Listen to birds while munching chocolates: green Christmas gifts from CAT this winter


This week on our Christmas gift list, we hear from our Gardener, Roger Mclennan, about the top three gifts he’d get others from our CAT Winter Catalogue this Christmas.

Gravely pondering our shop’s collection of wintry gifts, Roger is first struck by the Common Garden Bird Calls guide. “I’d definitely want that for myself,” he explains, “because I’m really interested in bird songs – almost obsessed, really, I absolutely love bird singing. I’m far from an expert, but I do try to identify birds by their songs. It’s not easy, and you need good hearing which I don’t think I have these days.”

His second choice is more philanthropic: “I’d probably get the Trees for Life Calendar for someone else, because that would do some good for Scottish forests, which is really important.” The Trees for Life charity works to restore the Caledonian Forest, and the pictures look beautiful too!

Turning from environmental awareness to tasty treats, Roger concludes that the Monty Bojangles Truffles are always a safe bet. “They are very good – very more-ish, and quite sweet for truffles – they really are good,” he repeats. He’s bought them from the shop before, he explains, and would definitely get them again.

With this range of gifts from feel-good to taste-good, why not check out our online shop, or pop round to CAT for a visit and tour the site in company with our friend robins? While you’re here, you could also find out more about learning useful sustainability skills through our short courses – this year CAT is offering a 10% discount on short courses, which also make great presents for family and friends.

Fabulous and functional green Christmas gifts from CAT


If you got to choose your three favourite Christmas gifts from the CAT shop, what would they be? Staff members at CAT like Rosie have been pondering this question – this week, we hear from Adam Tyler, one of our Engineers…

Flipping through CAT’s Winter Catalogue, Adam points to the Powerbuzz Magnets as an easy first choice – he got a chance to play with them in the shop, he says, and they make a cool noise when you toss them in the air. A great stocking filler.

Moving on from the quirky to the eminently practical, Adam’s second choice is the snazzy Frontier Camping Stove. “Well my job involves burning stuff, anyway, so I guess I’m a bit of a pyromaniac,” he says with a grin, “plus I’ve got a van so I could keep the stove in there just as well for when I go camping”.

As his third gift Adam contemplates the Makedo Find and Make Elephant Kit, but eventually settles on the Thunderbird Fuel Cell Kit. “As it says in the catalogue, it’s ingeniously designed for children, and I’m obviously a big child at heart – plus it’s got cool colours”. More seriously speaking, the fact that the fuel cell is powered by salt water is an engaging way to showcase alternative energy.


For presents useful and entertaining for young and old, CAT’s online and onsite shop is clearly a good first port of call in the build up to Christmas.

10% discount on CAT’s inspiring short courses now available


Have you ever wanted to learn how to build a coracle, make forged tools, or construct gates and fences? Or would you like to give horse logging a go for a day, or spend an intensive week learning the art of sustainable woodland management from experienced woodspeople?

From now until the 31st of December, CAT is offering a 10% discount on some of the exciting short courses due to run next year. CAT’s short courses are a great gift idea for anyone interested in learning skills in sustainable living; this festive season, why not give someone you love the opportunity to delve further into an interest, or to take a week out from the hectic pace of life in the tranquility of mid Wales?

Participants on CAT’s short courses enjoy delicious vegetarian meals and accommodation nestled in the foothills of Snowdonia, as well as expert tuition from well-renowned tutors and CAT staff.

Below are some of the fantastic courses on offer in 2013. Book before the 31st and make the most of the 10% discount now available!

Develop your skills in woodland management and crafts

Gates, Fences and Hedges: learn how to create gates, fences and hedges. Ideal for smallholders.
Horse logging: experience a low impact method for logging woodland
Sustainable woodland management: a fantastic introduction to all aspects of managing a small wood. Learn how to add social, economic and ecological value to woodland.
Greenwood crafts: discover the basic principles of transforming greenwood into products.

Reclaim traditional skills

Coracle building: build a traditional vessel used since the Bronze Age in a weekend
Hedgerow herbalism: discover how to produce an incredible range of cosmetic and medicinal products from foraged materials
Willow basket making: spend a hands-on day learning how to weave with willow
Blacksmithing: learn how to use a low-tech, low-fuel charcoal forge and leave with the items you’ve made

Learn sustainable building skills

Strawbale building: learn this sustainable, simple and accessible building method
Make an earth oven: gain the skills to build an earth oven yourself, and secure a future supply of delicious pizza, breads and stews!

All I want for Christmas


Presents from CAT at Christmas make a perfect gift for friends and family. From our range of incredible and inspiring courses to quirky gadgets and solar powered robots there really is something for everyone. In the weeks building up to Christmas, staff members members choose their top 3 Christmas gifts available from CAT, this week Rosie Strickland, Marketing and Events Officer…

Continue reading “All I want for Christmas”

Bike blog: make it fit

Hello and welcome back to another bike blog!

Given that throughout my cycling life I’ve relied on sets of wheels I either got for free or a fairly negligible sum of money, the question of how well the bike actually fits me – or even whether it’s the right size – has never really arisen. Having a bike which fits has seemed to me like an untenable luxury, the exclusive reserve of people who buy bikes new, or compete, or at least certainly incompatible with my style of cost-cutting cycling.

However, one beautiful vintage racing bike later – one with a frame a little too high for my little legs – and I’m more alive to the need to make sure the bike fits. Dismounting was difficult, and occasionally injurious, but despite that, I commuted with it for a year – even taking it on a summer jaunt to France. Eventually, I realised that it just wasn’t safe, and needlessly difficult. While it pains me greatly to have to move on, it’ll be best for both of us. And when I find a proper replacement, I’ll make sure it’s the right size.

So far, I’ve been conflating size with fit. Those in the know about these kinds of things will be aware that the size of the bike refers to the frame, and how it is ‘out of the box’, whereas the fit encompasses everything you can adjust (from the seat post height to the angling of the handlebars) to make the bike optimally fit your body and cycling needs.


Some ideas for choosing the right size

  • the size of frame you’re after will depend on what type of frame you’re looking for – road bike, mountain bike, touring bike, comfort bike…? Different frame styles support different types of riding, so will fit very differently.
  • once you’ve ascertained what kind of frame you’re looking for, have a look at a frame size calculator or a frame size chart.
  • bike manufacturers will often provide resources to help you pick the right size.
  • there’s no substitute for giving it a go, however – while a bike might seem the right size on ‘paper’ various factors, from the size of the wheels to the peculiarities of different manufacturers, might make it uncomfortable to ride.


Some ideas for improving the fit

  • you can get this professionally done. Many bike stores will offer a bike fitting service, or you could turn to the expertise of a freelancer; either way, it’s likely to not be terribly cheap. This kind of fine tuning seems to be primarily aimed at “serious” cyclists looking to shave a few seconds of their time trial, but heavy use of a bike – whether to win races or get to work – can result in injury or discomfort if not fitted right. If you do decide to go with a professional bike fitting, make sure you make the most of it by requesting a copy of all the measurements and notes on all the alterations made, and be wary of the opportunity for up sell.
  • however, you can learn to make these changes yourself – and anything you change can get altered back again. Like anything bike-related, there’s dozens of resources available online to help. For starters, check out Peter White’s fairly comprehensive article.
  • the main considerations will probably be the height of the seat, the positioning of the handlebars, and the angling of the seat. You’ll find lots of advice online for figuring out how to adjust each of these.
  • adjusting your bike will involve compromising, so it’s worth having a clear idea of what you want to use your bike for. Do you want to ride super-fast and efficiently, or do you want to enjoy the scenery? Either way, you’ll need to make some trade-offs.
  • if you do get out the tool box for a few tinkers, keep in mind that there’s no one right way of finding the right fit. It’s about how it feels, not about how it adheres to some formula, so keep on testing and trying until you find what works.
  • check out this troubleshooting chart to diagnose problems with your fit.
  • a good fit will never be permanent, as your body and cycling priorities change. Be aware of how your bike feels and be prepared to continue making alterations.
  • finally, if it’s a good fit, you shouldn’t be aware of it. Keep trying until you stop noticing!


