The building at the entrance seems conventional enough, with a souvenir shop, café and four galleries with exhibits of agricultural machinery, textiles, vintage Welsh vinyl and so on. But this is a taster for what lies beyond – or just a place to shelter from inclement weather …
The really interesting part is on the other side. Located in more than 40 hectares of parkland dotted with beech, ash and oak trees are about 40 period buildings, which were transported piece by piece from all over Wales and reconstructed as a scattered village.
They range from ancient and archaic structures, such as Iron-Age wattle-walled houses and a tumbledown 18th-century cow shed, to a remarkably compact 1948 Type B2 aluminium prefabricated bungalow – the kind built to re-house the thousands made homeless in World War II. There’s even an ultra-modern house for the future, designed for the kind of self-sufficient low-carbon lifestyle we should all be aiming for.
And for posher people, there’s the Elizabethan manor house of St Fagans Castle, the only structure not moved here from somewhere else. It was donated to the National Museum of Wales in 1946, and became the impetus for the Museum Of Welsh Life, which opened two years later, becoming one of seven such institutions.
There’s a slightly surreal sensation as you stroll through the pleasant lanes linking the barns, mills, shops and cottages, wandering into each like an uninvited guest.
There’s usually a member of staff sitting unobtrusively in each building, but they’re not your typical bored museum attendants. They seem genuinely engaged with their jobs and happy to answer questions, and they’re all bilingual – the number of locals chatting away in Welsh to them and each other underlines the impression that this is a ‘living’ museum, much loved by Welsh people.
Each house is furnished and decorated as it would have been in the period it was built or lived in, which only adds to the feeling you are trespassing in real peoples’ homes.
To add to the intrigue, some buildings such as the bakery, Gwalia Stores and tearoom are functioning commercial premises where the staff are doing real jobs. There’s even a resident blacksmith and cooper who make ‘vintage’ items, which are for sale.
Thinking I have no real interest in interior design, I check out the Rhyd-y-car iron workers’ houses and am pleasantly surprised. The six homes in the compact row of cottages are identical in their basic structure, but can’t look more different inside.
They showcase Welsh life at various stages from 1805 to 1985. The attention to detail extends outside to the gardens, which include a pigeon-house and an air-raid shelter later converted into a garden shed. Just leave the leeks in the ground, OK?
Facts about Wales
- The Welsh language has some 750,000 speakers in Wales, the Welsh Borders, and … Argentine Patagonia.
- Despite its strange spelling, Welsh is far more regular in its pronunciation than English. For example, the ‘dd’ is always pronounced ‘f’, as in Caerdydd (Cardiff).
- Faggots (meatballs), bara brith (a type of bread), cawl (stew) and crempogs (pancakes) are unique local foods.
- Wales is often said to have the world’s longest place name: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwyllllantysiliogogogoch … but there are other contenders in New Zealand and Thailand.