Writer Katie Hamer is busily discovering parts of the city and revealing them through her We Are Cardiff series, the A-Z of what makes Cardiff special to her. She’ll be sharing the parts of the city she finds with you over the following weeks, so stay tuned!
F is for (St) Fagans
There are three places for which I will always find time to take an annual pilgrimage. These three places are the Eden Project in Cornwall, the grounds of Cliveden in Berkshire, and St Fagans’ National History Museum in the heart of Cardiff.
I thought I was fairly clued up about this open-air museum until my most recent visit last week. I got chatting to a couple of Australian tourists, who posed a relatively simple question to me: “So, why’s it called St. Fagan’s?” They were clearly very puzzled, and I was completely stumped.
On the off chance that those lovely ladies, who let me share a table with them in the tea rooms, are reading this article, here’s the reason for the unusual regional name: St Fagans is the village in which this museum, formerly the Museum of Welsh Life, is situated. Saint Fagan is believed to have been a second century missionary in Wales, but no historic records exist to back this fact up. As well as the museum, there is also a castle and an old rectory in the locality; this whole place is steeped in history.
The museum takes you through so many eras of history, from the Iron Age, right up to the present day. I’ve always had a fascination for the Industrial buildings of Wales, ever since I first set foot in the country nearly twenty years ago. In particular, I have a fondness for the rows and rows of houses that rise to greet you in almost every town, village, and city. So, it’s no surprise that it’s this era of history that I decided to concentrate on, for this article.
The Rhyd-Y-Car Terrace – a row of six terraced houses – is one of the main attractions for me. I couldn’t wait to see it when I first visited the museum ten years ago, and it continues to fascinate me, even now. St Fagans have done something truly special with these houses: starting from 1855, each house takes you forward a generation, with the final house decorated in the style of the 1980’s. The result is a time travel experience, on a level with “Back to the Future”, or “Doctor Who”.
This terrace of six houses was built in c.1795. They housed many generations of families before they were declared unfit for habitation, and demolished in 1979. In 1987, they were rebuilt in the grounds of St Fagans, and have been lovingly preserved ever since.
I’ll briefly talk you through each of the six houses, picking out the details which I found special. Here goes:
The original occupants would have been, in all probability, iron stone miners. They would have moved into these houses from near by villages, bringing their furniture with them. The interior is pared down, with just a few functional possessions. The little ornamentation that this home has is religious in nature, giving the whole interior an almost Puritanical feel. I find the simplicity refreshing. In a way, I felt that this home has more in common with modern minimalist styles, than perhaps the later houses have.
It’s from this era onwards that the ever-expanding mining community would have occupied these houses. Living standards were in decline, leading to outbreaks of cholera, of which the residents of this terrace didn’t escape unaffected. The interior is very similar to the home from 1805. There is perhaps a little more furniture, but the over-all feel is still very plain and religious.
With now enter the late Victorian age. We witness the era of factory mass-production. The walls are still plain, but the furniture, mantelpiece and ceiling, are adorned with pictures, patterned fabrics, and ornaments. It feels very cosy; I could imagine having a bath in a tin tub, beside a roaring fire. Look out for the needlework samples: the first hint that housewives had time for indulging in fireside hobbies of a winter’s evening.
We fast forward to after the First World War. The current occupants have papered the walls with roses and pastel stripes. There’s a simple camera, hinting at the advent of mass photography. Most poignantly, there is a card with a reminder of the loss of life from the Great War of 1914-1918: “Lest We Forget”. This reminds us of the continuing grief of those who survived the front line combat, from a war where few escaped unscathed.
With this house, we enter the Golden Era of the 1950’s, the era during which Harold Macmillan proclaimed: “You’ve never had it so good.” Despite the post-Second World War rationing, this became the dawn of the baby boomer generation.
Due to the population expansion, the residents of these houses would have been allowed to extend. As a canal ran along the back of this terrace, they would have had permission to build outhouses. This era also sees the introduction of the goggle box, or television, which now competes with the fireplace, for centre of attention.
Interiors are becoming more fun. This one reflects lifestyle and fashion fads, as demonstrated by the flying ducks, an iconic image for this era. I’ve included a picture to show how this home would look decked out in its Christmas glory, as I saw it on my visit last December. This scene evoked memories of Christmas past for me. I don’t know about you, but I’d have loved to join this family in their festivities.
With 1985, I can feel the dawn of the age of IKEA. The furniture begins to feel more flat-packed for home assembly, in complete contrast with the solid wood furniture of the earlier interiors. There are hints that this family had fish and chip suppers in front of the television. For the first time, there’s a fully fitted kitchen at the back of the house, where the bedroom would have been for earlier generations. When you enter the kitchen, look towards the left: you’ll be in for a huge surprise!
St Fagans is a living museum, with seasonal shrubs as well as static exhibits. It’s well worth visiting at different times of the year, to see it change with the seasons. I hope you enjoy looking at my photo gallery. If you have any thoughts, or memories about visiting St Fagans, I’d love to hear from you.
St Fagans is open all year round. For further information, visit their website: https://www.museumwales.ac.uk/stfagans/