St Fagans National Museum of History near Cardiff, Wales, is probably the best known museum in the small country, more renowned for its record-breaking number of castles. In fact, if you grew up in Wales that it is extremely likely you visited St Fagans on a school trip. I know I did, and I’ve visited several times since as I simply fell in love with the place.
Over the past few years St Fagans has been undergoing a major redevelopment- to the tune of £30 million- and in 2019 was awarded the much-coveted Art Fund Museum of The Year title. This illustrious award, combined with an approach two write for Mainly Museums, prompted me to once again make a trip to this much-loved museum.
St Fagans National Museum of History is an open-air museum near Cardiff chronicling the historical culture and architecture of the Welsh people. Over 40 buildings from different time periods from all across Wales have been taken apart stone-by-stone and painstakingly rebuilt in this one-hundred acre parkland. It was the first open-air museum in the UK, and is the second most visited open-air museum in the whole of Europe.
It first opened in 1948 under the name of the Welsh Folk Museum, and has been growing ever since. New buildings are added to St Fagans all the time. As we speak, a Victorian pub and police station are currently being rebuilt on site.
Due to the recent redevelopment, visitors now enter St Fagans through a modern, glass-filled building complete with the obligatory shop, café and learning spaces.
The best part of this aspect of the redevelopment is definitely the new galleries. I remember the old ones, and they were desperately in need of modernisation. The only drawback is these new galleries are upstairs. They are not on the ‘natural’ visitor path, and this is reflected in the number of people who (don’t) visit these spaces.
There are two new gallery spaces at St Fagans – and both are very different in feel and overall approach to interpretations.
The first gallery is very minimal and modern in design, with exhibits arranged thematically. Overall, I got the impression this gallery was designed to be the more thought-provoking one - the questions being asked of visitors via various methods were extremely topical e.g. Should Wales be completely independent?
I did dislike one thing about this gallery though. There were several videos and voice over recordings playing at once, so it was all a bit too much audio-wise.
Across the corridor, a very different approach has been taken in the second gallery. The whole design of the room is more colourful, and there are several large items on display, including a Victorian hearse, a mid 20th-Century caravan and a Grey Fergie tractor for children to play on.
The room is also displayed thematically, with sections devoted to agriculture, leisure and clothing amongst others. However, the interpretation was slightly less questioning in tone, and not asking topical and challenging questions of visitors as in the first gallery.
There are currently more than forty buildings you can explore in the open-air sit at St Fagans National Museum of History.
A few tips though - you may find that some buildings on the site close for events and private functions . There isn’t usually much advance notification of closures, so you may be disappointed if you turn up with your heart set on visiting one particular building.
Also, due to the volume of buildings on the site, it really pays to take your time to familiarise yourself with the layout of the site and draw up ‘a plan of attack’. Maps are available at the entrance for 50p each, but there is also plenty of signage around the site. If you want to make sure you see every single building on site I recommend you plan. There are some buildings on edges of the site that are obscured by trees that can easily be missed if you are not looking for them.
There is no way I could write about every single building at St Fagans, as that would be a very long post – but here are a few of my personal favourites.
Originally from Aberystwyth, it was built in 1900 by Evan Jenkins, a local farmer, as a business for his two daughters. The building is in two parts: a brick-built preparation room and a stone-built section containing a large baking oven. Originally, housewives would bring their bread here to be baked in the communal oven. The bakehouse is so small but perfectly formed, and looks like it came straight out of a Hovis advert.
St Teilo’s Church, originally from near present day Pontardulais in South Wales, is a must-see.
St Teilo’s is a relatively recent addition to St Fagans, and is a highlight due to the fabulous restored wall paintings inside. It is thought that it was first built in the late early 13th century but, like most churches, it has seen alterations and extensions throughout its history.
The church has been refurbished as it may have appeared about the year 1530, complete with all the elements associated with a late medieval Catholic church, including a rood screen and loft, altars, carvings and paintings on all the walls. It’s these paintings that really take your breath away when you enter.
Around one-third of the paintings now displayed are reconstructions of those discovered under the wall-plaster, the originals having been preserved and held by the museum. The remainder were devised by experts based on examples from elsewhere. It took nearly 20 years in total for the reassembling and restoration to take place.
Given the Welsh economy’s heavy reliance on agriculture, it is no surprise there are several farmhouses and mills at St Fagans. If I had to pick my favourite out of all of them it would be Kennixton Farmhouse, originally from Llangennith on the Gower. It’s the first building you meet as you enter the site, and you can’t miss it as its painted a vivid red colour. This colour was supposed to ward off evil spirits. I also like the walled enclosure built onto the farmhouse where the geese would have been penned. They would have acted like guard dogs and warned the inhabitants of any approaching visitors.
One of the most popular buildings at Saint Fagans is the Rhyd-y-car terrace, bought to the museum from Merthyr Tydfil in the early 1980s. This small terrace was built by ironmaster Richard Crawshay in around 1795 to provide housing for his workers. The six houses in the row are displayed at different periods in their history, ranging from 1805 to 1985. The terraces also have little gardens, some complete with Anderson shelters.
As part of the major redevelopment, a couple of new buildings have popped up at St Fagans!
Y Gweithdy (The Workshop in English) is a modern building devoted to traditional Welsh crafts. As well as galleries of exhibits you can also find regular demonstrations and workshops by traditional craftsmen.
Not far from Y Gweithdy you will find Llys Rhosyr, a recreation of a 13th Century court belonging to the Princes of Gwynedd. Traditionally, buildings have been taken from elsewhere in Wales and rebuilt at St Fagans, but this new addition is something different – it’s a recreation of a building that once existed in Wales, but there are no surviving examples. While I’m glad to see a building that I will never see elsewhere, the fact its provenance is so different to the many other buildings on site does make it stand out in my head for all the wrong reasons.
St Fagans National Museum of History isn’t just home to traditional Welsh vernacular buildings – its also home to a castle!
That’s right – one part of the site is home to one of the finest Elizabethan manor houses in Wales. In 1946 the Castle was donated by the Earl of Plymouth to the National Museum of Wales as a site for a national open-air museum, and that is how it all started.
Much like the new galleries, as the Castle and its stunning gardens are located to one side of the site and not in the ‘natural’ path of visitors it can be overlooked. It is definitely worth seeking out.
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