I arrived at Brithdir Mawr on a gray Tuesday afternoon in autumn. I am deep in West Wales on the slopes of the beautiful Pembrokeshire National Coast Park, green hills stretching out as far as the eye can see. The air is sweet with the scent of wet grass.
One of a growing number of communities living sustainably and off-grid in the UK, Brithdir Mawr is home to 13 adults and five children. At the entrance of the main stone house, there’s a pile of battered-looking Wellington boots in every size and color, all caked in mud. It has been raining for seven days straight. “Welcome to Wales,” one residents shrugs.
I’ve wrapped myself up in four layers of clothing by the time Claire and Charl, two escapees from London, give me a tour of the place. They show me the ducks, the goats, the vegetable plot. Charl stops in his tracks a couple of times. “Look at that view! Can you believe it?”
The young South African couple were Londoners for nine years. When I ask them why they decided to go off-grid, almost a year ago, they tell me about their little boy, who has a complex medical condition.
Five-year-old Phoenix can’t walk and doesn’t communicate like most children. In London, he was surrounded by a team of specialists, which Claire describes as “amazing,” but when doctors tried to put the toddler in frames and other metal contraptions, his parents went after other forms of therapy. “We couldn’t afford that [treatment] privately, living in London. Everything was just too much,” Claire tells me.
The former yoga teacher and her husband, an ex-chef, made a life-changing decision. “We were like, ‘Right, let’s make this break. Let’s take a year out,’’’ Claire says, “and that’s what we did. We sold all our possessions and hit the road.”
There’s another reason they left London, and as a serial renter with eight addresses in 12 years, it’s one I’m all too familiar with. “Our street started being bought by all these Russian and American millionaires,” Charl says, describing how they felt pushed out of the neighborhood as prices started to soar. “Then came the coffee shops. That’s when we knew it was time to go.”
Many of us in the UK have reluctantly accepted the creeping housing crisis. Our Generation Rent all have our stories of evictions, unscrupulous landlords touting poor-quality and overpriced housing, or local communities uprooted and neighborhoods gentrified. But today, in a country where 100 tenants every day lose their homes, an increasing number are trying to live solely off the land.
23 Years of Sustainable, Off-Grid Living
Brithdir Mawr was founded in 1994 by architectural historian Julian Orbach and his wife, Emma. The couple spent years renovating the farmhouse while raising their three children and wanted to create a group of like-minded people to live and work on their sprawling property: mostly vegetarians who would grow their own crops and live off the land. Over the years, people have come and gone, relationships ebbed and flowed, but the community’s tenets remained the same: sustainability, simplicity, and spirit.
Being off-grid means they don’t rely on infrastructure such as municipal water or an electricity company. The community generates its own energy through wind and solar power, and a stream that rolls down from the nearby mountains provides them with all the water they need. For hot water and cooking, they rely on wood — lots of it. Not the cleanest source of fuel, but I was told the community has worked to reduce their carbon footprint by as much as 70 percent.
Back in northwest London, Claire and Charl had paid £2,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, which became untenable as bills piled up. “There was always something,” Charl tells me. “If we paid for this, we couldn’t pay for that. It was almost like we couldn’t breathe.”
Now, for a family of four, their monthly expenses come to around £700 — including rent. “It’s like day and night. We make less money, but we also don’t spend as much,” Charl says. “Plus, we have more time for each other, which is something that no amount of money can buy.”
When I wake the following morning, the air is freezing. I’m in bed with my North Face jacket on.
John, one of the residents, had shown me how to work the wood-burning stove the night before. “Are you taking notes? Because you gonna have to do this by yourself later,” he warned me. I didn’t take any notes. Once the flames died down, I couldn’t for the life of me keep that fire going. The damp, cold air seeped through my bones and remained there for the duration of my stay.
Still half-asleep, I shuffle down to the communal kitchen. Carolin is already there, preparing the day’s meals while the rest of the group work outside. “Has anyone milked the goats?” I ask. “I would like to take some photos of that.” Her reply is swift. “I did that two hours ago. You gonna have to get up earlier than that, darling.”
The work is tough, and there’s a lot of it. There’s wood to be chopped, animals to feed, compost toilets to clean. Most people here work part-time jobs outside the farm to earn the £210 a month they each pay to the co-op in rent. After working with the residents for a few hours, all I can think about is going back inside and curling up on the couch with a nice cup of coffee.
“Folks from the city come here thinking they are going to get a free ride, but you’ve got to be prepared to work harder than you ever worked before in your life,” Charl tells me while surveying the Welsh countryside. “Plus, living with 12 other adults you really have to take the time to get to know each other.”
“Where Is a Bunch of Us Lot Gonna Get £1 Million From?”
There are now between 75,000 and 100,000 people living on similar projects across the UK. “Over the last 15 years, off-grid has changed from something that was for eco-people and environmentalists into being something for people who realized they haven’t got any other choice,” says Nick Rosen, founder of Off-grid.net and an authority on the UK’s off-grid communities.
“In cities like London, where the price of houses are out of reach of most people, many have realized that off-grid is an option — like a mortgage, like renting. They can leave the city, live on a boat or a van, and still lead perfectly comfortable lives,” Rosen says.
And yet even here, deep in Welsh countryside, economic forces may prove to be stronger than nature. “The housing crisis has also come to bite us in the ass,” Carolin says while cooking dinner. The landlord has had the land valued at £1 million and wants to sell and has given the community until 2020 to come up with the money. “Where on earth is a bunch of us lot gonna get a million pounds from?”
Living with the insecurity of private renting is a reality for 5 million households in the UK. Multiple factors are forcing up the cost of housing: According to Shelter, a charity that campaigns for better housing in England and Scotland, the government is now building fewer homes than in any peacetime year since World War I, even accounting for a much larger population and smaller households. Landlords evicted more than 40,000 tenants in 2015, according to a report by the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning Research, and many more tenants were forced to move because of high rent, poor conditions, or landlord disputes. There is clear evidence, says the group, that increasing eviction rates are linked to cuts to social housing benefits and the growth of the private rental sector — landlords that operate for profit.
Today, those on median incomes renting privately have virtually no chance of ever owning a home. I’m conscious of my own role in this mess, handing over absurd amounts of money to my landlord in London every month. “What determines a realistic price in this day and age is demand, isn’t it?” Carolin asks me rhetorically. “House prices are what they are because people are willing to pay them.”
The residents of Brithdir Mawr are coming up with all sorts of strategies to try to secure their home. They have put the property up on Airbnb, targeting city folk looking for a getaway in the countryside; there are plans to turn one of the bungalows into a workshop space; and they are in the process of looking for a new member who can stay year-round paying rent.
Most are hopeful they will be able to stay and flourish, even if it means going against some of their strongest-held beliefs. Sustainability, simplicity, and spirit, it turns out, are just not enough to live in a 21st-century world.
“People who were here were very interested in making jam and growing food and living in community,” Nick tells me. “But they had no experience in coming up with the income strategies that we are coming up with. A lot of them actually left because they don’t want to deal with that kind of hassle.”
Read Part II: