A visit to St Fagans National Museum of History, Cardiff
This living museum, which celebrated its 70th anniversary in 2018, charts the story of the Welsh people through the ages – and the grounds it sits in also have a colourful past
St Fagans was seen as a radical venture, and not only because it tells the story of ordinary Welsh people rather than royalty or nobility. It’s also outside. Open-air museums simply didn’t exist in Britain until it came along.
St Fagan’s National Museum of History, which Celebrating its 70th birthday this summer charts Welsh culture from the Iron Age through to the present day. Renowned as Wales’s most popular heritage attraction, it’s set in the majestic grounds of a 16th-century manor house.
Opened to the public in 1948, it was originally called the Welsh Folk Museum. The idea was to create a lasting legacy of traditional rural life, which was disappearing. The original collection, including a farmhouse kitchen, came from the Welsh Bygones Gallery at the National Museum Cardiff.
Development continued during the 1950s with reconstructions of a traditional farmhouse and wool mill. So anticipated was the project that £50,000 was raised for it by the Welsh populace.
After World War II, the number of Welsh speakers declined greatly, as English workers had moved to the industrial Welsh cities. And so St Fagans began to record traditional folk tales, songs and regional dialects to preserve this dwindling aspect of Welsh culture.
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Brick by brick
Another method of preserving traditions is the translocation of buildings – the brick-by-brick movement of a structure from its original location. In the 1960s, Llainfadyn, a traditional 18th-century slate quarryman’s cottage, was opened in the museum after being moved from North Wales.
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Preserving skills is also a key aspect of St Fagans, with wood turning and traditional cooking still practiced. As a living museum, native breeds of livestock can be found in the fields and the resident blacksmith forges decorative items using traditional tools.
The 1980s saw the industrial communities of Wales threatened in the same way that rural communities had been in the 1940s, with mine closures and jobs lost to mechanisation. Ironworkers’ cottages were relocated to the museum in 1987 – putting, for the first time, periods within living memory on display.
St Fagans Castle, in the grounds of the museum, is a Grade I Elizabethan mansion, built in the 1580s on the site of a former medieval castle that had been left in ruins. It was bought in 1616 by Sir Edward Lewis of the Van, and much of the interior décor dates from that time.
It later became the summer residence of the wealthy Windsor-Clive family and subsequently part of the grand estate of the Earl of Plymouth. Harriet Windsor-Clive, Baroness Windsor, inherited the house in 1833 and restored the building and gardens to their former splendour.
During World War I, the banqueting hall – which has since burnt down – was used as a convalescing ward for soldiers. Recent discoveries from the museum archives show that the local community, including the Earl of Plymouth’s family, continued to support soldiers long after the war, hosting reunion dinners for veterans as late as the 1930s. The Windsor-Clives gave the house and its surrounding 18 acres of land to the Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum Wales in 1946.
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A major redevelopment to celebrate the museum’s 70th anniversary will be completed in October. New galleries will tell the story of the people of Wales, and a reconstruction of a Welsh medieval court will be unveiled – allowing visitors to step back 800 years to experience how Llywelyn the Great would have lived and ruled.
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St Fagans Castle
Much of the interior of the castle was redesigned in the early 20th century – however, you can still see the original, 17th-century fireplace. There are also well-kept gardens.
St Teilo’s Church
Believed to have been built in the 12th or 13th century, St Teilo’s was relocated from Swansea and restored to how it would have looked before the Reformation.
This late 17th-century stone farmhouse was moved to the museum from the Gower and includes a raised area for smoking meat above the fireplace.
Maestir School would have taught generations of Welsh children from the ages of five through to 14. It’s been arranged as it was in 1900 and hosts Victorian school lessons.
Bryn Eryr Iron Age Farmstead
Based on roundhouses found on Anglesey, these clay dwellings were the most common form of home for Iron Age Britons.
Tudor Trader’s House
Brought to St Fagans from Haverfordwest, this house has been decorated in the style it would have been as the home of a merchant circa 1580.
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Three more Welsh wonders in the vicinity of St Fagans
Although this fairytale castle looks medieval, it comes from the imaginations of the Gothic-obsessed Victorians. cadw.gov.wales
One of the most visited gardens in the UK, set within the grounds of an impressive Victorian mansion. nationaltrust.org.uk/dyffryn-gardens
Once home to one of only three permanent Roman fortresses in Britain, excavations here have uncovered an amphitheatre, barracks and baths. museum.wales/roman
This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of BBC History Revealed Magazine
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