The Cae Mabon Story
Finding the Place
I stumbled upon Muriau Gwynion when I was looking for something else. I fell in love with it instantly but soon realised I couldn’t afford to buy it. So I had to let it go. But a few months later at the end of a meditation retreat at Gaia House in Devon I had a strong vision of what I could do there. As soon as I was free to do so I went back – to discover that someone else had bought it. For a second time I had to let it go.
A year later I went looking again, in and out of the estate agents on Bangor High Street. In the last one I was about to leave when the manager asked: ‘What are you looking for?’ I blurted out something about a house in the country with a few trees. He said: ‘There’s this and this and then a place in Fachwen. You’ve got to go down a half-mile track.’ He showed me the picture. It was the same place, just back on the market. I still had no accounts, no job and no money – usually you need at least one – but I did have the vision and the determination. And that turned out to be enough. Third time lucky.
The day before I was due to sign the contract I went to look at it from across the lake. It was a grey damp day in June. I’d come from living in Alice Springs where the sun always shines. I was filled with doubt, as one is before making such a big decision.
But that evening I went to a singing group run by a friend, Sheila Brook. That night Martin the Fish (so known because he was a fisherman) brought a song that went:
Sleep, sleep tonight
And may your dreams be realised.
And when the thundercloud passes rain
Oh let it rain, rain down on me.
By the time we’d sung that song over and over again it didn’t matter about the rain because it was about dreams being realised. So the next day I signed the contract with a clear heart. The following day a friend told me I’d signed on midsummer’s day - without even realising it. Three months later on 26th October 1986 (just before Samhain, the old Celtic New Year’s Eve) I moved in.
The Roundhouse was the first major structure we built at Cae Mabon. I was lucky to have the help of Jake Keen (creator of the Ancient Technology Centre in Dorset) and Nick MacSmith, who led the thatching. It was made over a four-year period and completed in September 1994. I thought planners wouldn’t understand what it was so decided not to ask them for permission. We went ahead with it anyway, and because it wasn’t overlooked by anyone and because no one complained, we got away with it. That set the precedent.
Over the following years we constructed one new building almost very year. Finally in 2006 the planners found out about us. Initially they responded positively to our application but when it came to the crucial meeting our key supporters were away and two councillors took against us vehemently. Our application was rejected by 14 votes to 7. However we applied again a year later and the second time round, on 3rd October 2007, we were granted full retrospective planning permission by 17 votes to 3.
In the summer of 2008 ‘Sustain’ (a glossy magazine for builders and architects), asked Tom Woolley (professor of architecture and expert of natural building) to nominate his top ten natural building projects in the UK. When the magazine arrived in October 2008 I was surprised and delighted to discover he’d chosen us as ‘the number one natural building project in the UK’, ahead of several other much more prestigious projects. He said Cae Mabon was like a ‘mini-expo’ where you could see a range of natural materials used in various ways all in one place. He described Cae Mabon as a ‘Welsh Shangri-La hanging on a hillside overlooking the mountains of Snowdonia’.
So we went from being illegal to number one within a year!
The Meaning of Cae Mabon
The original name of the property was ‘Muriau Gwynion’, a good old Welsh name (meaning ‘white walls’) but not particularly distinctive and difficult for non-Welsh speakers to pronounce. I wanted a name in Welsh with the connotation of retreat, redoubt, refuge, lair or hideaway. But the Welsh words for those things were rather unpronounceable and none seemed quite right. The writer Angharad Tomos advised me to use the word ‘Cae’, which literally means ‘field’. She said it could connote those other meanings as well. I wanted to use the name Mabon, an ancient character from one of the stories from the Mabinogion. His full name is ‘Mabon son of Modron’, meaning ‘the Great Son of the Great Mother’. It can also be translated as ‘the Divine Youth’. Some say the Mabinogion is a fragmentary version of his life story. He’s also likely to be the same figure known in early Roman times as Maponus, who some think was a solar deity, likened to Apollo in the Greek pantheon. So not only can ‘Cae Mabon’ mean the ‘Retreat of the Divine Youth’ it also has connotations of being the ‘Redoubt of the Ancient Sun God of Britain’. Grand claims indeed!Many people have trouble pronouncing ‘Cae Mabon’. To be clear the correct way to say it is: ‘Cae’ as in ‘sky’; ‘Mab-’ as in ‘fab’; and ‘-on’ as in ‘on the button’. The emphasis is on the ‘Mab’.