The 2019 European Straw Bale Gathering

One of the main benefits of my current semi-reluctant, nomad-y lifestyle is the freedom to be able to spontaneously head off in the direction of the latest shiny thing to capture my interest. Straw bales are my latest interest (yes, straw bales) and who would have ever believed that there was a conference relating to them? Yes, a straw bale conference.

When my friend messaged me about attending this with her (it’s great to have friends who love straw as much as me!) I was slightly drunk and excitedly booked the rather expensive ticket straight away. I could have sworn I read that it was a ‘Straw Bale Festival’ (whatever that is, but it sounds fun, right?) and I eagerly bought the ticket before drifting off to sleep. In the sober light of the next morning I realised that I had booked a ticket to a five-day conference all about straw.

My only photo of straw, believe it or not!

A conference seemed a lot less interesting to me than a festival. When I booked, I expected a gathering of alternative living, crafty types with a love of natural building who would frolic merrily as bands played and other festival-y type things happened. I’m not really a ‘frolic merrily’ type and I’m not even really that into festivals so I’m not sure why I was initially disappointed but, somehow, a conference sounds a lot less awesome than a festival. As I read through the itinerary of the events, I quickly realised that the European Straw Bale Gathering (ESBG) was mostly made up of presentations and that didn’t sound at all exciting.

But I was wrong! Forgive me ESBG, I prejudged you! Who would have thought that a conference about straw could be so interesting and inspiring? Well, almost nobody would have thought that, I suppose. When I looked more closely at the presentations, each one seemed quite fascinating and suddenly the conference format didn’t seem so lame after all. Plus I have a good friend as crazy about natural building as I am and it’s always great to meet up, especially when surrounded by a few hundred others with this same strange passion.

So what exactly is ESBG, I hear you ask? As I mentioned already, it really is a conference about straw or, more specifically, building with straw bales. There’s a conference for everything, it seems! As it turns out, there are lots of interesting natural building events held all around the world… who knew? Not I! ESBG is the one that brings together straw bale enthusiasts from all over Europe and it was an awesome crowd.

I have to admit that I was expecting a gathering of hippy-types talking about self-builds, spouting conspiracy theories, and raging against the ‘man’. What I got was almost the complete opposite with dozens of professionals with awesome ideas, several academics, owners of legitimate building companies, and a whole bunch of very experienced natural and conventional builders. The common thread was a love for the environment and spreading sustainable building practices, but the people at ESBG were representing an industry that was far more advanced than I could have ever imagined! It was exciting to learn more about their battle to move straw bale building into the mainstream – something that I didn’t expect was happening at all.

Todmorden, a small town in Yorkshire and home to the 2019 ESBG, seems like an odd choice at first (ESBG was held in Venice in 2017 and Paris in 2015) but it’s home of the wonderful Barbara Jones (author of Building with Straw Bales and one of the most experienced straw bale builders in the world), so that could explain it! Sure, it’s not exactly a global city, but it really was a perfect choice for this sort of thing. The area is stunning and even the five solid days of rain (we were camping!) didn’t put too much of a damper (pun intended) on things.

We had an opportunity to arrive a day before the conference started to take a day tour around the area to look at several different types of straw bale buildings. My friend and I eagerly signed up, as did a bus full of about 50 other people. Barbara Jones was our stellar tour leader and showed us a bunch of interesting buildings, some of which she’s designed and built with her company Straw Works. I loved the tour but, more than that, I loved being surrounded by other weirdos who were as excited about walls and foundations and little finishing touches as I was. It was also a nice way to meet some new people and do a bit of networking.

The conference kicked off the next day with a full day of presentations with a break for lunch and would continue mostly in that same format for the following few days. The presentations were mostly interesting, the lunches were great, and the socialising afterwards was always fun, verging on the raucous before we wisely decided to head back to the campsite at a semi-reasonable hour each evening. Except for the last evening where we partied into the wee hours, but that was to be expected I suppose. Natural builders are a very fun crowd and my friend and I have very twisty arms when it comes to staying for another drink.

I loved everything about the ESBG experience and I’m looking forward to the next one! I loved meeting a whole bunch of new and very interesting people, learning about some fascinating projects, seeing how advanced this movement already is and where people want to take it, and getting to explore a part of the UK I hadn’t previously been to. Hell, I even loved camping in the rain! I went into the conference seeking a bit of life direction and I left feeling excited about the natural building movement in Europe and feeling very fortunate to have discovered this network of amazing people.

Tires and wood to some… a super exciting, awesome, and much-photographed foundation to most of us.

So did the mighty straw bale give me any life direction? Absolutely! I’m already planning to attend Clayfest (which should be in September 2020 in Wales) and I have a whole slew of building courses lined up for 2020 starting in late January. I love the sense of community, the work, the materials, the creativity, and the people that are a part of the sustainable and natural building movement and I can’t wait to become more of a part of it!