Once upon a time there was a farm on the slopes of Carn Ingli in the Preseli Mountains of Pembrokeshire. For many years it was managed by three elderly siblings as a sheep farm. The farm was bought in 1994 by Julian and Emma Orbach, who set about renovating the buildings, establishing gardens and raising their family. People came and joined them, often just passing through. Others stayed for longer, established homes for themselves, and a community was born.

Meals were shared, seasons were celebrated and meetings were held to organise all the work that needed doing. The ideal was to embrace the principles of sustainability, simplicity and spirit; to find the simplest solution, favouring bowsaws over chainsaws, pen and paper over laptops; to use no more than our ‘fair share’ of resources, developing reliance on wholly renewable resources wherever possible; and to maintain contact with the spiritual in our everyday lives, celebrating the seasons with an awareness of the contribution of our thoughts and actions to the smooth running of all that is.

Eco-buildings were built and eventually found by the authorities; most famously, the roundhouse Jane Faith and Tony Wrench built (see www.thatroundhouse.info  for the whole story), which turned the community into an international media fest. Brithdir Mawr was the home of the ‘Lost Tribe of Wales’; living in obscurity on the side of a remote mountain in Wales. For a short while the world – as far away as Hong Kong- was fascinated by a bunch of visionary hippies trying to lead a life in a different, gentler way. Since then a huge storm has blown over the Roundhouse. It has certainly challenged the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park’s definitions of sustainability and appropriate housing and has opened the door for serious debate. The Roundhouse story has contributed to the inclusion of a Low Impact Development policy into the Joint Unitary Development Plan; a document outlining planning policy for the whole of Pembrokeshire.

Beyond this, life continued. People came and went, relationships ebbed and flowed. Eventually, it became apparent that the aims of sustainability and spirit could be interpreted in many different ways. It was clear that it would be more fruitful and less painful to establish another circle within the community rather than stretching the continuum of ideals beyond reasonable limits. On a more secluded part of the farm, away from the yard and buildings, more low impact straw bale huts were built, a new garden was created and Tir Ysbrydol was established.

Around the same time as this, Emma and Julian decided to divorce which meant that the farm would be divided. Tir Ysbrydol adopted half of the land and woods, the land surrounding the Roundhouse became the Roundhouse Trust and the farm buildings and about 80 acres of pasture and wood remained with the community – all those living in and around the farm yard.

Before long, in 2002, Julian found that it was his time to leave. Six members were then left to decide how Brithdir Mawr should continue. Without its founding members, the community was, for a while, adrift. However, it was soon discovered that six was a good place to start. Decisions were made that boosted confidence and allowed us to see what Brithdir Mawr Community should be; separate from Tir Ysbrydol and The Roundhouse; fully able to stand alone. A period of re-invention and re-visioning ensued. The Housing Co-operative was formed in order to collect the rent to pay to Julian and to hold the fifteen-year tenancy. A Company limited by guarantee was incorporated to deal with the farming and business side of things and hold insurance for the site. This formality was quite a different feel to the community in the early days, but forming both bodies eventually made it more straightforward to deal with officialdom and the outside world.

Many years on and Brithdir Mawr Community is everything you find on this website. A lot remains the same, a lot has changed and a lot remains open to debate and clarification.
It has been an exciting process to come this far, and the prospect of taking Brithdir Mawr into the future even more so.

The ethos has remained similar, but the structure of the community has changed at times over the years, so if you visited in the early days you might find some differences now. And when the owners of the site separated, then quite a lot of things had to be rethought.

In 2003-04 the new legal structures were set up, and our formal principles worked out, and since then things have been quite stable, with things working really pretty well most of the time.

Our Animals

We have always had working horses on site. A family of four coloured gypsy cobs were rescued and brought here, with hopes of training up the two youngsters to take over. The two parents have retired and moved elsewhere and training has begun on the other two so that they can help us with carting, wood extraction and other jobs. We also have four dairy goats, a good flock of chickens and ducks as well as three rowdy geese. We currently have one colony of bees after not having a bee keeper for a couple of years, we’re hoping to increase this over the next couple of years. There are compromises involved in any animal farming system and we try to meet these in an ethical manner that everyone can agree with.

We have cats to keep the rodents in check and some of us have dogs.

The land is fantastic for wildlife, we have a huge range of residents including badgers, foxes, owls, dormice, bats, buzzards, frogs and newts.

We probably have less animals in total than most farms, but we look at our animals differently to most farms. We do not push our animals to unnatural limits. All the stock is free-range and what we ask of them seems to us a fair exchange for their food, security and comfort.

We milk our nanny goats morning and evening, which is enough for all the goat milk drinkers plus enough extra from Spring until Autumn to make fresh cheese. The chickens have a large enclosure where they are free-range and they produce enough eggs in the longer days for all our needs.

The ducks are Khaki Campbells, highly trained slug-killers, which patrol the organic gardens keeping them relatively pest-free. The dogs and cats are family pets, but their very presence around the yard tends to keep foxes and other predators away from the poultry.

