Last summer, when I visited the St. Fagan’s National History Museum in Wales, I stepped into a small schoolhouse, circa 1910, much like the school my father would have attended. There on the desk beside the text books and slates was a bamboo switch, reminding me of his stories. When I was a small child, every night at bedtime, my father would fascinate me with stories about his childhood. My father, a coal miner from Caerphilly, Wales, regaled me with tales of how, as a young schoolboy, he’d get struck over the hands with a bamboo cane because he wrote with his left hand instead of his right. I also found out the reason he didn’t speak much Welsh was because in those days the English forbade it. If you got caught speaking Welsh you were banished to stand with your face against the wall and a rope knotted around your neck, called the ‘Welsh knot’. Nowadays the language is encouraged and today Welsh children study it in school.
St Fagan’s is an open-air museum near Cardiff that chronicles the historical lifestyle, culture and architecture of the Welsh people. It was once the site of the National Museum of Wales and is the most popular tourist attractions in the country. And best still, the entry is free!
Built around the castle and lands of the Earl of Plymouth, it first opened as the Welsh Folk Museum in 1948. The museum includes over forty buildings which represent the architecture of Wales going back centuries, including an impressive Iron Age Village which was of particular interest to me, a historical fiction writer, as I research a Celtic novel set on the Salisbury Plain.
As you enter St. Fagan’s, there is an indoor museum area with displays of national costumes, folk art, musical instruments (harps, of course!) and other traditional objects used in daily life. From carved baby cradles to the stiff polished board where deceased were laid out for viewing, these artifacts are most intriguing.
My four-hour walk around the heritage site began with St. Fagan’s Castle (from 1580) one of the finest Elizabethan manor houses in Wales. The castle is surrounded by lawns and flower gardens with fountains and paved walks. From there I entered the village where there are houses furnished in period style from the big red Kennixton Farmhouse, built in 1610, to small thatch-roofed cottages. They say the red berries of the rowan tree in the garden of the farmhouse protected it from evil spirits. The houses and farm of the Llwyn-yr-eos Farm have existed since 1829. The people who resided there were tenants of the Plymouth estate, owners of St. Fagan’s Castle. They supplied the castle with food. There are also shops such as a working bakery, photography shop and a grocery shop. The Gwalin Store opened in 1880 and was considered the Harrods of the Valley.
The village contains a group of workers houses from Rhyd-y-car (1800-1985) depicting the industrial working life of Wales that is almost extinct, as well as the impressive Oakdale Workmen’s Institute building. There is a row of thatch roofed cottages including a little miner’s cottage, showing the transition of homes from the distant past right up to a prefab post-war cottage.
I was intrigued with the displays of traditional crafts such as the working blacksmith’s forge where I watched the smith at work. There’s also a weaver and a miller. A small working farm preserves local Welsh native breeds of livestock. Every aspect of Welsh life is depicted including a cock fighting ring, a church, a chapel once used by Unitarians, and the little schoolhouse like the one my dad would have attended. There’s also a tannery, two working watermills, a flour mill, and a wool mill.
I spent four hours walking around St. Fagan’s and there was still more to see. The next day I went back to specifically visit the Celtic Village. Recreated in 1992, the village features three roundhouses like those occupied during the Iron Age. The houses are wattle-walled with cone-shaped thatched roofs. Inside you can see the way the ancient Celts lived with displays of weaving looms, fire-dogs, corn querns and other everyday utensils. The day I visited, a man dressed in period costume was demonstrating how they kept the fires stoked. Experiments in growing crops and rearing animals as they did in the Iron Age also take place here. This chance to see an Iron Age village and to see what life was like in Wales when my father was a boy, was a highlight of my visit. I’ll be sure to visit St. Fagan’s again the next time I’m in Wales.
IF YOU GO:
St. Fagan’s National History Museum is located four miles west of Cardiff city centre, sign posted from junction 33 of the M4 motorway. Direct access from the A4232. Free entry to the Museum. Parking charges apply.
Written by and photos by Ruth Kozak for EuropeUpClose.com