Amid the mist-cloaked, forested slopes of the Dyfi Valley, outside the Welsh market town of Machynlleth, is a remarkable sight: a seemingly ramshackle collection of log cabins, old wind turbines, thatched huts, steel tubes and funicular railways, rising from the banks of a former slate quarry. It looks at once incongruous and perfectly at home; both organic and man-made, as if it had grown there like a strange bionic jungle from the seeds of industry long abandoned. Perhaps that’s appropriate, given that the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) has spent the last half a century redefining the relationship between nature and humankind.
As it prepares to celebrate its 50th birthday in 2023, its work has never been so urgent.
CAT was founded in 1973 by an eclectic, experimental community of architects, engineers, builders and organic growers, led by businessman and environmentalist Gerard Morgan-Grenville. They felt compelled to seek alternative ways of living in response to an international oil crisis, ignited by the Yom Kippur War in Israel, that saw governments across Europe ban driving on Sundays and impose rations on heating. In 1975, a visitor centre was opened to increase public awareness and engagement, setting the tone for CAT’s unique identity: part research centre, part tourist attraction and part educational hub.
Today, the centre offers master’s degrees in fields such as green building, energy provision and sustainable food; many CAT alumni have gone on to be leaders in the sustainability field, such as architect Kirsty Cassels, voted Social Entrepreneur of the Year at 2019’s Scottish Women’s Awards, and solicitor Sonya Bedford, awarded an MBE for her contributions to community energy. The centre is marking its half-century milestone by embarking on an ambitious redevelopment project, modernising and scaling up both its visitor experience and educational offerings, while remaining open to the public. Visitors can get hands-on with workshops in sustainable building materials, woodland management, organic gardening and more; children particularly love the wildlife activities, such as pond-dipping, monitoring nest cams and laying moth traps.
I was met at reception by Rob Bullen, CAT’s marketing manager, and Eileen Kinsman, interim co-CEO. We climbed aboard the funicular railway – one of the steepest in the world, with a gradient of 35 degrees. As a tank at the top filled with water, one at the bottom was emptied; gravity did the rest, and we were pulled up a sheer cliff with hydropower.