The post-carbon community café that rose from the ashes of a filling station

A failing fuel station in the UK is now a thriving community-run eco-café and shop where you can charge your electric car – a great exemplar of the transition from the old to the new in the post-carbon economy.

Stop by the place now and you wouldn’t recognise it. The beautiful, curved timber and glass building with solar panels on roof is always full of people, browsing the local, healthy produce in the shop, or chatting in the café and art gallery, while their kids play in a creche. 

The story begins in 2010 when Huw Lewis, the owner of a petrol station and small shop in Tre’r Ddol village, on a major north-south trunk road in Wales decided that his business was going downhill and wanted to sell up. The problem was nobody wanted to buy, so Huw offered the place to the local community to see if they wanted to have a go.

Local, healthy produce available in store.

Eighty people turned up to this meeting, upset because they felt they’d lost a much-needed local facility. This was a village with no post office or shop. A committee was formed and they set about raising the money. 

One of the chief organisers Shelagh Hourahane told me that the fundraising process took two years. It first opened up in 2013 as a shop and cafe in the old building, with no rent paid to the owner because he wanted to support it. 

“Meanwhile, some other members of the community continued to raise money and I approached the National Lottery while architectural drawings were commissioned from a nearby sustainable architect, Arwyn George,” Hourahane says.

“Eventually £1 million [AUD $1.8 million] was raised, of which £470,000 [AUD $854,000] came from the Lottery and much of the remainder from the European Union and the Welsh government.”

That’s a lot of work. But it has paid off, and not just for the community but for Huw as well, who made £300,000 [AUD $545,000] from the sale.

Hourahane says that now 18 people are employed by the social enterprise – “the equivalent of about five or six full-time jobs”. It’s named Cletwr café after the little river that runs through the village.

Hourahane says the cafe’s location on a main coastal trunk road has helped it succeed. “This is vital, with much of the trade coming from outside visitors. People driving past see it and think that will be a lovely place to stop, which was not the case with the old one.”

Eco-cafe provides one of the few electric charging ports in the area

It’s also important that there aren’t many places in the area where you can charge an electric car. The building is frequently used for events and even supports an event organiser. 

The no energy building with a striking timber frame has been shortlisted for an award.  The building won the Plaque of Honour for architecture (1st prize in its class) at the National Eisteddfod 2018. 

“We have also won a number of other prizes for our success as a community project,” Hourahane says.

Hourahane is very proud that it is a great example of a successful social enterprise. “Profits are ploughed back into the community and it’s an exemplar case study on the Plunkett Foundation website”. The Plunkett Foundation was founded by Sir Horace Plunkett who believed strongly in the power of co-operation to achieve sustainable local development with the purpose of promoting the model of community ownership as a solution to rural problems. 

Cletwr Shop, Machynlleth from Plunkett Foundation on Vimeo.

Dyfi Biosphere

Hourahane puts a lot of emphasis on being a social enterprise within the Dyfi Biosphere Reserve. 

“I have talked about the project at three meetings about social enterprises in biosphere reserves organised by Assist Social Capital, a Scotland-based organisation.”

The Dyfi Biosphere, Hourahane mentioned, is a UNESCO-designated area that stretches up the entire catchment area of the River Dyfi.

These biospheres are defined as “areas of land and marine ecosystems or a combination, which are internationally recognised within the framework of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere (MAB) program”.

They are nominated by national governments and must fulfil three aims: conservation, protecting, wildlife, habitats and the environment; development encouraging a sustainable economy and community; and education, supporting research, monitoring, and building global networks to share and learn.

There are nine biosphere reserves in Australia, including Mornington Peninsula and Western Port and Uluru (Ayers Rock-Mount Olga).

They are meant to show how people, development and nature can coexist. Cletwr cafe is a prime example.

David Thorpe is the author of The One Planet Life and the forthcoming One Planet Cities: Sustaining Humanity Within Planetary Limits.

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  1. Great to see Welsh success stories making it to Australia.

    I’d like to suggest a correction. You say

    “Hourahane knows that many projects like this do not succeed.”

    Yet, as the Plunkett Foundation promote, the community ownership model provides great success with only a couple of community owned shops like Cletwr having ever failed.

    Private shops may struggle in similar settings but community ownership boosts success via increased custom and volunteer support.