We rent some of our land for short periods to local farmers to graze their animals. We raise geese to graze the orchards and to generate a bit of income by selling young birds. Some of us eat meat which is produced as a by-product of the milk and eggs, that is to say excess billy goats, cockerels and ganders.

More recently we have been eating wild animals and fish which have been hunted or caught. In general, however, communal meals are vegetarian.

The Gardens

We have two large gardens, a field crop area, four polytunnels and some orchards. We aim to grow all our own fruit and vegetables. This means we eat very seasonally. Of course, this is easy in August, when the main problem is usually how to use the courgettes and beans fast enough! It can be more of a challenge in May, when there may be a few brassicas but not much else. To get round this, we do lots of bottling, chutney-making, and pickling in the summer so that we have plenty of interesting things to cheer up our meals during the hungry gap.

All our gardens are worked according to organic principles. We make lots of compost and use manure from the animals to keep the soil fertility high. We also sow many of our beds with green manure in the autumn to improve fertility and soil structure and keep down the weeds when they’d be otherwise empty. We only use non-hybrid (open pollinated) varieties, so that we are able to save our own seeds.

We grow some vegetables specifically for seed to be sold to the fantastic, Newport based seed company, Realseeds.

THE TOP GARDEN

The top garden contains annual beds, perennial beds and areas of fruit trees and bushes, herbs and edible shrubs and flowers. It also has a number of exotic specimens in a forest garden area. We share the garden with a lot of other creatures among them toads, bats, damselflies, slow worms and of course, slugs!

THE BOTTOM GARDEN

The kitchen garden grows a lot of our annual vegetables, and is a pretty traditional organic garden based on a four-year rotation; beans, followed by brassicas, then roots, then leeks.

The bottom garden is managed on a bed system, and we try to dig as little and mulch as much as possible. We have ducks for slug control. The garden is very sheltered, and on a south facing slope. This combined with the relatively mild Welsh coastal climate means that providing vegetables year-round isn’t too much of a challenge.

THE POLYTUNNELS

We have three polytunnels which are fantastic both for growing tomatoes, peppers, grapes, apricots and other heat-lovers in the summer and also for making sure that we have a good supply of salad stuff all winter. We also use them for early crops such as carrots, onions, beetroot and beans.

THE FIELD CROP AREA

In order to have year-round staples such as potatoes, onions, garlic, drying beans and peas we have two larger plots away from the gardens where we grow these crops on a larger scale. We work these areas by hand and usually organise specific work weeks for preparing, planting, maintaining and harvesting them. Being further away from the yard they are more prey to pests like the rabbits, and pigeons.

FRUIT

We also have lots of fruit trees: apples, pears and plums which, along with soft fruits such as blackcurrants and gooseberries, if not eaten fresh, get made into jam, chutneys, cider and lots of wine! We join our neighbours for an annual community apple day in Autumn where we press our apples into juice.

Woodland Management

The community at Brithdir Mawr manage around 85 acres of land, including approximately 20 acres of mature woodland and 20 acres of coppice (4700 trees from collected seed!) planted by community members since the land was bought in 1994. Most of the mature woodland is a result of encroachment since the Second World War, mainly of birch, ash, alder and willow, but there are some much older specimens, especially large oaks along the old hedgebanks. In 2005 the housing co-op bought 6.6 acres of broadleaf woodland, adjacent to Brithdir Mawr, planted in the 90’s by a local tree enthusiast with the help of a Forestry Commission grant – this is known as Doug’s Wood.

The woodland here has always supplied most of the community’s firewood. In the early years fallen dead wood was mostly used; we have discontinued this practice, as it is better to leave dead wood for insects and fungi. Our needs can be met by thinning the older trees as required and increasingly making use of the coppice. We have two large woodsheds: this ensures that we have a good supply of well-seasoned wood – necessary as wood is our only source of fuel for heating and cooking. We also produce wood for crafts – various courses have been organized here, for example making oak gates and bentwood hazel chairs. 

In the early days of the community almost all of the felling and processing was done with hand tools: axes, double-handed crosscut saws, bow saws and billhooks. This led to many enjoyable work parties in the woods, with only the birds to listen to and no annoying chainsaws buzzing. We would cut up the wood into manageable lengths, split it and stack it to season, collecting it a year later, often by horse and cart as well as tractor and trailer. In the long term, this proved unrealistic as we need a lot of firewood and our time is too limited, so now we have embraced chainsaws as an effective use for limited petrol supplies. However, we still do much of our coppicing with hand tools, the old way.

In the course of all this, we have come up against some of the challenges involved in planting and caring for new woodland. Grey squirrels are a major pest, stripping bark off young trees and killing them. Oaks are especially vulnerable. There is little we can do about them as there are a lot of squirrels around us! One type of tree they don’t attack is ash, but ash dieback disease, which is predicted to kill 95% of all ash trees, has unfortunately reached us. In the face of all this, we are now thinking the previously unthinkable and considering planting non-native species in order to broaden our ability to respond to these threats and the threats of climate change.

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© Brithdir Mawr, Cilgwyn Road, Newport. SA42 0QJ