Found! Britain's lost tribe
The people of Brithdir Mawr don't call themselves a tribe and when `discovered' last week they weren't exactly lost. But they do live in grass huts and are happy on their own and, as any native of the Amazon rainforest knows, contact with the outside world only brings trouble
Wednesday 28 October 1998
I wondered if I needed to hire my own low-flying aircraft or at least find a kayak and a snake-bite kit. The Daily Mail certainly made it sound like something other than wellingtons would be required. "Miles from civilisation, members of the lost tribe go about their business, living off the land and tending mud and straw huts," it reported. "Not a single explorer has disturbed their peace." Evidently the village, which was called Brithdir Mawr or Great Speckled Land, did not feature on any map or plan of the area and the authorities were totally unaware of its existence.
I rang Cathy Milner at the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park office. She confirmed the aircraft angle. The pilot had been taking aerial photographs and, when they looked at the pictures, there was a glint in them that should not have been there. This turned out to be from a solar panel that was attached to a strange round structure with a grass roof. Further investigations revealed other structures, including a geodesic dome and a half-built straw house. "We were staggered," said Ms Milner. "There was no doubt about it." Worst of all, though, was the further discovery that these buildings did not have planning permission. This was heresy. The park's planning committee decided to serve enforcement orders: Brithdir Mawr was to be bulldozed.
So where, I wondered, might one be able to find this secret, illegal and now endangered settlement? "Why don't you ring them up?" asked Ms Milner. Why not indeed? I did and was told the lost tribe had decided to meet the press from 3pm to 4pm on Monday. Great, but how would I find them? I told the tribeswoman on the telephone that I was looking at one of the aerial maps printed in one of the newspapers and the whole thing looked extremely remote. She laughed and asked if I had a map. I got out the road atlas. I needed to drive to the village of Newport in Pembrokeshire and follow the signs south towards a village called Cilgwyn. I found it on the map. Sure enough, there was Brithdir Mawr, connected to the road by a dotted line. So how would I know when I was there? Was there a special tree or a secret path? "No," she said, "but there is a sign."
She lied. There are two signs marking the tree-lined driveway that goes off the paved road that is rural but by no means unpopulated by houses, barns or even phone boxes. Brithdir Mawr is in a beautiful place, overlooked by the barren Mount Carningli, and is reached by a short path bordered on one side by trees and a stream on the other. Beyond the stream is a pasture of violent green with white polka-dots of sheep. It looks too good to be true in a picture postcard kind of way. What it did not look was remote, hidden or secret. I rounded a bend, went up a little hill and saw a car park filled with vehicles that have seen much much better days. And, off to one side, I spotted a human.
Tony Wrench didn't look very tribal, in his holey blue sweater and leather- patched trousers, but I asked him anyway. He laughed. "In Australia it was actually reported on News Round - it's not John Craven's any more you know - that a lost tribe had been found in Wales!" he said. I said that it had also been reported as such in England. This delighted him even more. Tony is 52, has been at Brithdir Mawr for a year and is a woodworker. He showed me a bowl that he was making out of green sycamore and told me lots about coppicing. I asked him if that was his role in the commune. "It's not a role. It's what I do for a living!" he said.
Brithdir Mawr styles itself as an eco-community, which means the whole thing tries to be self-sufficient. We squelched our way into the neighbouring field to examine the wind generator. It came from China, so the instructions were a little tricky. Tony had just been trying to fix it with a little WD-40. They also generate electricity from a stream. "Last week we had a surplus," he said, "and we had to use our Flymo and things like that to use it up." The lost tribe has a Flymo? "Well, only a very old one," he said.
The meet-the-press session was attended by The Independent and a reporter and photographer from The Fishguard County Echo. It turns out that almost everything written so far about this place isn't true or is only half- true. There are 12 adults and 10 children in the community - not, please note, the commune - and each family has their own separate accommodation in the buildings that surround the central courtyard. There is an old barn, now partly converted, and also a hostel for visitors (pounds 4 a night). There is a little house that used to be a laundry and the main farmhouse which is beautifully restored. This is no accident. The founder, Julian Orbach, is an architectural historian and first found this place when he was asked to list it. Five years ago he and his wife Emma bought it and the surrounding 165 acres with the idea of starting a self-sufficient community. Most experiments of this type fail because of lack of funds. The Orbachs knew this and were just about to sell of a portion of the land when they inherited rather a lot of money. "We had no idea it was coming but we decided the land seemed to want to stay with us," says Emma.
