In the early ’70s me and my dad drove up from mid-Wales to attend a rally in support of the village school of Llanaelhaearn which was under threat of closure. Luckily the decision was overturned and the protest rally turned into a victory parade. It was a very happy event – a sunny day. I somehow got into the photo with the other kids of the school which I found a bit awkward. I also remember going to the house of Carl Clowes, the local GP and a leading campaigner, and not understanding his son because of our different dialects when he pointed to his toy car and said “spia, spia”. The son grew up to be one of the Super Furry Animals.
For Carl Clowes the threatened school was just one aspect of a wider problem. The area had been suffering depopulation for years. The granite industry had once employed 2,000 men and a number of villages had sprung up in the area to service that heavy industry. The parish of Llanaelhaearn had a population of 1,543 in 1921 which had dropped by a third to 1,059 in 1971 and the number of children going to the school had dropped from 98 to 34. The lack of jobs meant an ageing population, empty houses and holiday homes. As the local GP he could see the prevailing hopelessness was having an affect on the population’s health. The area was dying and something had to be done.
On a trip to Oileán Chléire (Cape Clear) an island off County Cork he saw how the islanders had formed a cooperative Comharchumann Chléire Teoranta to administer the electric system and create employment through developing the fishing, farming and tourism sectors. After a further fact-finding trip, research and public meetings, on January 1st 1974 Antur Aelhaearn was registered as a Community Cooperative Society an event which was in fact a historical occasion as the very first Community Cooperative to be formed in the UK.
The membership fee or share of the Cooperative hardly broke the bank at £1 and over 80% of the villagers signed up. The membership fee didn’t entitle anyone to a dividend as all profits were to be reinvested in the community but did allow the resident to vote in the AGM and to put forward ideas for new projects. They did allow outside investment without voting rights in the form of loan stock (this is where someone puts forward funds as collateral for a loan) and paid interest on this if the person wanted. People across Wales, Europe and America took up this offer.
The mission was as follows:
- To ensure and promote Llanaelhaearn and the surrounding area’s existence as a community and especially to overturn the tendency of depopulation.
- To provide employment for the area and in this, establish or invite any industry, trade or businesses which are compatible with the area’s character.
- To provide houses, facilities or services when they are needed that would be beneficial to society.
- When it would be necessary to facilitate the achievement of the above, to provide any appropriate service, trade or business.
The first project was a pottery set up in Carl Clowes’s garage. This was shortly followed by a knitting factory set up originally in a caravan. As things developed Antur Aelhaearn was later able to build its own workshop. Altogether Antur they to give employment to fifteen people. The venture was also able to rebuild the village playing fields and to refurbish the chapel vestry as a village hall.
In recent years Antur Aelhaearn developed the idea of Green Village and set out to put solar panels on the houses and a local fruit and veg cooperative. The most ambitious plan was to set up a single wind turbine on Moelfre Bach mountain. This was estimated to bring in an annual income of £150,000 but unfortunately the planning application was rejected. This was mainly due to heritage bodies like Natural Resources Wales not wanting to spoil the natural beauty and also the conflicting interests of the tourism industry.
Over the years the Antur has had to adapt. By now the pottery and clothing is gone, but the next plan is to open a woodwork workshop and a workshop producing metal work. Following that, office space to be rented out and a showroom to display local crafts and produce. Finally the plan is to open a Cafe with locally produced cakes and beer from local breweries.
But Llanaelhaearn isn’t the only place with a community cooperative venture in that area called Bro’r Eifl. Near to the ancient iron age fort of Tre’r Ceiri there was a hugely steep and winding dirt track going down to a small bay. When you got to the bottom there was a ghost village, known as either Nantgwrtheyrn or Porthynant, totally deserted and rapidly going to ruin with their roofs falling in. This village was originally built by the quarrying company for their workers and I’m guessing all trade was done by sea. At one time there had been a great demand for granite sett for cobblestones and bridges. By 1939 the quarry had closed and by 1948 the school also and by 1959 the last resident had left.
When the village was due to come up for sale for £35,000 by the quarry owners Amalgamated Roadstone Corporation, Carl Clowes had an idea that the location would be ideal for a residential Welsh language learning centre. Even though they were up against other interested parties – a place to rehabilitate offenders and — a proposal by BP — a place to dump oil tanks out of sight – they managed to secure the place for £25,000. This was due the local nature of the bid and to their credit the Quarry company donated 5,000 back to the venture.
To cut a long story short, with donations, grant applications and volunteers and a lot of hard work the village was rebuilt. This included rebuilding the water supply and building a proper road. The electricity company for north Wales couldn’t bring electricity down to the place as they didn’t have the expertise for such a steep slope so it was necessary to get the help of a specialised army unit. By today Nant Gwrtheyrn is a very successful residential centre catering for the rise in interest in the Welsh language and culture and employs thirty people and is a great place for a wedding reception.
But there are also two other community cooperative which I will mention briefly. In Llithfaen a pub called the Victoria Arms which had closed was reopened as a cooperative pub called Tafarn y Fic which is also a restaurant and cultural music centre. And also in Llithfaen a shop Siop Pen-y-Groes was reopened on a community cooperative basis.
There have been some community cooperative ventures that haven’t been so successful. The garage in Clynnog Fawr lost out on a lot of custom when a bypass was created and has now been sold. There were plans to open a mansion house Plas Pistyll as a training hotel and traditional cooking centre in order to raise the standard and respect of the area vis a vis the tourist industry. However these fell through with a certain amount of rancour and bad feeling.
By now there are community cooperatives spread out throughout Wales, but nothing like the concentration in this area.
Why is Bro’r Eifl like this? Well, there are some similarities with places like Oileán Chléire (Cape Clear), Mondragon in Euskadi (the Basque country) and Marinaleda in Sevilla, Spain. The first thing to notice is that there are visionary and strong-willed individuals behind them. For example José María Arizmendiarrieta in the Mondragon experience. But they also all have strong cultural and political identities. For example Mondragon with its Basque cultural identity and pro-independence ethos.
I hope this article shows that there is a lot of scope for this type of venture. Not only can they bring income and employment into an area they can bind and revive community spirit. It is something from which areas similar to my own in should take inspiration.
The Nant Gwrtheyrn experience has inspired a few songs. This is on by the group Ac Eraill – Byw fyddi Nant Gwrtheyrn (Nant Gwrtheyrn will live).
For more information on the cooperatives of Bro’r Eifl see Cryfder ar y Cyd
For more information on Antur Aelhaearn and the Llanaelhaearn Wind Turbine Project.
For more information on Community Cooperatives in Wales from the Wales Cooperative Centre. Though strangely no mention of Antur Aelhaearn or Bro’r Eifl.