Located just outside of Cardiff, St. Fagans opened in 1948, as the ‘Welsh Folk Museum’ and was inspired by a vernacular architecture museum in Sweden. When I was a child, it was known as the ‘Museum of Welsh Life’ but now goes by St. Fagans National History Museum (or Sain Ffagan Amgueddfa Werin Cymru). I feel like I have grown up with St. Fagans, visiting a few times a year as a child, and try to visit at least once per year now…. it helps that entry is free!
The large, open-air museum spans five centuries of welsh life including architecture, culture, history, and society. It contains over 40 buildings that were transported from their original locations across Wales and reconstructed in the 100-acre grounds of St. Fagans Castle. The museum captures how people lived, from Iron Age roundhouses, medieval and early modern farmhouses, a Tudor merchant’s house, eighteenth-century cottages, nineteenth-century terrace and a post-war pre-fab bungalow.
My favourite building as a child was always the Kennixton Farmhouse which was originally built in 1610 and then added to in 1680 and 1750. The building appealed to my love of the early modern period. I was also drawn to the beautiful red colour and the story that this helped to protect the house from evil spirits.
While I still love Kennixton, my favourite building(s) now is Rhyd-y-car, which is a terrace of six houses from Merthyr Tydfil, originally built in 1759. Each one of the six houses now displays a different year – 1805, 1855, 1895, 1925, 1955 and 1985. These houses are important to me as they track social change and display how people’s homes changed along with their lives and society. Merthyr was the largest town in Wales for most of the nineteenth century but these homes serve as a reminder of how people lived. The gardens of each house are also designed to match the timeframe, giving you a real sense of the past. They mark a step away from rural Wales, into an industrial and eventually modern age.
From the 1980s, St. Fagans began to incorporate spaces outside the home – a blacksmith, tannery, mill, pottery, tailor, Victorian shops, working man’s club, a bakehouse, post office, school, parish church and a non-conformist chapel. These buildings provide a bit more ‘flesh on the bones’, giving a picture of community life, rather than just domestic.
The reason that I love St. Fagans is because it is ‘heritage from below’ – the heritage of ‘ordinary’ people. Country houses and castles are all well and good but are too often sold as the nation’s heritage, where actually it belongs to the privileged few. St. Fagans feels like my history.