Easter road trip: Tir Penrhos Isaf

After leaving Cae Mabon, we headed across (well, around) Snowdonia to Chris and Lyn Dixon’s permaculture smallholding Tir Penrhos Isaf, where we’d arranged a guided tour. This was the part of the trip I think we were most looking forward to, and it did not disappoint. The photos I took, however, aren’t that great. Hey ho.

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Chris and Lyn bought the farm in 1986 and the permaculture design started then. At the time it was seven acres of tired sheep pasture with a derelict barn in a valley clearing in the woods. Their first planning application to create a sustainable residence and establish a permaculture smallholding was made in 1989, a time when “sustainable” and “permaculture” weren’t part of planning language – arguably permaculture still isn’t.

They were keen to establish a precedent for permaculture so persevered, while living on site in a caravan with a series of three year temporary permissions, for over fifteen years until finally having to accept planning permission for a barn conversion in 2006. They were understandably disappointed to have to accept a compromise and not establish the precedent, but Lyn had suffered two bouts of cancer and they needed to get on with their lives without the threat of eviction.

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And along the way, Chris has exposed a lot of planning officers and councillors to his ideas, and established a library of planning documents on his website for others to refer to. He used to post copies out to people so the web has definitely transformed that part of his life. :)

Chris gave us a fascinating tour of the property, I think it was supposed to last two hours but we ended up being there for over four. We started in the wooded area which he originally fenced off from the sheep in 1986 and then, as is the principle of permaculture gardening, observed before making minimal interventions. One of the stages it went through was heavy gorse cover and, as a result, Chris has developed something of a fascination with the plant.

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We then went through the core gardens area and looked at how that had developed over the years before finishing with some of the water management techniques he’s currently experimenting with.

All this was put in the context of permaculture principles and Chris really expanded our idea of what permaculture is, specifically the idea of multiple primary income streams with secondary ‘hobby’ income streams which have the potential to become primary when required or if particularly successful.

One of the income streams at Tir Penrhos Isaf is Lyn’s horse training business – they have stables and a large horse pen so they can house and train horses (and their owners, one suspects). The idea of multiple income streams is actually best expressed in Lyn’s Permaculture Design and Horses document which she prepared for one of the planning applications.

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The farm was featured in the recent BBC Natural World documentary A Farm For The Future in which wildlife film maker Rebecca Hosking investigates how to transform her family’s farm in Devon into a low energy farm for the future. At the time of writing, the whole programme is available on Youtube – Chris is in part 5. Or you could get it via a torrent should you be so inclined.

Apparently the BBC crew were at the farm for three days to get the three minutes of footage that was used. Chris was keen to point out that the farm has never been completely self sufficent in food as was suggested.

At their highest production, they were probably theoretically self sufficient for ten months of the year. Currently due to the amount of time and energy being put into the conversion of the barn which Chris is doing himself, the figure is a lot lower than that.

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So that was Tir Penrhos Isaf. A real inspiration and we hope to run into Chris again at the permaculture design course run by Sector39 at Llanfyllin Workhouse.

I’m sure there’s a lot more fascinating detail to add to this but I’ll leave that as a challenge for Theo since she took the notes.