Philip Strange went to see the award-winning compost toilets at Monkton Wyld Court in west Dorset
The hamlet of Monkton Wyld lies in a deep wooded valley in the far west of Dorset a few miles inland from Lyme Regis. The hamlet is dominated by the Victorian church and neo-gothic rectory, Monkton Wyld Court. For many years, the rectory was home to an alternative school and is now an education centre for sustainable living. It has also acquired a reputation for its award-winning compost toilets. In 2011, its compost loos made Permaculture Magazine’s top five and in 2013, Monkton Wyld Court’s sustainable privy was rated world number one in a competition organised by Transition Town Totnes.
I wanted to find out what was so special about these compost toilets so, on an overcast but mild April day, I drove down the narrow road to Monkton Wyld. The setting is idyllic and the high verges were heavy with spring flowers: bluebells, wood anemones, stitchwort, primrose, red campion and wild garlic. At the old rectory, I was welcomed by Lynden Miles, who designed and built the compost loos. Lynden works and lives at the Court with his family and he took me to see the conveniences.
Monkton Wyld Court does have conventional flushing toilets but there are also two compost loos, both situated in the grounds a short walk from the house and shielded by trees. Each toilet consists of an attractive wooden building, constructed from locally sourced larch, on a raised platform. Within each building is a toilet with a decorative wooden seat and a hand-washing sink which uses harvested and filtered rain water. There is also a supply of sawdust for visitors to add after they have used the toilet. Lighting is solar-powered and the windows afford lovely leafy views. Using the toilet is a pleasant experience and there was no smell that I could detect.
There is, however, the question of the waste. We are so used to “flush and forget” systems that we don’t normally give this a thought. In the award-winning compost toilet, waste accumulates in a chamber below, where it gradually decomposes under the influence of bacteria. The process is termed “aerobic” because the bacteria depend on oxygen so it is essential to maintain good ventilation. The sawdust is also an important part of the process: it keeps the moisture content of the decomposing waste low and provides carbon as a fuel for the bacteria to do their work. The bacteria also consume any pathogens in the human waste. Eventually the chamber will be “full” and at that point Lynden will move the toilet above a second chamber. He expects this will be in about two years. The waste in the first chamber will then be left for a further two years before it can be recycled as fertiliser for fruit trees; it will never be used directly on edible crops.
I asked Lynden why he had developed these novel toilets. He told me that he had experienced awful compost toilets elsewhere and thought he could do better. Compost toilets also fit well with the ethos of sustainable living at Monkton Wyld Court. Conventional “flush and forget” toilets consume vast amounts of water which disappear in to the sewers along with the human waste. This water has been carefully purified to drinking standard only to be flushed away using up to a third of our domestic water supply. The human waste is only partly recycled and important nutrients are lost. By comparison, Lynden’s compost toilets consume a little rainwater and potentially recycle all the human waste.
Although Lynden’s compost toilets may seem very innovative, the idea is by no means a new one and a different kind of compost toilet was invented a century and a half ago, also in Dorset, by the Rev Henry Moule, vicar of Fordington near Dorchester. At that time, sewage disposal was very primitive and Moule became convinced that poor disposal was a source of much disease. He experimented by mixing his own excreta with dry earth and was surprised that within 3-4 weeks the mixture was odourless having fully broken down. With the help of a local farmer, he showed that earth reused five times in this way was an excellent fertiliser for crops. Moule designed and patented his “earth closet” in 1860. This had a handle that, when turned, delivered a measured amount of earth on to the human excrement. For a time the earth closet was very popular and competed with the water closet as a sanitary device. Indeed, Queen Victoria had an earth closet installed at Windsor Castle. Earth closets were adopted in some schools in the UK and in gaols, government buildings and mental hospitals in Australia and India.
As we know, “earth closets” did not persist in the UK and this may have had something to do with the difficulty of ensuring that the waste was properly disposed of by individual users. Because it is so important to deal effectively with the waste problem, especially in big towns, the “flush and forget” system linked to sewerage works has been adopted. This may also have had something to do with our attitude to human excrement.
Although the earth closet now appears a historical curiosity, with increased awareness of the need to conserve water there has been an upsurge of interest in compost toilets. They are particularly useful where mains sewerage is not available, for example at allotments and at music festivals. They are popular at roadside locations in rural Scandinavia and in national parks in the US. These modern designs, including of course Lynden’s world number one, are not exactly the same as Moule’s but they are certainly in the same spirit.