The BFG

Posted on July 8, 2012 by admin

In Dyfi Valley, CAT? Furnaiis on 8 July, 2012

The Dyfi valley Biosphere Reserve is based on the same basic premise as the North Devon one: a core area at the mouth of an estuary, with the supporting river system catchment area as a buffer zone. The lower valley was first classified to be of biosphere standard in the 1970s, but rule changes and things meant that it didn’t regain its crown until 2009. Dyfi has all the same hallmarks as North Devon: farming and tourism; links between sustainability, economy, and social needs; and a focus on preserving local knowledge/language/culture. What’s interesting about this biosphere is the additional emphasis on development, on the area as a research and educational facility for sustainable development. And that’s where the CAT I’ve been talking about steps in.

It seems that the Centre for Alternative Technologies was instrumental in the biosphere story. And so, like the sleuth of reportage that I’ve become, I went on a fact-finding mission to the CAT’s HQ (i.e. an offered tour by Sally Carr, who works there and was involved with the festival the day before). The centre was started in the old local slate quarry slag heap in 1973 in the wake of the oil crisis (and coincidentally Pinochet’s coup) as an attempt to try and live entirely off grid – generating energy, food, collecting water, and managing sewage. Unfortunately people were too interested and kept on turning up uninvited to see what was going on. So the locals started charging, and the centre become financially independent. Skip to nearly 40 years on, and they offer MSc courses, diplomas, and secondary school education residentials.

The arrival at CAT is via a custom made gravity powered water counter-weighted funicular – a bold statement of alternative technological prowess. The whole site sort of unfolds before you in this style, with lovingly made custom structures demonstrating different aspects of environmental harnessing and control. The place has a DIY feel. Not ramshackle, but cleverly put together, showcasing environmental construction and renewable energy production techniques. Thanks to Sally we were given an extra special tour up the back of the site to go see the quarry itself, the site’s separate reservoir, and their wind turbines. It’s a very inspiring centre, both beautiful and functional, and I can see how its status as the largest eco centre in Europe was grown. It also appears to be responsible for the multi-cultural fabric of Machynlleth (‘Mach’, as they call it around here), as CAT is a magnet for skilled workers from all over. Since its foundation it has attracted people to the area, but these people have been seen as a little separate. Initially referred to as the ‘shit-and-water’ place, now the general group of people associated with CAT are called ‘quarry folk’, or the ‘baggy jumper brigade’. A perceived lack of integration between the locals and the longstanding quarriers is the only blemish on the centre and area.

From cutting edge technology and research, I jumped on my time-machine tourer and arrived at the limits of industrial technology in the 1750s, 6 miles South of Mach, and the home[1] of Giant number three. This one lives by a furnace for iron smelting. And the Iron Giant was a mossy one, with a lovely straggly beard. He too looked a bit sad by himself in an empty car park between two fields 100m down from the main road.

What message do they bring to their Scottish counterparts? Greetings, and perhaps hopes of a more interactive life up there than they are subtly leading down here. Tomorrow I take this message to Dumfries and Galloway, the soon-to-be third UK UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. Goodbye slate everywhere (roofs, houses, retaining walls, benches etc), goodbye sitting outside the closed library on Sunday trying to get a link on their wifi, goodbye Wimbledon[2], and goodbye mindless TV to watch (I’m catching up on years of deprivation).

Unfortunately it is not goodbye midges. I’m already lightly sprinkled with little red bumps, and I can only assume that the West coast of Scotland in July will not give me any reprieve. At least I’ve managed to dodge a bit of weather. No rain here for the last two days, but serious flooding in Devon. The poison chalice of playing host to a Giant Cycle? Only time will tell…

[1] In fact he lives in another car park! That’s a clean sweep of Welsh car park Giants. There is of course logic behind the Giant locations. The biosphere encompasses three different Welsh counties, and by spreading the Giants along a 10 mile road, there is now one in each representative county involved.
[2] The most upmarket sports event ever? Just naming social royalty seen in situ, the crème de la crème, we had David Cameron, the Duchess of Cambridge, David and Victoria Beckham, and HRH Duke of Kent. How does anyone normal get a seat in that tiny court?

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