Cassandra Lishman – Woman of the Willows

Cassandra Lishman

Recently we featured the Lammas Ecovillage, near Glandwr, and focused on the alternative lifestyle of two of its remarkable residents, Tao and Hoppi Wimbush…

Now we’d like to introduce you to Cassandra Lishman, another of the pioneering people living the low-impact life at Lammas. 

Cassie, 51, seems to have been on the road to an alternative lifestyle almost since she was born in Connecticut. Her mother and father travelled widely and she spent a year in India when she was just two. From the age of 11 she was sent by her Europhile parents to study ballet at a Hertfordshire boarding school; and aged 17 she met Nigel, 28, “hippy, traveller, carpenter”, dropped out, hit the road with him and two years later they married. 

Today they live at Lammas in a pink strawbale home which they built themselves (along with assorted other home-made buildings). Their three children are there too: Ted, 26, with his own eco-hut, and David, 17, and Bea, 14, sharing a barn. Plus two dogs, two cats, two ponies, three sheep, chickens and bees. The sheep provide fleeces and their lambs provide meat. “We produce 30 per cent of our own food,” says Cassie.

They have been here for a decade. But the idea of living in a place like this has been there since 2000 when Cassie, Nigel and Ted (then six) had a holiday in Wales on a site with nine self-catering units.

“That triggered something – and you hold that vision in your head,” she says. “We sold up in London in 2006 and moved to Wales because we wanted our kids to get out of the city, and we wanted to find ‘community’, to live as low-impact as possible. For a start we had a yurt, and then in just a few days we met people who told us about the Lammas project.

“We went to one of the first Lammas meetings. Tao’s original vision was 40 homes. Then it went down to 10 – that sounded a lot better. In the end he went for nine.” Which for Cassie was the magic number.

After three years moving from place to place and “living hand to mouth”, she and Nigel bought their land at Lammas in 2009 and she planted the 2,500 willows that were to become her way of making a living.

“All five of us were living in a yurt when we first moved here in 2010,” she says. “We knew nothing about building in the beginning – we had to test our building skills as we went along.”

They evolved the cunning plan of offering building courses. “People came and learned the skills with us – and we got a building! All our buildings so far have been built through courses and the help of volunteers.” 

Their pink home “is really my workshop”, says Cassie. They have plans to start building a new house, “an American-style wooden cabin”, this year.

Cassie is at pains to stress that living at Lammas – reliant upon sun, water and wind for power, and running smallholdings in tune with nature – does not preclude having a “normal” life.

Cassandra Lishman and her willow © Heather Birnie 2018

Much of her time is taken up running her willow business, while Nigel has a “conventional” job as a care support worker.

Cassie coppices her willows every year. She runs willow workshops in local schools (“You can use the planting of willows to teach maths and geometry”), makes willow sculptures and shows others how to do it, teaches basketry at adult learning centres dotted around Pembrokeshire (Haverfordwest, Crymych, Tenby), and does art therapy for mental health with Arts Care in Carmarthen.

She also sells willow cuttings and living willow bundles, and her willow sculptures are on sale at www.etsy.com/shop/OneWildPlanet.

“In my situation, I can’t just sell my baskets at the end of the track,” she laughs. “I have to have a four-wheel-drive with a big boot.”

What does it take to make it off grid? “I’m very strong willed – you have to be to do this. And you need stamina and determination.” She confesses: “Originally, I dragged poor Nigel here with me! If you are a couple, there is bound to be friction sometimes.”

But they’ve made it through and they’re still together. “It’s bloody amazing,” she says. “We have the sort of relationship where it’s good and where we think we know each other, but we don’t know everything, so we constantly surprise each other.” 

And you need humour? “Yes. Nigel has got an amazing sense of humour. Without that we would not have lasted here.”

Nigel and Cassandra © Amanda Jackson 2013

What would she say to anyone wanting to live this way? “If I can do it, you can do it. If you are passionate about it, you will make it work. It’s a leap of faith. 

“I may have to boil some water to do washing-up – so what? At Christmas we had no electricity – so we had to put on the emergency petrol generator to watch a film. What I’ve learned here is that once your basic needs are met, there is no correlation between money and happiness. And we are still alive!”

Looking back to the beginning, Cassie said: “There are some moments in life that are so vivid that you can still see them clearly. I remember when we had agreed to meet Tao on the land. We found our way there, and I remember walking up this hill and seeing him coming towards us. I remember shaking his hand and thinking: ‘This is the future.’ It was such a powerful feeling, knowing that I had to follow this path.” 

Cassandra Lishman: www.plas-helyg.co.uk
Lammas Ecovillage: www.lammas.org.uk

© Nigel Summerley

Nigel Summerley

Nigel Summerley

Nigel Summerley recently retired from The Oldie magazine to return to freelance journalism. He previously held executive staff jobs at the London Evening Standard, The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Telegraph and the Daily Express before freelancing for 20 years for newspapers including The Times, The Sunday Times, The Independent, The Guardian and the ‘i’ paper, plus a wide range of magazines. He continues to write about music, travel and health.

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