Half way through our day trip to St Fagans National History Museum today, I asked Little E if she was having a good time. “Yes,” she told me emphatically. “It’s fun here for children and for adults and for everyone.”
“Why do you think that?” I asked her. “Because for children it’s fun to go into all the old houses and buildings and learn about stuff, and for adults if they don’t know lots of things the people who work here can tell them.”
And she’s completely right. St Fagans, as we locals call it due to the village in which it is located, is one of those places where you can visit time and again and still see and learn new things every time. It’s an open air, hands-on history museum, opened in 1948 and filled with more than 40 buildings from Wales’s past. Each one has been painstakingly dismantled from its original location and reconstructed in the museum’s grounds, charting the lives of ordinary Welsh people from the middle ages onwards. It is always expanding too; a new Celtic village is currently under construction and The Vulcan – a much-loved Cardiff pub – and a police station are on their way too.
I’ve already said on my blog that I think St Fagans is one of the most important places in South Wales you can take your children. Little E, nearly 5, and Little O, just turned 3, know so much about life in “the olden days”, as they call it, from our frequent visits here.
Their current favourite is Maestir school, originally from Lampeter. Today they were telling the member of staff inside on duty all about what life was like for Victorian school children. They think it’s brilliant that the youngest children sat in the front row, the eldest in the back. They love that girls entered by one door, boys by another and then played in separate sides of the playground. They know about the holes in the desks for ink wells, and the Welsh Not. They’ve so far never asked about the cane hanging on the blackboard; knowing how sensitive Little E is, she’ll probably have nightmares about that one. Little E desperately hopes that one day she will come on a school trip here, so she can dress up as a Victorian child and take part in a lesson, like I did when I was at primary school. It’s one of the most popular school trips for children in and around Cardiff.
They are fascinated by the Rhyd-y-Car cottages, six small terraced houses that were home to ironworkers in Merthyr. The houses came to the museum in 1987 and now depict how the mining families lived during different periods of their history, from 1805 to 1985. They love talking about how the houses change over the years, spotting everything from carpets and cushions to cookers and irons. Whenever we walk through these houses, you can guarantee at least one visitor will remark that the 1955 house was just like the one their grandmother lived in. And that’s one of the things I love most about St Fagans – the past it depicts is our past. It all feels so relevant because it showed how every day people lived.
Today, we spent a lot of time in the Oakdale Workmen’s Institute, built in 1917 and once the social, educational and cultural hub for the coal mining community there. They thought it was brilliant that people can get married there. The former concert hall sees two or three weddings a month, according to the member of staff they questioned today.
They were also very inquisitive about some of the oldest buildings, such as Cilewent Farm House, built in 1470 but depicting life in Powys in around the 1750s. The wondered how smelly and noisy it would be with people sleeping in one end of the house, and cows at the other.
They think the classic red phone box is hilarious. Being children of the digital age, the concept that people haven’t always had iPhones has been a difficult one for them to grasp.
It’s a great inter-generational family day out. Entrance is free – although the car park will cost you £3.50. There’s a good-sized café area and plenty of picnic tables dotted around, as well as stalls selling traditional ice cream, Welsh cakes and hot drinks. Gwalia Stores is a working exhibition, selling traditional Welsh produce. You can also pop upstairs to the 1920s-style Gwalia Tearooms. The nearby Derwen Bakery, built in 1900, sells freshly made bread and smells divine. A word of warning if you visit in the summer though, as we have found the wasps can be problematic.
The grounds itself are very accessible for buggies and wheelchairs, although it’s worth taking a baby carrier as you can’t take buggies inside the historical buildings. There are toilets dotted around the grounds, decent baby change facilities and a good-sized playground area. The staff, many of whom are volunteers, are very helpful and happy to share their knowledge with you and answer questions.
St Fagans is also home to pigs, cows, sheep, hens and other farm animals, not to mention all manner of birds. The ancient woods are great for exploring – and often play host to organised nature trails and mini-beast hunts. It’s worth checking the website for details of other special events, such as their traditional Halloween and Christmas events.
We were there for about five hours today and saw about a third of the buildings. St Fagans is the kind of place you could visit every day for a week and have a different experience each time. In fact, Cardiff Daddy has visited dozens of times yet only today – while I was writing this review – did he realise the existence of St Fagans Castle, an impressive Elizabethan manor house that is a Grade 1 listed building.
Looks like we’ll be going back again very soon then, as despite being frequent visitors, there is definitely still plenty left for us to explore.
For more information on St Fagans, visit the website.
Have you ever been to St Fagans National History of Wales? What are your family’s favourite things to do there?