Lammas is a low impact, off-grid eco-village at Tir-y-Gafel in Pembrokeshire in southwest Wales. Consisting of 15 smallholdings on 76 acres of land, the community was granted planning permission in 2009 after twice being refused by the local council, even as the group who purchased the land modelled their application closely on the council’s own policies for low-impact development. Thus, unlike most eco-villages in the UK – including Tipi Valley, Landmatters and Tinker’s Bubble – which were built illegally and then either remained invisible or tried to secure permission in retrospect, Lammas was a legitimate development from its inception. This was a deliberate attempt by the five founding members of the Lammas group to make otherwise alternative forms of development speak to the mainstream. And since 2009, Lammas has attracted thousands of visitors every year, constructing a purpose-built community hub to both showcase ecological design and also put on events and workshops. It has also featured regularly in the popular media, perhaps most notably in Channel 4’s long-running series Grand Designs, presented by Kevin McCloud. It’s also contributed to a change in Welsh planning law, the One Planet Development policy from 2011 recognising the value of low-impact development by making it possible for others in Wales to follow the example set by Lammas. But such permission comes with stringent caveats: to secure it, you have to be committed to make a sizeable proportion of your income directly from the land (as much as two thirds); and also be prepared to rigorously monitor and minimise your ecological footprint in every single aspect of your life.
All of the nine homes currently completed at Lammas are self-built, along with the community hub and a host of other buildings that meet the needs of its residents, including greenhouses, workshops, sheds, toilets and a chalet for visitors. Little here is provided by the state: recyclable rubbish is collected, but all energy is sourced from renewables (a hydro-powered electricity supply supplemented by solar panels); drinking water from a nearby spring; human wastes dealt with in compost toilets. In part the result of his appearance on Grand Designs in 2016, Lammas’s most well-known self-builder is Simon Dale. Before joining the community in 2009, he had already built a self-named ‘Hobbit House’ for his family in 2003: an earth-sheltered roundhouse constructed from locally-sourced timber (mostly tree stumps and branches) infilled with straw bales and cob, in effect a more secure version of the stick-and-canvas benders built at Landmatters. Tragically, a fire destroyed this house, which prompted the family to move to Lammas in 2009. Here, Simon used the same techniques to build a new home known as the Undercroft, but also included a glasshouse around its edges to act as a thermal envelope as well as a place to cultivate plants all year round. As his family grew, he embarked on another house, Earthsea, in 2013, a larger version of his original Hobbit House, which took him four years to build with the help of over 400 friends. Championed by Kevin McCloud as a ‘clarion call’ to the world to live sustainably, the house shockingly burnt to the ground on New Year’s Day 2018, leaving only the foundations and a few charred pieces of structural timber intact. The experience of losing two of his self-built homes to fire left Simon and his family devastated and they decided to leave Lammas to live with friends, the site now up for sale to a new community member – ‘a blank canvas once again’.
The community will, of course, continue to evolve, but there’s no doubt that it has been badly affected by the fire and left vulnerable by the departure of one of its most skilled members. Tragic though it was, the fire undermines the image of these hobbit houses as cosy retreats – homes that are more in tune with the natural world. Reinforced by the immense popularity of Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Peter Jackson’s film adaptations, the organic forms and semi-subterranean appearance of hobbit houses present a reassuring image of harmony – the houses aesthetically as much as functionally ‘low-impact’: half buried in the earth and often covered in turf to make them less visually obtrusive. And the houses at Lammas are by no means isolated examples – throughout Wales are scattered dozens more hobbit homes, mostly self-built roundhouses lived-in out of the public eye because they were constructed without planning permission.
The prevalence of these organic homes reflects a desire on the part of some to create a certain type of rural livelihood where everyday life is completely bound up with the land, rejecting more productivist forms of farming and capitalist concerns with money. It’s also a vision that sees architecture intimately bound up with the landscape, whether through the natural building materials gleaned from it, or the self-built infrastructures to which these houses connect. It’s a vision entirely at odds with conventional forms of farming that dominate the Welsh landscape – mostly meat and dairy production for a global market, underwritten by unsustainable consumption patterns and energy production. In replacing one type of farming for another that is seen as more sustainable and holistic, Lammas is attempting to create a new kind of place, one that is orientated away from a history that is seen as damaging and towards a future where productivity is measured in much wider terms than profit and is brought back to a local – even individual – scale. Members of Lammas have had to carefully negotiate this vision in the light of the kinds of farming practices that surround them on all sides – mostly commercial sheep farming sustained by subsidies. Indeed, during the long process of consultation before Lammas was established in 2009, existing local residents expressed concern that the eco-vision of the site’s founders would eclipse their own problems, such as a dwindling population and cuts in local services. Perhaps, in the long term, it is the wider connections that Lammas makes with its surroundings – and particularly the next generation of land workers – that will be its most important legacy, rather than the seductive aesthetics of its self-built houses.