Fun and a lesson in saving the earth

Tes Editorial

(Photograph) - The Centre for Alternative Technology was founded in a disused five-acre Welsh slate quarry by a mixed bag of hippies, academics and radicals reacting against the consumer culture to form an experimental community leaning towards the simple life. It finds itself on its 20th anniversary a professional educational institution able to show the concerned public practical ways of conserving the planet's natural resources. It is celebrating in typical CAT style with a message presented in an entertaining manner.

You climb into the Mole-Hole, like moles burrowing underground, brushing against trailing tendrils and roots to the centre, where you may not hear the emulation of creatures' rustling noises for the shrieks of children nipping around the spooky nooks and crannies. Four tableaux in the walls depict life in the soil in full glowing colour, from a many-times enlarged ground beetle savaging an earthworm, to countless bacteria, putting over the message that soil is not an inanimate substance. At the exit a much larger than lifesize gleaming black mole seems to be climbing out of the tunnel.

No agricultural chemicals have ever been used on the site, which is powered by water, wind and solar energy by methods explained mostly in a light-hearted style. Enthusiastic wave makers can create a lot of energy (and wet bystanders) with the wave machine. Pedalling on the energy bikes expends energy and can produce a measurement of power. Hand-pumping water from a well illustrates a simple resource that is not dependent on intricate machinery. Cover parts of the solar pump equipment with the attached artificial clouds and see what effect they have.

Animals, chickens, ducks and geese, pigs and goats are resident in the summer so as not to waste the kitchen leftovers in this community dedicated to recycling, and there is a children's recycling area not at all like the usual boring local authority bins.

Here are fun things to do including inserting your face into a hole, just like at the seaside, for a picture to be taken. Instead of a fat lady in a red swimsuit, however, the frame is made up entirely of recycled bits and bobs. There is also an adventure playground made of natural materials.

The urine bank (for males - one for females has yet to be devised) inspires giggles, but then the toilets are not connected to the public sewage system, the products being processed into compost. There is a fish pond, a bee shed with an observation section and various gardens devoted to herbs and wildlife where if you are quiet enough you might spot wild creatures.

The Centre for Alternative Technology is an absorbing, constantly developing source of fascinating information in a pleasing rural setting. Access, which used to be by a steep, dusty, unattractive track, must have started the day badly for many visitors. But study of the Victorian cliff railway at Lynton, Devon, led to CAT's water balanced funicular, now an enjoyable trip with a splendid view, achieved through water tanks under each carriage which are computer checked and filled or emptied so the weightier carriage hauls the lighter one up or down. It is sustainable technology in action. Much of the building work was done by women.

"Star Quiz Survival Test", 100 questions with answers and ratings to determine whether the child qualifies for the crew, is one of the publications of the CAT's education department, 99p and suitable for key stages 2 and 3. It ranges far beyond the energy conservation illustrated by CAT but reinforces the green message. The education department offers various options but most school groups choose a free introductory talk andor a guided tour, a slide show, and a question and answer session, for which a charge is made.

Betty Jerman * Centre for Alternative Technology, Machynlleth, Powys SY20 9AZ. Tel: 01654 703743.

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