Volume 17 Number 4
A Passion for Wales and the World
01 August 2004
When Carl Clowes applied for a job as a doctor in North Wales, he could not have foreseen that it would lead him to launching the UK’s first cooperative village—or becoming Honorary Consul for Lesotho. He talks to Paul Williams.
As a young family doctor in the small Welsh village of Llanaelhaearn, Carl Iwan Clowes discovered early that health entails more than medicine. ‘People came in with a history—of poor housing, low incomes and job insecurity. These all have an impact on people’s well-being, both physical and mental.’ This realization began his lifelong concern for social medicine—his last post before taking early retirement was as Director of Medical Services for the Powys Health Trust. It also propelled him into the fight for social justice, both within Wales and abroad.
Clowes has also played a key role in campaigning for the Welsh language (spoken by about half of Wales’ population in 1911, and a fifth today). ‘Wales would be a poorer place without it,’ he says. ‘There is no guarantee of its survival, living as it does next door to the most powerful language in the world.’ Clowes was the founder of the Nant Gwrtheyrn National Language Centre in North Wales and, in 1988, convened and chaired Fforwm Iaith (the Welsh Language Forum), which lobbied for the Welsh Language Act of 1993.
The son of an English father and a Welsh-speaking mother, Clowes grew up in Manchester with very little idea of the Welsh language. It was only when his parents moved back to live in North Wales, that he decided to take up learning it in earnest.
It was while he was Senior House Officer at the Christie Institute in Manchester, specializing in radiotherapy (oncology), that he saw an advertisement for the post of General Practitioner in Llanaelhaearn, on the picturesque Lleyn Peninsula. It seemed a strange career move, especially as he had had virtually no experience of general practice. But he and his Irish wife Dorothi (they had met at an anatomy lecture in their first year at Manchester Medical School) had decided that they wanted to bring up their family as Welsh speakers in Wales.
‘I had begun, in my later years at Medical School, to think a lot about Wales and Welshness,’ he explains. ‘It was a time, in the late Sixties, when a lot of people were asking, “Who am I?” I began to feel hurt that some people were very dismissive about Wales.’
Only a few weeks after he started in the new job, news came that the County Education Authority were planning to close the local school. Clowes threw himself into the battle to save it. ‘The campaign was successful and in fact changed the Authority’s policy to other small schools threatened with closure,’ he says. ‘But then we were forced to acknowledge that the closure plan was just one symptom of a general fall in population across the area which was threatening the viability of the village itself.’ Pressure on the County Council had saved the school, but it became obvious that further help from that quarter would be limited— particularly as 200 other villages were in a similar plight.
With the campaign’s success fresh in everyone’s minds, Clowes proposed forming a Village Association to explore ways of regenerating the community. In 1974 this became Antur Aelhaearn (Aelhaearn Venture)—the first cooperative village in the UK. The majority of the inhabitants took up their right to buy a £1 share in the cooperative. ‘We also issued loan stock and eventually raised £11,000 as starting capital.’ Clowes became the cooperative’s first Chairman.
The village’s fight-back began with the modest purchase of a pottery kiln, which was housed in the doctor’s garage. A professional potter was taken on to train local talent. Dorothi and a colleague trained local women in producing knitwear, using machines housed in the cooperative’s caravan.
The next step was to buy land in the centre of the village for a small factory. This led to media publicity, including an editorial in the Birmingham Post, which stimulated a phone call from an industrialist who was looking for a workforce to produce enamelled badges for his firm. Agreement was reached, on the condition that Antur’s factory employed local labour.
‘Unfortunately the company pulled out after six months, which was a blow. So we moved in the pottery business and the knitting machines.’ The knitwear business took off. Some 50 women were trained and their products were sold as far afield as Japan and New York. Later the factory was doubled in size and leased out to the County Council which now uses it to train people in woodwork, metalwork and computers.
While in Llanaelhaearn, Clowes came across the deserted quarrying village of Porth y Nant, which nestles between the sea and a steep mountain face. He had the vision of bringing the ghost village back to life as a teaching centre for the Welsh language and, with a group of friends, started negotiations to buy it.
During the Seventies the village had been the home of the New Atlantis Commune of hippies and was now derelict. ‘There was no water supply, no electricity, no sewage system and no access road down the mountain—as the quarry’s produce used to be taken away by sea,’ recalls Clowes. ‘It seemed an impossible task.’
They got different groups and organizations to sponsor the renovation of each house. For instance, one of the houses clustered around the central green was sponsored by the Church in Wales, another by a BBC Wales Welsh learners’ programme, and a third by Welsh Water. The first house was opened in 1982, when the first language course took place, using a generator for electricity. Other renovations followed, and in 1991 the Nant Gwrtheyrn National Language Centre was officially opened.
Today a proper tarmac road brings the cars of course participants safely down the steep slope. The former manager’s house is now the teaching centre and the ruined chapel has been transformed into a multi-purpose meeting hall. It also houses a permanent exhibition depicting the history and characteristics of the area.
To date some 25,000 people have learnt Welsh at Nant Gwrtheyrn. They have included a Nobel Peace Prize winner, a chief constable and senior police officers, bishops and clergy, politicians, television and film stars and employees of privatized corporations. ‘We feel we are contributing to a more bi-lingual Wales by giving those who have professional skills the additional skill of fluency in Welsh,’ says Clowes. In 1992 the rejuvenated village won the Award for the Environment, given by The Times, The Royal Institute of British Architects and Shell.
Clowes says his vision for Wales, with its three million inhabitants, is for it ‘to be equitable within and play its part in striving for a more equitable world outside’. He is proud of the emphasis within Wales on social
conscience and community values— reflected in the Welsh National Assembly’s special policies for children, students and the elderly, which are unique in the UK.
But what of equity abroad? It was Clowes who, at an all-Wales dialogue convened in 1982 by Initiatives of Change, first suggested the idea of Wales finding a ‘twin’ in the developing world. The resulting link with Lesotho, Dolen Cymru, was the first ever country-to-country twinning.
‘The idea of Wales developing its own special link with a small country in the Third World grew out of a desire to see if we could make a direct contribution to bridging the “NorthSouth” divide,’ he says. Lesotho, a mountainous country similar in size to Wales but completely surrounded by South Africa, enthusiastically agreed to the experiment.
Nearly 20 years after its launch in 1985, there are extensive links between schools, including an active programme of teacher exchanges, and churches, as well as a range of health-related projects. A former Lesotho High Commissioner to London called it ‘a new dimension in international relations’. Clowes, who is President of Dolen Cymru, was recently appointed as Honorary Consul of Lesotho in Wales.
Fittingly, when Clowes was honoured by the National Eisteddfod of Wales, the citation recorded that it was for services ‘locally, nationally and internationally’.