I was recently asked by my daughter Alice to write a piece about what possessed me and a group of like minded friends to move to a wild hill in Wales in 1973. Having recently re-read what I wrote her last year I feel it has relevance in giving some historical context of the road to where I am now. What is perhaps most striking is that my motivations then, almost forty years later, are not so far removed from those early instincts that have been central to my life and my work. Here is what I wrote her.
In the summer of 1973, when I was just 22 years old, a kind of migratory instinct compelled me and a group of six fellow ‘urban refugees’ to emigrate to West Wales and start farming.
We were part of a mini wave of mainly urban, would-be communards that formed the back to the land movement in the early seventies. I guess there were not actually that many of us, as if there had been, West Wales would have been overwhelmed, but we certainly weren’t the only ones. I recall driving into Lampeter during the search for our dream farm and seeing a group of people who looked rather like us – early twenties, long hair, wildish, hippyish, hanging around outside Smudger and Josies’s, Mulbery Bush whole food shop, and exclaiming excitedly “look, more freaks,” as we used to refer to ourselves.
The commune formed a company, Whole Harvest Ltd. We rented the farm from Stuart Donaldson’s wealthy father, who had made his money building up a firm of London estate agents. The early days still seem very vivid. We ate all our meals together, milked the cows (which we named April to Zulu, following the letters of the alphabet) in rotation, and spent each breakfast time discussing that mornings milk yield, before loading the crates onto a multi-coloured trailer and driving them down a steep hill to the end of our impossible farm drive to the churn stand, ready to be picked up by the Milk Marketing Board.
Our aim was to build a self-sufficient community in preparation for the ecological collapse that we were convinced was surely on its way. On one level, it now all seems so far away and long ago, almost a dream time. In another way, it is amazing that so many of the issues that concerned us then are not only still relevant today but have actually begun to become mainstream. In other words, we were classic early adopters, but although I can trace the events that lead to the establishment of our project, the fact that they proved such powerful influences that they drove us to make such a dramatic move is somewhat of a mystery.
Perhaps the key catalyst and call to action for me, was a spell in the San Francisco Bay area in 1971. Whilst in California, I read The Greening of America, met some interesting people and became infected with the atmosphere of the West Coast. When I got back, I was deeply convinced that the world was cruising towards an environmental disaster and in light of this, the only sensible response was to get back to the land and set up a self sufficient rural community. So that is what we did.
This is a very condensed version. Between getting back from America and arriving at the farm we did try to prepare a bit. I got a job on an intensive dairy farm in in Hampshire and then did a course in biodynamic agriculture in Sussex. But thinking about it now, what is really striking is not only how incredibly little I knew about farming but also that my ignorance was actually a benefit. If I had been to agricultural college and had a conventional training, I would never have dared to challenge the orthodoxy of the time. I would have instead doubted the simplicity of my observations – that the fields of England were all turning a horrible chemical shade of green in the spring, that pesticides were toxic, and that couldn’t be right.
Our naivety seems amazing to me now. I remember standing on our yard one day when a man selling life insurance and pension schemes turned up. Stuart told him that none of us needed insurance because if something went wrong we would look after each other. We didn’t question for a moment that six people and a baby might find it slightly stressful to live together for more than a very short time in a cold welsh farmhouse with no mod cons and floors that quite literally became streams in wet weather. But thank God for the innocence and the madness of youth, because without it, the farm project would never have happened.
Nearly 40 years later, I am still here writing this on the same farm. It is the stage on which my ideas can be tested and put into practice and is ultimately the place that consistently infused my life with meaning and purpose. Bwlchwernen Fawr has become the place to which I still return at every opportunity to recharge my batteries and reconnect with my family, myself and the land.
Sign up to our Newsletter
Stay up to date with the latest SFT views and news