How one woman helped redefine eco-conscious living in the modern age
Emma Orbach has been living in mud huts in Wales for decades, starting a battle which helped change the law and open the door to more environmental settlements.
by: Jake Walker-Charles
5 Aug 2023
Emma Orbach outside her hut in Brithdir Mawr, Wales, where she has lived for the last 25 years. Image: Agnes Orbach
Emma Orbach has lived in Celtic-style mud huts in the depths of rural Wales for decades. It started as a protest, a rejection of modern living and return to a more eco-friendly lifestyles, but became a legal battle which laid the foundations for enshrining the rights of sustainable rural communities.
It’s fair to say Emma had an affluent upbringing. The daughter of a successful violinist who grew up in a Victorian castle in Wiltshire, she studied Chinese at Oxford University where she met architectural historian Julian Orbach, who she would later marry.
In 1994, Emma and her then husband bought a large piece of land in rural Wales and took up residence in a farmhouse on the site. Their home had no mains electricity except for a generator. It was here Emma and Julian, along with a handful of others who wished to live in a similar way, co-founded Brithdir Mawr – a community between Cardigan and Fishguard on the Welsh coast focused on living harmoniously with the natural world.
However, as a self-described “conscientious objector” to nearly everything in modern culture, Emma felt a calling to live more simply and pursue a life with almost no modern technologies at all. This decision resulted in the end of her marriage.
Emma constructed her first hut in 1999, made from straw bales, mud, horse manure and wooden poles, initially without planning permission. She opted for green, living roofs to camouflage the designs into the surroundings. They were nevertheless discovered by an aircraft that was surveying Pembrokeshire National Park, where Brithdir Mawr is situated.
Shortly after the report that a “lost tribe” had been uncovered in the foothills of the Preseli mountains, authorities demanded the grass-covered dwellings be demolished. This resulted in significant media attention. The 22 residents of the community were forced to embark on what became a decade-long legal battle to earn the right to live in the eco-friendly shelters.
After a series of inquiries, court cases, hearings and staged protests, Emma Orbach became the first person to be awarded planning permission under the One Planet Development policy, which works to approve sustainable, ecological housing which is not detrimental to the surrounding environment.
I wrote a series of letters to Emma to find out more about her pioneering lifestyle and what she makes of the housing crisis.
“As a child, I preferred to be in nature rather than with humans. My brother and I often took our meals and ate them in our favourite tree,” she told me. “I feel that most of my past lifetimes I have lived close to nature, with a strong love for the Earth.
“It was natural for me to find a way of living that enabled me to express my love for the Earth and feel it reciprocated. ‘Eco-conscious’ living is not necessarily rooted in the heart, quite often it is fear-driven and in the head.
“I never found a way to feel happy in the modern world, and so it didn’t really take much courage to leave it and find a more beautiful way of living.”
The One Planet Development policy has very strict criteria. It requires that, for homes built in the open countryside, the inhabitants must show that they can, in no more than five years, work the land for their income, food, energy and waste assimilation, in an ecologically sound way. Emma gets the vast majority of her food from the land – keeping goats for milk, chickens for eggs, and growing vegetables.
She does not have running water. She instead collects freshwater in pots from a nearby stream and uses composting toilets which she builds away from her hut. She has done away with electric heaters and cookers, and instead opts for a fireplace. You might wonder how she deals with the dark of winter, without central heating or any artificial lighting.
“The straw bale huts that we live in are very well insulated and probably warmer and less damp than most ‘normal’ houses.
“And it is hard to find darkness in much of Britain. I have come to realise how much I need darkness and silence. I have many of my clearest realisations lying awake in the dark between 1 and 3am. Darkness is the Yin. The feminine right brain – receptive, intuitive consciousness. I feel that moonlight, star light and darkness nourish our non-rational intuitive right brains.”
Emma tends to wake up at dawn, having breakfast by seven before checking in with the plants in the garden. She milks the goats around eight before meditating until nine.
“Then it’s on to washing up/cleaning my hut. 10am – I have a meeting in the community building with others staying on the land who feel like doing some physical work. 12.30/1 – Lunchtime.”
The number of people experiencing homelessness in Great Britain is set to rise to 300,000 this year, according to a report by Crisis. For Emma, a society where people can’t afford shelter is “a disgrace”.
“Shelter is a fundamental human right,” she says. “I don’t think a culture of wage-slavery where people can’t afford a roof over their heads can be described as civilised.
“Yet, near where I live in Newport, they’ve just had to put a ban on people buying second homes. And it’s happening everywhere. It’s all completely imbalanced.”
To receive backing as a One Planet Development, smallholdings have to be carbon neutral in both construction and use. People who have been accepted have to keep their ecological footprint within certain parameters — a year’s carbon budget is roughly the same as a return flight to Australia.
The average ecological footprint — meaning the amount of “biologically productive” land needed to sustain a person or community — is around five global hectares per person in the UK. There are not enough reserves on the planet for every person to use this high proportion of the Earth’s resources.
People on the One Planet Development policy need to reach 1.88 hectares or below within five years. This is calculated as the level to which individuals would be using a fair share of the Earth’s resources.
Under this policy, new buildings are also assessed by their impact on the community, biodiversity, landscape and transport needs, and the development has to be the full-time residence of the applicant.
There are currently 59 individual smallholdings which are operating under the One Planet Development policy. The scheme only exists in Wales for now, but there is talk of a similar scheme coming to Cornwall and the Forest of Dean, on a local basis only. The One Planet Council, which supports developments under the policy, hopes that similar plans will be adopted by the whole of England in the near future.
I asked Emma what she would hope the message that people take away from her lifestyle choices to be.
“I think it shows that another way of living, and another way of thinking is possible, if we collectively decide to pursue it,” she says.
“I don’t want to get involved with modern life. I don’t think we’ve created anything beautiful. The huts we live in cost £1,000 to build, and they are warm and comfortable and beautiful. I suppose this lifestyle is a kind of radical simplicity.”
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