Europe's leading eco-centre: The Centre for Alternative Technology, Wales

Friday 08 April 2011
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The year was 1973, it was the time before wind farms and solar panels. Political turmoil in the middle East sparks the first oil crisis. Oil rockets in price and a 50 mph speed limit is introduced across the UK. A group of what we now call environmentalists, have a glimpse of future without cheap oil. Their response is to set up a community in a disused slate quarry in the Dyfi Valley near Machynlleth, on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park. They experiment living without mains electricity, mains water and most of the services we all take for granted. After two years they decide to share their learning with the public and open the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) Visitor Centre. From my very first visit, I realised that they were more than hippies living off the grid. Their early experiments with wind, water and solar power seemed crude by today's standards, but Cretan and oil drum windmills were test beds, that would lead eventually to the efficient aerodynamic wind farms we see today. I marvelled at herbicide free, pesticide free gardens growing healthy fruit and vegetables on slate waste, fertilised with home made compost.  They were in at the start of the organic farming movement. Following that first visit in the early eighties, I have made regularly returned to CAT. Each time, not only have I had an enjoyable day, but I was intellectually stimulated and came away brimming with new ideas. Many of these got incorporated into my everyday life. From doubling the thickness of insulation in my home to composting and organic gardening tips. The centre went from being a working sustainable community, to having a voice on a National and International stage. On site, bigger schemes were executed, including the construction a new university; the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE) using sustainable wood, and rammed earth walls. The renewable energy solutions looked forward to tidal, wave power and offshore wind schemes that are now being installed off the coast of Europe. Funicular railway, CAT Photo Licensed under Creative Commons by Julie Sorrell. On early visits to centre, there was a walk up the steep road to the quarry, but now one of their biggest attractions is a water powered funicular railway. This connects the ticket office with the main plateau. It incorporates a lot of clever technology to harness the last drop of energy. During the peak summer months you can get guided a tour of the site from one of the volunteers who work there. Their enthusiasm for sustainable energy and living is infectious and they are more than happy to answer any questions you wish to ask regarding the site, sustainable living and energy options. Solar panels, CAT There are interactive exhibits allowing visitors to get scalded by solar hot water on a cloudy day in April! Then on windy days the wind powered machines really show how powerful that plentiful resource can be in Wales. Some days it rains, that's why Wales is so green. Even that leads to more power generation through hydro-electric power schemes. Most of the displays are 'hands on'; you can generate electricity by hand or pedal power or by operating the small models of tidal power stations. Many of the audio presentations are powered by wind up hand generators that you have to turn to keep the commentary running. All ages and knowledge levels are catered for, starting at exhibits aimed at children like the subterranean 'Mole hole' to WISE and the site's free information service. Restaurant and eco-store After a day of stimulating thought provoking activities, a drink or meal at the Vegetarian Restaurant is most welcome. It uses organic produce in the recipes and even the beer and wine is organic. There is also a strong emphasis on local produce. Finally at the end of the visit, the site shop can provide extensive reading material to research any aspects of sustainable living. As well as offering a wide range of sustainable products ranging from Arnica ointment to wooden toys. Eco-cabins, CAT Eco-cabins Throughout the summer many volunteers come to CAT to work as part of the community. It is also possible to stay at one of the Eco-cabins where assistance is available from the Duty Education Officer throughout your stay. Hot water, heat and power being provided almost entirely by renewable sources. Waste water is treated by a passing through a reed bed, to be treated naturally, before discharging safe water to the environment. What CAT Did for me CAT challenged my preconceptions, let me see the world in a new way and fed my passion for our environment. Whatever your views are, you are sure to find CAT interesting. Getting there: Google Map Co-ordinates: 52.623192,-3.842513 The site is 3 miles to the North East of Machynlleth Railway Station. It is possible to walk (1hour) or cycle there (30 mins). Lloyds Coaches bus no 34 stops by the CAT Car Park while Arriva Buses 30, 32, X32 drop passengers off at Pantperthog, 10 mins away by foot. By car CAT is well signposted from the A487 Machynlleth to Dolgellau road. Prices: Adults £8.50, Concessions £7.50, Children £4, Cheaper rates in winter. Discounts of 50% on presentation of a valid train ticket and discount of £1 for walkers and cyclists. CAT Website: www.cat.org.uk NB. I note from the website that the exhibits are subject to renovation this year, so some of the exhibits mentioned in this post might have been replaced when you visit. Post by John Williams, of the Eurapart Project. His blog is TravelCrunch and looks at travel from a sustainable angle. All photos are via Eurapart with the exception of the one credited to Julie Sorrell from whom permission was obtained.

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