Climate change: It’s even worse than we thought

On Monday November 26th the international climate talks open in Doha,  an article published in the New Scientist this week carried the startling headline, Climate Change: It’s even worse than we thought. Climate change is happening faster and quicker than expected. Artic sea ice was not expected to melt to the end of the century but current trends indicate it could happen a lot quicker than that, the loss of sea ice means sea level rises. Weather events are more unpredicatable than imagined, with superstorm Sandy topping the bill after a year of heatwaves, droughts, floods and blizzards. The world is heading for an average 3-5 deg C temperature rise this century barring urgent action.

A faster response to climate change is necessary and possible,Doha must make sure the response is accelerated.” UN climate chief Christiana Figueres

Continue reading “Climate change: It’s even worse than we thought”

WISE Weddings that Don’t Cost the Earth

WISE Weddings that Don’t Cost the Earth

The Centre for Alternative Technology is proud to announce that it is now open for civil ceremony and wedding bookings. CAT has always specialised in environmental issues, from teaching school children about the importance of sustainability to training the next generation of engineers and architects who will build our zero carbon future.

Now, thanks to the outstanding facilities offered by the award-winning WISE building it is able to offer ethical, green weddings. The average price of a UK wedding is around £20,000, produces 62 tons of carbon emissions and 400-600 lbs of rubbish. Sarah, conference and events manager at WISE says everyone can make a difference. “There are loads of things you can do to reduce the carbon footprint of your wedding, from the dress and flowers, to the food and drink. AT CAT we make weddings that really don’t cost the earth, possible”

Situated in the stunning Dulas valley in mid-Wales, WISE is a superb wedding venue. Its outstanding 200 seat cylindrical theatre with seven-metre high rammed-earth walls is ideal for ceremonies, described by newly-wed Katy Jones as “the perfect setting for our ceremony and very intimate, the acoustics were like the Albert Hall.”

The outdoor forest garden is an ideal setting for a champagne reception and the restaurant and bar are perfect for the wedding breakfast and dancing the night away.

“We loved every part of our wedding. The food was beautiful, organic and local and all our guests commented on how smoothly the day went, they really enjoyed being in such a bright and natural space.” Katy Jones

Newly- weds Katy and Aled at their reception in the WISE building

As well as the eco-credentials of a WISE wedding and fantastic organic cuisine CAT can also provide a directory of local suppliers who can provide everything from ethically sourced flowers to low-carbon transport including a horse and cart.

Sarah,  says “We are about making that special day really special, whether you prefer an intimate celebration or the party of a lifetime, we can assist you with your plans and have a very flexible approach as everyone has a different idea of what they would like.”

For more information on green weddings at CAT please contact Sarah at or on 01654 704973

A WISE use for Local Charities

The Centre for Alternative Technology is offering local charities the opportunity to use meeting rooms at its educational and conference centre, the Wales Institute for Sustainable Education (WISE), for free. If you work or volunteer for a charity in the SY20 area and are looking for a special place to hold meetings, then the WISE building could be the place for you. Situated in the stunning Dulas valley in mid-Wales, WISE has impressive facilities that can deliver successful conferences, meetings, training sessions or one-off events.

“ The WISE building is a tremendous resource, with its state of the art  facilities and outstanding sustainability credentials, CAT would like to be able to share that with the many organisations in our local area who are doing important work” Kim Bryan, CAT spokesperson.

The WISE building opened in 2012 and has won several national awards for its ecological credentials. Based at CAT’s site near Machynlleth, the building hosts several meeting rooms, workshop space and a 200 seater lecture theatre. En-suite accommodation and catering can also be arranged for delegates.The offer is open to all charities in the SY20 area, six times per year and is available for meeting rooms only. Please contact Sarah at or on 01654 704973 for reservations and more information.

