Weathering it all: Blown away in Wales!

After bearing the brunt of gale winds reaching speeds of 90mph, after wild ocean waves that have battered the coastline, and torrential rains that have flooded riverbanks and created swimming pools of farmers fields, transportation in the United Kingdom is nigh at a standstill.

To make matters worse, an unexpected blizzard closed roadways throughout the Midlands. Right now I’m writing from Manchester, England’s Paddington train station, working at my laptop in the waiting lounge. All travel is affected by the rain, snow, and sleet. As well, two weeks ago there was a train disaster which saw several people killed, many others injured. As a result of this, the public and politicians are in an uproar, calling for the resignation of those responsible.

It has made travel here a real adventure, and the famous British spirit of cooperation, pluck, and “making the best of it” is in evidence everywhere.

As you would expect, it has made everyone over here talk about the weather – that’s not simply a Canadian pastime! Farmers we met in Wales have admitted some of them have had to “forget” about harvesting their crops. This is because the fields are so saturated with water that they cannot get heavy machinery onto them.

In other cases, cattle and sheep have had to be moved from lower, flooded pastures to higher ground. Was that a problem, I asked?

“Oh no,” said Shana Rees, who with her husband Aled is owner-operator of Penmaendyfi, a pub as well as a magnificent old home that doubles as a Wales’ farm holiday destination.

“All the farmers here have high and low pastures; I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t. It’s how it’s always been here in Wales, traditionally. So at times like this we move the sheep up to the higher ground.”

But the weather hasn’t been as bad in West Wales, where Penmaendyfi is located. Apparently they’ve had a bright, sunny summer whereas England, specifically the Midlands and south, near London, has suffered from punishing rainstorms.

Here in Manchester’s Paddington station, the Virgin train hostess tells me, “We’re supposed to get more bad weather tonight. Snow in Sheffield, torrential rains and of course, that’s going to create way more havoc with the trains. Virgin’s operated trains here for 7 years, and we’ve never had to deal with anything like this. They say it’s the worst weather to hit England for 13 years.

“Who knows... perhaps it is the ozonelayer. All we hear here in our media is that the weather’s changing... and all I know is that, in truth, we’re not geared up for it. And did you hear that there was a tornado in the south yesterday?”

I had heard, because today’s newspapers are featuring front-page stories on the weather, matched by photos of homes with their roofs torn off. Vying for prominence are the stories on the disruption of the transportation system.

And the subject of weather was very much on our minds two days ago, when we visited the Centre for Alternative Energy. This fascinating place was created in the early 1970s. In 1973 a small group of people seeking to live an alternative lifestyle moved to an old slate mine just north of Machhynlleth, in the southern part of Snowdonia, Wales.

They were actively experimenting with alternative energy sources, composting, and “preaching” conservation, energy-efficiency, “living sustainably” and other notions.

The group started getting so many visitors to their community, that they started to wonder about opening a centre. “At the time,” said the information center’s receptionist, “they had to make a big decision, whether to affect a few people profoundly, or open a centre so they could affect lots of people in perhaps what amounts to only a small way.

“They decided to do the latter. So they got some funding and developed the centre into what you see today. Now we get 70,000 to 80,000 people a year. School groups are popular.”

We can see why. After touring the site which contains rare breeds of domestic poultry and goats through to working displays of wind generators and solar-heated dwellings, both Eric and I felt inspired. What is even more inspiring is that there are several residents who live on-site who are practising the alternative technology lifestyle that they are encouraging all of us to embrace.

“Alternative technology” describes tolls and systems, and ways of using them, that work with the grain of nature rather than against it. The phrase was coined in the early seventies by Peter Harper, one of the members of staff at the CAT. Nice idea — but was it just an idle fantasy, or could it be turned into reality? This was the challenge taken up by the group of young idealists who, in 1974, colonized this derelict slate quarry. They wanted to build a living community to test the emerging technologies, and find out which ones worked and which didn’t.

Over twenty-five years later, this centre’s experimentation has resulted in much accumulated wisdom. Both of us were fascinated by the composting exhibit and I’ll be discussing the CAT’s findings in future columns for your personal benefit. Eric has always been stimulated by the notion of using both wind mills and water power to generate electricity, with a view to getting our home more “off-“ than “on-grid.”

Such ideas are inspiring but not simply in an esoteric, philosophical sense. CAT has spent a great deal of effort explaining in detail how ordinary people can make a difference to their own lives.

And if the weather systems are changing permanently, it will be people and places like CAT that can help all of us learn considerably more about how to live more sustainably here on the planet.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance writer. She is currently stuck in Manchester’s Paddington station, by snow, rain, gale winds and hail. Contact her at