four) I have been able to write fiction again, but in a desultory fashion, which, to be fair, has seen me complete two shorts - so I can't beat myself up too much. But these small fictional victories are overshadowed by the nagging fact that Norah Fleex has been laying next to her lover Benjamin Ambigraph, in a treehouse, for close to a month now. She needs to move on.
It has struck me, since being here, quite why people used to have servants. I have read my fair share of historical fiction: countless Jean Plaidy 'and' Victoria Holt3 books; some Catherine Cookson; Philippa Gregory; the Brontës; Kathleen Winsor; Jean Rhys; Sarah Waters; Suzanna Clarke4; and of course, fairy tales unnumbered. I have never been able to get enough of bygone days when women stitched by candlelight; stoked fires; dipped curtseys, and men strode about in britches and rode wildly through the moors. When everybody had hardships and heartache and broke cultural taboos with their illegitimate children, witchcraft and whatnot. As a girl, I was often caught looking wistfully into the middle distance, imagining I was Cinderella or the Little Princess. What I am trying to illustrate is that my imagination is steeped in the romance of a bygone age: and through living on site at CAT I have inadvertently fulfilled each and every one of those historical heroine leanings. It's bloody brilliant!

As most Hags members will know, there are a lot of servant characters in historical fiction. After all, they made up a good proportion of the population and were often more interesting than the noble-born. I have had a glimmer of an insight into the life of, or at least the reason for hiring, a servant. Sometimes, I even have a smudge of soot on my cheek for goodness' sake. And I always have sooty knees and hands and all my clothes smell of wood smoke. In London, when all my clothes smelt of smoke, it meant I had hung around in some dingy bar for too long. Of course, I can only imagine what it was like to manage a household of fires; and bedpans; and fetching and carrying; and cleaning; all in a corset and mob cap. My little house is leaning towards the grubby side of clean, but it does look kind of like a hovel. Besides, I don't have any hot water. So really, this experience hugely facilitates me being Cinderella; Heidi; pic-a-Vicky-Holt-heroine; Little Two Eyes, etc. I like it. And I also think that's why I'm more into my whimsy short stories, as opposed to the marginally more developed and contemporary Norah Fleex and company.
Living here for six months, I know, is going to be, and is already, an experience not to be missed and if Norah has to lay next to Benjamin for another month while short stories trip out of my head instead, and Stove and I get to know each other even better - then so be it.
There are quite a lot of things I could talk about next month, and there's bound to be more things that haven't happened yet; or I can just tell it as it comes. To give you an idea of other miscellanea I could blather on about, here are some of the things I haven't mentioned:
Climate change: the biggie, this could include what CAT is doing with its Alternative Energy Strategy; sustainable living and other eco-stuff - but don't expect a very technical response, it's all about enthusiasm.

Our transgender hen phenomena: she thinks she's a cockerel, but her loud clucks don't sound nothing like a cock-a-doodle-do to me.
The sauna: which sits on the edge of the reservoir and they say is traditionally used naked! I am being proper prudish on this one.
The quarry: an amazing suntrap dell of wildlife, which has been officially closed since the mouth of the tunnel fell in on the unfortunate foreman back in the 1920s, a couple of hundred yards from my front door. There are steep paths in, or beautiful walks round the edge of it.
Or I could field questions! So please do feel free to ask me some.
Until next month!

Hannah in the hills

1. www.CAT.org.uk - have a look, it’s an amazing place, its mission: to inspire, inform and enable people to live a more responsible, sustainable lifestyle. From building your own wind turbine to identifying wild flowers, organic gardening and why you shouldn’t leave electrical appliances on standby, it’s ALL here. If anyone finds themselves on the west coast of Wales, Powys, do come and say hello!
2. There’s a book for sale called Crazy Pioneers that explains all www.cat.org.uk/publications
3. Jean and Vic being one and the same, along with Philippa Carr.
4. I just finished Jonathon Strange and Mr Norrell – if anyone fancies an incredible detailed and therefore thoroughly believable account of the flamboyant return of English Magic in the 1800s and its aid of Wellington in the Napoleonic wars.


Laura said...

Hannah, I would very much like to hear more about your energy plans and initiatives... In conversation with friends yesterday on yet another spookily hot April day we were talking about climate change etc and what more we could, as individuals, do. There was some talk about windmills... how difficult it can be to get planning permission for them in residential areas, how little energy they produce, even in windy places like Brighton. However, none of us are experts and I'd love to hear more from more informed people.

