Saint Fagans National Museum of History – Part One

Saint Fagans National Museum of History – Part One

Following on from my previous post about the best museum accounts to follow on Instagram, I wanted to write about the Welsh museum I would pick if I had to pick only one. It is, of course, Saint Fagans!

St Fagans National Museum of History (or the artist formerly known as the Museum of Welsh Life!) 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 on this one site. It was the first open-air museum in the UK, and is the second most visited open-air museum in the whole of Europe.

2018 is also the 70th anniversary of the opening of Saint Fagans, and this autumn the new interactive and immersive galleries will open to provide a complimentary conventional museum space. I remembered visiting the original galleries in primary school and thinking they were outdated then, so it will be a great improvement.

I cannot recommend this museum enough – its like having a massive chunk of Welsh history in a few acres. And, like all the national museums in Wales, its totally free! Here’s a quick tour of my favoutite highlights.

Shops

In the middle of Saint Fagans is a traditional Victorian store and several small shops. I find it amazing as its such a world away from how people shop today. The street even has an original Victorian urinal!

My favourite building in this part of Saint Fagans is the cute Derwen Bakehouse, 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.

Just across from the Bakehouse is the Blaenwaun Post Office, thought to be the smallest Post Office in Wales. It only has two rooms. The couple who ran this post office in North Carmarthenshire also ran their local village pub across the road.

Places of Worship

There are two religious buildings in situ at St Fagans – the Unitarian Penrhiw Chapel, originally from Drefach-Felindre in Carmarthenshire, and St Teilo’s Church, originally from near present day Pontardulais.

St Teilo’s is a relatively recent addition to St Fagans, and is a highlight due to the fabulous restored wall paintings inside. Its thought that it was first built in the late 12th/early 13th century but, like most churches, it has seen alterations and extensions thoughout its history.

St Teilo’s 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. Its these paintings that really take your breath away when you enter.

Before the church was removed from its original site, wall paintings were discovered showing through in places beneath the plaster. The paintings were the first thing to be removed and preserved – the oldest of them was a mural of St Catherine, believed to date from the 15th century. 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.

Industrial Buildings

Not the most exciting building to look at, but I have a personal connection to the late 18th Century tannery building, one of the largest reconstructions on the site. While researching my family tree, I discovered I am related to the family that owned this building from Rhayader. It was the last traditional tannery to work in Wales and specialised in producing heavy leather for boots and horse harness.

Unfortunately, visitors cannot currently explore all parts of the tannery as some of it is in a poor condition. Bats have choosen to roost in the upper parts and therefore its almost impossible to access the spaces needed to repair floors and timbers. Its such a shame as there’s nothing else quite like it on the site. All the original tanning pits are still there, and I don’t think many people grasp how much work went into tanning leather – the whole process took 18 months in total.

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As you could easily spend a good couple of hours in Saint Fagans, the post has been split into two halves – tune in next week to learn about Saint Fagans Castle and the various houses on the site.

 

 

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