They renovated the lot and most of the buildings are perfectly legal. The whole scene seems, well, rather normal in a New Agey sort of way. In fact, the strangest thing so far was the compost toilets. Everyone at Brithdir Mawr loves these and they want me to love them too. "You must try one," they enthuse. They undo a little door underneath a toilet, stabbing at the stuff inside with a stick. "This compost is better than what you can buy at the garden centre," says 28-year-old Liz Terry. "It is packed with nutrients!" Evidently the stuff provides the secret to seven-foot high raspberries and other agricultural miracles. Yes, but what about the illegal structures? Where are they?
The first one is a short walk away. As we squelch down the path, I am told that the stonework alongside is being restored with grant aid from the Welsh Office. There really is nothing even remotely lost about this tribe. They may be self-sufficient - growing their own goat's milk and the like - and they are certainly dedicated to experimenting with and building low-cost housing. But they are also very clued up on funding and money in general, with all the adults also having outside jobs. The political is mixed with the practical in Brithdir Mawr. For example, they do use a horse and cart but there is also a small tractor for when the going gets tough. "Basically we are seeing how far we can go on until it starts to creak. I am not into being a caveman. Sometimes you just think `This is ridiculous' and give yourself a Mars bar," says Tony. I ask another resident, Chris Reynolds, if he, too, has his share of Mars bars. "No, but I do buy fish every week," he says.
We turn a corner and pick our way though the bracken to Tony's home. This is the Roundhouse. It was hand-built by Tony, his partner Jane Faith and their friends and was finished four months ago. It is 34 feet across inside and set into the slope of a hill. It is held up by poles. The walls are mud with windows running around at least half of it. The conical-shaped roof is made of 120 bales of straw topped off with turf, including the odd strawberry plant. The skylight is a coach window. The whole thing cost pounds 2,500 and the most expensive single item was pounds 650 for the rubber pondliner used for the roof. Inside it is extremely comfortable in a dennish sort of way, with loads of sheepskin rugs everywhere. Tony says it would be a shame to demolish it now, before they discover if it will withstand a winter. Anyway, he says, it will disintegrate on its own in 30 years or so. Outside, he shows us a solar panel. Was that, I asked, the solar panel that glinted so provactively? He nodded and pointed down the hill. "And I've got the Sam missile site just down there."
There are two other experimental homes at Brithdir Mawr that the authorities want to destroy. One is half-built and, when finished, will be the second straw-bale house in the UK. This may sound unpromising but the straw-bale homes built in America have shown how wrong the Three Little Pigs were. This one will have four rooms (organic toilet not included) and will be home to Liz Terry and her husband Ianto Doyle and their two children. The house will be raised off the wet Welsh ground and the walls thick, using 200 bales. The roof will be turf. Inside, it will be plastered in lime and the entire south-facing front will be made of windows. The house will cost pounds 3,500 and will be the first one they will own. "We could never get a mortgage before," says Ianto, a builder and homeopath.
In the adjoining field there is something that looks like a gigantic, if misplaced, insect eye. This is the geodesic dome, home of pensioner Letty Rowan. Inside it is all white walls with hand-hewn furniture and a spiral staircase leading to a sleeping loft. If the Roundhouse is the ultimate in low-tech rustic, the Dome is the antidote. It is white-washed, cosy and beautiful. A feature in Elle Decoration cannot be far away. The entire house, including all the furniture, cost pounds 24,000.
Letty is unperturbed by reports of its destruction. "I feel a lot of trust that it will be all right. It felt right to have it built. I just trust in the universe really and don't worry about it." The rest of the tribe is not so serene. They are planning an appeal and, as we retire for a cup of tea with homegrown goat's milk, Chris is already on the telephone to his solicitor. They are most heartened by the local support. "I haven't heard a bad word about it," says Liz Terry, who is a voice teacher but prefers "voice enhancer". "Everyone in the village is saying, `Where's the protest? Where's the petition?'"
Brithdir Mawr is also pleased by the publicity so far. The lost tribe may be ludicrous - "You cannot get lost in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park, it is impossible," explodes Ianto - but it is a ludicrous idea that has so far worked in their favour. Expect to hear more, not less, from this bit of Wales. A Daily Mail reporter is coming to stay in the hostel for a night. The tribe is particularly delighted by a piece in The Daily Telegraph which referred to them as "turnip-chewing" but also as heroes.
I ask Emma about this as she goes about cooking the communal dinner of baked potatoes, buckwheat bread and salad. "Well, we are a bit of a tribe and our way of living is to revive what has been lost, so I can see that." And with that she went back to grating something that looked suspiciously like turnip but was, in fact, an exceptionally large white radish.
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