Stigga said...

Sounds like an idyllic life!!! I would be very interested in taking up a position for 6 months but one question.........Is there no meat there? I love vegetarian food but don't think I could cope without a nice piece of meat every now and again, if not then where does CAT stand on sushi?

hannah said...

Hi Laura,

I am not an expert on any of this stuff! But I think the thing to remember with all this, is that there are easier steps to make - for example, first, you could switch to a green tariff. Most of our energy here at CAT comes from our wind turbine, which also supplies much of the local area and also excess power, which we sell back to the grid. But we live in the foothills of Snowdonia – so we didn’t even have the option of a grid connection to start with. The CAT website has a great info section, and a factsheet about this very topic, here’s an extract;

“For most of us, generating our own electricity is not going to be profitable, as electricity through the grid is relatively cheap compared to the costs of setting up a wind or hydro turbine or photovoltaic (solar) panels. However, we can all easily power our homes and businesses with renewable energy supplied through the national grid. This both supports the renewables industry and sends a message to the government that we want to support non-polluting forms of energy.

“You can now buy your electricity from any supplier, and many of them now offer either 'green tariffs' or 'green funds'. A green tariff will match your electricity use with energy from renewable sources. A green fund uses some of the money from your bill to support renewable energy installations or research, or other environmental projects.”

It goes into much more detail and also gives websites with renewable energy suppliers. Visit http://www.cat.org.uk/information/catinfo.tmpl?command=search&db=catinfo.db&eqSKUdatarq=20020925155707 for more info


ps I hope this doesn’t sound like a cop out, but I ain’t no engineer and I just don’t know the ins and outs of wind turbines!!

hannah said...

Hi Stigga,

As an exercise in living sustainably, site-community’s diet is as ethical as possible - this means that all the food we buy communally is organic and vegetarian and as local as possible. We are currently also looking further, into the carbon footprint of our food, to try and make it even more sustainable. Unfortunately (and I say this because I LOVE meat) meat just isn't sustainable as a food - there are a whole heap of reasons why, to do with embodied energy and its carbon footprint, the meat industry, battery/factory farming, etc (I’m still learning all this stuff, and to be honest I’m kind of not looking into it too far, because I know it will be pretty challenging to become fully clued up, and then decide to continue to consume meat).

So, as a community we are vegetarian. CAT as a visitor centre is vegetarian too, the restaurant is, and so are the staff lunches - and this is to demonstrate that you can make/eat really varied and tasty veggie food. However, CAT is non-hierarchical and everyone here is responsible for themselves and their own decisions - so I am perfectly free to eat meat as much as I like, but it doesn't come out of the communal pot and I have to buy it myself. When I do this, in keeping with the ethos here and as a part of site-community and because I want to be responsible to my planet, I endeavour to buy locally sourced, organic free-range meat (like welsh lamb - yum).

I also find that because I eat less meat and when I do it's really good quality, it tastes way better and I appreciate it more!


ps one of the volunteers here is Japanese, she made us all sushi on her birthday and we bought the fish of the fish guy at the weekly farmer's market - it was REALLY nice.

Pps it is great here, you should come for sure.

Laura said...

Thanks Hannah - this is really good to know. I am currently on a green tarrif at home (so can feel really good about myself too!!! Oh, smug, smug smug...) and I also have a compost and am investigating one of those 'green joanna's in which you can put all the stuff you can't put in your compost, pasta, meat (!), fish etc. West Sussex Council are offering these things with a huge discount but I've not heard anything from East Sussex. It would be wonderful if there was a cross country policy on these sorts of things. For example where my mum lives (not so far from CAT in fact) in North Wales the council do a green waste recycling collection which they don't do here in East Sussex. Anyway, thanks again for your reply - any other tips that come your way please do share with us all!

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Немного предистории.
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Раньше мы их сжигали.
Потом мне подсказали, что за поддоны можно получить деньги.
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около 10 лет на Рынке Промышленной Тары с прекрасной репутацией.
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Цены закупочные оказались самые высокие в г. Челябинске.
Все цивилизовано грузчики загрузили [b]Паллеты[/b] ешё и лом поддонов купили, расчитались на месте наличными.
Про другие фирмы я узнавал либо Цены низкие, либо Бракуют много, да и денег от них не дождешься.

Так что если у вас завалялись [b]европоддоны[/b], не торопитесь их выбрасывать, лучше обменяйте их на деньги.

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