5 tips to find and identify tasty Hedgehog mushrooms


Now I am hardly Ray Mears or Bear Grylls. For a start I cannot stand mud in my tent, whereas I am sure neither Bear or Ray lose any sleep over a squelchy ground sheet. But in the interests of sustainable living and maintaining the pretext of an alpha male who is at home in the great outdoors, I’m keen to start foraging more of my food. And with the winter turning out more mild than usual, it’s a great time to harvest one of the most abundant of natural foods: the wild mushroom!

Now – I hear you saying – aren’t mushrooms stupidly dangerous to pick if you’re a novice like me; Let alone a completely deluded city-living softie that can’t even light a fire without matches or petrol. Well, yes they are. Make no mistake about it, if you don’t know your Chanterelles from your Death Caps (the clue is in the title) then foraging for mushrooms can be like playing with fire – once you’ve managed to light it that is. But don’t stop reading quite yet…

Still there? Good. Because Hedgehog mushrooms are a god-send for the novice forager. They are common and very easy to identify. The perfect time of the year to find this yummy mushroom is between September and December. Just make sure you get out to forage before the first heavy frost settles. Because mushrooms don’t like frost and neither do forager’s fingers. Unfortunately, the weather this year seems to have been even worse for the mushrooms than it was for us. Long wet spells followed by equally long dry spells means the quantity has not matched the bountiful harvest of previous years.

But there are still a few healthy patches out there. Here’s my five tips for picking a non-toxic mushroom that will make a tasty treat in any meal:

1. Don’t pick any mushrooms unless you’re completely certain they are safe. The best way to learn (and avoid a toxic dinner) is to go foraging with someone experienced that knows mushrooms really well and I find that if they’re still breathing, they probably know their stuff!

2. Much like the Death Cap, the name of this mushroom is a big clue. Unlike other mushrooms, Hedgehogs have spines underneath their caps rather than gills, pores or ‘spongy stuff’. The spines should be soft to the touch and a pale colour that closely resembles the stalk and cap colour.

3. There’s no point looking for actual Hedgehogs during the day is there? So don’t waste your time in the fields. If you want to find Hedgehog Mushrooms, then head for the trees. Grassy or mossy areas are best. You can find them in deciduous or coniferous woodland. The caps become harder to spot once the leaves have fallen in later months but Hedgehogs are paler than most autumn foliage.

4. The colour is also the final safety precaution. Other ‘tooth fungi’ are less common than the Hedgehog variety and most are still edible (though I am told not as tasty). But only pick pale mushrooms with caps that are white, beige or a caramel leather texture. The stalk should resemble the colour of the irregular shaped cap. If there’s any sign of green or burnt hues, best give the mushroom a miss. Better to be safe than sorry.

5. And last but not least… Definitely do not pick that mushroom unless you are completely certain it’s not toxic.

If you follow all these tips and have the patience to find a good spot then you will soon fill your pockets with this fantastic wild mushroom. Now all that’s left, is to cook your meal. Where’s Ray Mears when you need him…

Where’s the impact of a reusuable bottle?


In this series, we’ve been investigating the environmental and social impacts of various consumer products. Inspired by CAT Education resource Where’s the Impact? we’ve been attempting to unpick the tangled web of relations responsible for what buy.

We’ve so far investigated an Easter egg, a book, a cotton t-shirt and pads and tampons. Last time, we looked at the impact of a home-baked cake, concluding that baking a cake yourself was likely to be more ethical than buying a store bought one, as it’d be possible to avoid un-fairly traded sugar, mono-crop wheat, or products from intensive animal farming.

This week, we’re going to delve into the world of reusable bottles. Most of us are aware of the impact that disposable plastic water bottles have on the environment – and reusing the same bottle, rather than continually buying more bottled water, is a pretty good solution. However, when that bottle’s made from aluminium, with a plastic lid, there are still ethical issues to consider.

