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'After a month of living like the Victorians, returning to modern life was a brutal slap in the face'  

The family lived for a month without electricity, internet, or modern clothing
The family lived for a month without electricity, internet, or modern clothing Credit: The 1900 Island / BBC Two

Lydia Power can no longer bear to visit a supermarket. It is all too isolated and anonymous, she says, and she longs for a sense of community, preferring to buy from her local butchers and greengrocers shops instead.

She has felt this way ever since she persuaded her husband and three children to take part in a month-long televised experiment, The 1900 Island, which continues on BBC Two tonight. In the series, four families swap their comfortable suburban homes for a Victorian-era cottage on the windswept island of Llanddwyn, just off the coast of Anglesey, north Wales.

Leaving behind the trappings of 21st Century life, the families attempt to live as if it is the year 1900, deprived of electricity, modern clothing, and even - gulp - their WiFi connection. Dressed in corsets and flat caps, most families slept altogether in one room, an outdoor latrine their only lavatory.

The men took to the sea to fish, while the women were responsible for housework. Beyond a small amount of cheese, lard, and butter, the families had to collect food themselves, or buy it with shillings made from odd jobs around the island.

“The island was such a special place,” says Lydia, a 41-year old qualified accountant. “It was so beautiful, you’ve got the sea, you’ve got the mountains in the distance. We were set.”

Left to right: Lydia, 41; Gareth, 37; Phebe, 8; Dafydd, 6; Gruffydd, 3 Credit: The 1900 Island / BBC Two

Posing for photographs one year later in their home in Tongwynlais, on the outskirts of Cardiff, the family bears no mark of their windswept adventure. Next to Lydia is her husband Gareth, 37, a sports development officer and church leader. Surrounding them are their three children -  Phebe, eight; Dafydd, six; and Gruffydd, three - who had to swap their modern primary for a Victorian school, complete with blackboards and an ultra-strict teacher. (Fortunately for them, there was no caning).

When the family received an email from producers looking for Welsh-speaking families to take part in the programme, Gareth admits he was cautious. They take camping trips most summers and describe themselves as “quite outdoorsy”, but they had never tried anything as extreme as this.

“I think most people have thought at one point or another, what would it be like to live in a different era?” he explains. “So when the opportunity came to have a taste of some of that, it was too good an opportunity to miss.”

By their second week, all five were overwhelmed by how much they loved the back-to-basics way of life. Indeed, adjusting back to the modern world at the end of the experiment proved far more difficult than anything they encountered on the island.

“I absolutely loved the sense of community we all had,” says Lydia. “On the island we did everything together, from the moment we woke up to the moment we went to bed. It was beautiful, almost like this pure, simple life, and we all really fell in love with it. We would wake up, and the kids would run out of the door with the other kids. It was a level of authenticity and community that I guess we just don’t have these days.

“What made us realise that more than anything was when we suddenly came out of that bubble. They put us on a minibus [at the end of the experiment], and I looked down at my [modern] clothes and suddenly felt like I was in dress-up. It was a harsh slap in the face.

Lydia, pictured back in her modern home, says she went through a "grieving process" after returning from the island Credit: Jay Williams

“In the first few days, it was like we had to go through a grieving process. [We’d lived] this beautiful life, and then back to the modern world: the business, the people, supermarkets we couldn’t face.

"I ran a community shop [on the island] and it was lovely, everybody coming in and out. Then I go to a supermarket here with a computerised checkout, and you don’t need to speak to anybody.”

Gareth was most impressed with how quickly their three children adapted to a life without iPads, smartphones, and YouTube.

“I was quite surprised by how little they missed those things. Television and whatever technology they have in the modern day was replaced with a community, with the other children, with the freedom to explore and play and use their imagination. There was so much for them to do. The only things they said they missed were their friends and [modern] food.”

The Powers got on particularly well with Clive and Cheryl Barker, a retiree couple who joined the programme for an adventure after their adult children flew the household nest. “If we didn’t know anything, they were the ones we turned to,” says Lydia. “They were able to share their wisdom and experience with us.” As the only people who remembered using shillings, for example, their advice for handling the island’s currency proved invaluable.

But in the modern world, Lydia thinks, we value the wisdom of older people far less. “I can remember the night we left the island we had a wrap party, and people were asking questions about different things, like ‘Where’s that place?’.

“The response was, ‘Oh, I’ll have a look on Google’. It felt so wrong to me. I thought, let’s ask the older person in the community. These days, we don’t draw on the wealth of experience of older people, we just jump to Google.”

Gareth, pictured outside his modern home, says he was surprised by how quickly his children adapted to a life without technology Credit: Jay Williams

But the family’s month of living like the Victorians certainly brought its hardship, too. On many days, horrible weather prevented the men from going fishing, meaning food supplies were low. The Davies family, a family of seven from Wirral, Merseyside, who moved in next door to the Powers, struggled to feed their five children and went to bed hungry many nights.

When fishing was allowed, the men usually returned empty-handed, and Gareth was prone to bouts of seasickness - one scene in the programme shows him vomiting from the side of the boat.

Gareth and Lydia's children disliked the old-fashioned rules of school, and were spotted desperately scrubbing their hands in case their teacher noticed any dirt. The island’s older girls, meanwhile, who resented the traditional gender roles, were forced to stay inside with housework, watching enviously as their male peers played in the fresh air.

Despite generally getting on smoothly, the Powers also clashed on one occasion with Kate Evans, a geography lecturer, and her partner Arwel John, a blacksmith who had already lived ‘off the grid’ for several years. Inspired by their Christian values, the Powers decided to put together a food hamper for the Davies family, who were struggling to fill their children’s plates.

But Kate refused to play ball, telling Lydia that she did not want to embarrass the father by implying that he couldn’t provide for his family. She told the cameras: “It’s not about giving people handouts, it’s about giving them the means to maintain self-respect and dignity, and work their way out of those problems.”

The four families who moved to the island came from Tongwynlais, Swansea, Merseyside, and Kent Credit: The 1900 Island / BBC Two

Reminiscing on the adventure from their suburban home, complete with all the technological trappings of the modern world, it’s clear that the family are happy with their life in the 21st Century.

Eight-year-old Phebe sits smiling with her bright pink tablet, and three-year-old Gruffydd - dressed in Wales's international football kit - cavorts outside with his miniature mountain bicycle.

But it’s difficult to shake the feeling that, if asked, the family would return to the island at the drop of a hat.

The 1900 Island continues on BBC Two at 7pm on Wednesday 12th June. The series is also available on BBC iPlayer