What we learned from Dyffryn Gwyrdd – is this the start of something big?

Joanna Watson captures the reflections of the Experiments team after our get-together in North Wales.

Joanna Watson01 Aug 2022

“There’s always a moment of trepidation when you put work that you feel deeply connected to in front of colleagues. Will they get it? Or just stare at you in stony faced bafflement? “   

This was Chris Graham’s worry when he suggested that we should gather for a team get-together on his home turf in Dyffryn Ogwen, North Wales. Chris had been encouraged by our forward-looking managers to find ways of bringing his innovation skills and experience to benefit the community where he lives and works.

In striving to find solutions for some of the problems faced by that community, he has succeeded in modelling a different way of working for Friends of the Earth. He has built a productive and mutually supportive relationship with Partneriaeth Ogwen and he talks about how his role in the community has shifted from catalyst to accomplice to ally.  

Naturally he wanted to share the various initiatives that have been catalysed in Dyffryn Ogwen with his team – hence his concern that we wouldn’t get it. But he continued “I needn’t have worried. Instead, I’ve found it profoundly moving to see the work of Partnerieath Ogwen afresh through my colleagues’ eyes”.   

An inspiring visit to local projects 

As Ciaran Biggins reflected later “I love hearing stories of people dreaming about what might be and then getting to see those dreams become reality. It’s inspiring stuff, that change is possible”.   

Mandy Holden takes up the story. “Visiting Partneriaeth Ogwen, I was struck by the power of doing many things. A community garden, e-bike hire, a food surplus project, a car club, a maker’s space. These are all great things in their own right. What felt new in Dyffryn Ogwen was the intermeshing of all these things. Often seemingly unrelated. Partneriaeth Ogwen is willing to give it go. To take a punt on something that just might do good things for their community”.  

The team was already well disposed to respond positively to Dyffryn Gwyrdd. Working out of doors in a flourishing wild garden is a great stimulus for creativity as was taking time out for a swim in a cool tree-shaded pool in the River Ogwen. 

3 people sitting at picnic table spread with papers under garden umbrella
3 people sitting at picnic table spread with papers under garden umbrella Joanna Watson/Friends of the Earth

Walking back along the line of the river past the once thriving slate quarry gave us a strong sense of place and a small insight into what had formed the Dyffryn Ogwen community, how it had got left behind and why the Dyffryn Gwyrdd initiatives are so important for starting to revitalise a sense of community self-help. 

Chris has previously written about the EV community cars that kickstarted this green revolution and we were picked up by one of these vehicles, proudly displaying the Dyffryn Gwyrdd logo.  

Ciaran standing by electric car with Dyffryn Gwyrdd logo on drivers door
Ciaran standing by electric car with Dyffryn Gwyrdd logo on drivers door Joanna Watson/Friends of the Earth

Free food 

We visited the Gerddi Francon community garden and allotments and met a volunteer who grows and shares food with other allotment holders. 

Community allotment sign saying Gerddi Francon, Bethesda
Community allotment sign saying Gerddi Francon, Bethesda Joanna Watson/Friends of the Earth

We dropped in on the Pantri Pesda to discover that it’s not primarily a food bank although it collects unwanted and consumable food. Its driving rationale is about food waste not food poverty, so although it does prepare food boxes for those most in need, it doesn’t means test the recipients. Their view is that it’s better food doesn’t go to waste than someone just trying to save money is prevented from taking it.  

Woman making welcoming gesture in front of shop window with Pantri Pesda chalked on the window
Woman making welcoming gesture in front of shop window with Pantri Pesda chalked on the window Joanna Watson/Friends of the Earth

Ciaran reflects “I liked how they were trying to figure out the model and how to position this free surplus food for people who might not need or want to go to a food bank because of perceived stigma. They were doing, learning, figuring it out and adapting as they went. Some organisations want it all figured out before they start, which often means they end up not starting at all”.  

Man and woman chatting inshop, shelves with food behind her
Man and woman chatting inshop, shelves with food behind her Joanna Watson/Friends of the Earth

A new electric shuttle bus 

On the eve of the launch of new electric shuttle bus, we got to be extras in a film shoot by the BBC for S4C news.  It’s that big a deal. Day visitors to Snowdonia will be encouraged to leave their cars in Bethesda to alleviate parking pressure and improve roadside safety by the mountain, while also being encouraged to spend more time and money in the village when they’re dropped back to their cars.

Electric bus parked on street with 3 people waiting by bus stop
Electric bus parked on street with 3 people waiting by bus stop Joanna Watson/Friends of the Earth

The challenge will be to discourage parking at the head of the valley and provide the type of retail services that will encourage tourists to stay – and an even bigger one may be to persuade the local shop keepers/small businesses that this is a genuine opportunity. 

E-bike hire

Man moving blue electric bike with repair shop in background
Man moving blue electric bike with repair shop in background Joanna Watson/Friends of the Earth

Then we went on to an electric bike hire shop and a repair, make and create centre based out of an old school building called Cefnfaes which has been taken on from the local authority. We loved the ambition of looking at how assets like these could be opened up and used for community enterprise. For example, it will be developed to include resources such as business units and a boutique bunkhouse in the future. It’s a refreshing and almost a lean start-up approach, using parts of the building to test and set up new schemes and incrementally taking on more parts as new needs/ideas emerge.  

Seeing the range of projects demonstrated the inter-connectedness of things and showed how a small number of people with a shared vision and entrepreneurial spirit can work together to drive change. 

Funding projects

I was also struck by project leader Huw Davies’ comment that independent funding and trying out lots of new things is easier through a social enterprise than it would be for larger organisations.   As Ciaran comments.  “As a seasoned fundraiser, I found it incredibly impressive how successful Partneriaeth Ogwen are at securing substantial amounts of revenue and capital funding. It’s a testament to the expertise, passion and pride of all the staff we met and the enterprising ambition and impact that they are having in rejuvenating their community in Dyffryn Ogwen”.  

The questions we’ve come away with 

How many people with an impulse for change are needed to create critical mass and make a number of projects more the sum of their parts? How much is down to timing, circumstance, funding and location – and could this model, of a person(s) with a broad range of skills be embedded in a community to support that community in pursuing a number of ideas? How easy would it be to replicate the conditions in Dyffryn Ogwen? How crucial was Partneriaeth Ogwen in driving the EV elements?

Chris continues “Having been through this experience, my mind inevitably moves to scale. How might we enable my other 150+ colleagues at Friends of the Earth, and perhaps even the wider network, to help catalyse similar transformations in their own communities?  We all have valuable skills and experience we could bring – and imagine the difference we could make…together”. 

Mandy puts our thoughts into the wider context:  “When I picture this interweaving of things, it makes me think of a three-dimensional mesh structure – the kind you see of computer-generated prototypes of 3D printed products – there is something strong about this mesh, but flexible too; able to take new forms, accommodate many new nodes, reinforce the weaker points through the strength of the connections. But, of course, this mesh is not computer generated. It's people generated.  

“I’m tempted to say that it is a model for a new economy for Dyffryn Ogwen. One that is specific, rooted in place and offers jobs with meaning to the people that call Dyffryn Ogwen home. But perhaps economy is not quite the right word. It feels like it might be bigger than that.”  

Plants growing in profusion on allotment with mountains in the background.
Plants growing in profusion on allotment with mountains in the background. Joanna Watson/Friends of the Earth

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