As ever, we welcome your comments – help us tell the story by posting below, or make suggestions as to what we could cover in the future.

We looked at aluminium production in an earlier post examining the impact of an Easter egg, highlighting in particular the long distances frequently traveled by the raw material – bauxite ore – before processing. Freighting hefty resources around the world takes a considerable carbon toll, and is symptomatic of the globalised way we’ve become accustomed to producing goods.

In this post, however, I want to focus on a different aspect of aluminium production. As well as being sourced a long way away from the site it’s processed, aluminium affects areas of high biodiversity, as bauxite mines can often be found in these unique habitats.

One such area of high biodiversity is the Amazon rainforest, currently affected by a range of different damaging processes. In the case of aluminium, it’s open cast mining. Open cast mining is not at all euphemistic – it’s an open pit, a giant, gaping, open pit. Kendra Pierre-Louis, in her book Greenwashed, describes the process: “the terrain is artfully moulded, albeit by a deranged landscape architect seeking to evoke a Mad Max-style dystopia.”

Bauxite mines of this persuasion tend to spread indefinitely, until the dirt expelled from the pit becomes problematic. Meanwhile, processing aluminium requires huge amounts of electricity, which Aloca plan to source in Brazil by flooding 150 square miles to create a huge hydroelectric dam, displacing 20,00 people in the process, and shrinking one of the planet’s most precious natural resources.

Even if you’re buying a reusable aluminium bottle to reduce your reliance on disposable plastic bottles, it’s likely you’ll still be buying a bottle with plastic content in the lid. Plastic’s lack of environmental credentials lies partly in its manufacture, which is reliant on various chemicals dangerous to human health, and partly in its longevity.

Strangely for a substance so associated with disposability and impermanence, plastic sticks around for a long, long time. It loiters in landfills, clogs waterways, and once entering the ocean, migrates to join ranks with other bits of plastic in one of five plastic ‘islands’ in the ocean, each the size of Texas. It degrades, and gets eaten, pervading almost every ecosystem on Earth. But it doesn’t break down.

What then, do we do with it? Recycling plastic can be an energy-intense process. Recycling it more imaginatively – I’m thinking knitting bags from plastic bags, bin-liner wearable art – is also an option, though it’s probably possible to reach saturation point with plastic-based recycled art fairly quickly. Sadly, plastic products are emblematic of our disposable consumer culture; it’s a great resource, but perhaps best for where necessity demands it, like medical supplies, rather than the various less-than-vital ends we’ve channeled it into.

Don’t get me wrong: reusable bottles are good. Reusable things in general are good, as are mendable things, fixable things, things built without built-in obsolescence or the capacity to self-destruct. However, there’s an interesting irony in the case of an aluminium reusable water bottle – they’re part of a range of products aimed at making our lives greener, encouraging us to believe that we can shop ourselves out of ecological crisis.

Aluminium, unlike plastic, can be recycled with relative ease. Recycling aluminium saves up to 95% of the amount of energy needed to transform bauxite ore into aluminium, and with over 4 million cans produced annually in the UK alone, it’s fair to say that we’ve got enough of the stuff in circulation to fulfill our aluminium needs. However, aluminium bottles are made from virgin aluminium. They’re recyclable, which is better than not being recyclable, but the process of making them is still reliant on open-caste mining, destroying areas of high biodiversity, and robbing indigenous peoples of their land.

If we bought one and thus fulfilled our water-vessel needs, that’d be fine and dandy – but consumer culture doesn’t work that way. Despite reusable bottles being sold to us as eco-options, our consumption of bottled water hasn’t significantly decreased, if at all. And they’re still peddled as part of an acquisitive culture which needs us to buy more, and more (and perhaps more).

Fundamentally, despite claims of ‘greenness’, all products have an impact. The question remains as to which impacts are worth it, and which aren’t.