Centuries of living in Wales

The Cunninghams take on the Museum of Welsh Life. By Catherine Stebbings
At the open-air Museum of Welsh Life, at St Fagan's near Cardiff, there's a hands-on approach to the past. More than 30 buildings have been removed from all over Wales and re-erected to show how people have lived, worked and played over the centuries.

The museum is set in the extensive grounds of St Fagan's Castle, an elegant Elizabethan mansion built on the site of its wooden namesake. The castle has a formal garden complete with topiary, mulberry grove, rose garden, medicinal herb collection, terraces and fishponds. Beyond this lies an amazingly eclectic collection of vernacular architecture, each building recording an instant of Welsh history: a cold, windswept cock-fighting pit, which in its day would have been crowded with beer-swigging gamblers; a bright little Unitarian chapel; a dark farmhouse lit solely by the crackling fire; a Victorian school; a local store smelling of coffee beans; and the stark, highly polished Miners' Institute recently brought here from a street in Oakdale.

Although this is essentially an outdoor museum, on a rainy day there is plenty to see in the indoor galleries. Everything Welsh is explored: farming, music, mining, medicine, cooking, corn dollies.

The visitors

Richard Cunningham, ordinand and consultant to university Christian Unions, and his wife Ruth, took their children, Nicole, nine, Ashley, six, and Jack, one.

Ashley: It was exciting, it was good fun and I learnt a lot about the way people used to live. My favourite place was the Celtic village where there were wild boar feeding just next to the ditch around the village. I also liked the white farmhouse where the goose scared all of us except me.

The castle was my best house, with all those rooms and secret places. It was very big and the kitchen was really good. In those days they cooked over the big fire and they read by candlelight. I would prefer to turn the light on.

Nicole: I liked the red house most. It was painted red to keep the evil spirits away. It was very old-fashioned. Inside it was very dark but I thought the kitchen was a cheerful room and made the rest of the house seem less gloomy. There was a nice fire burning. I would only want to live there if it had electric light, because I like to read. I suppose I could have read by candlelight and listened to the mice and the birds nesting in the straw of the roof above.

I didn't like the Celtic village. The small, round houses were completely dark. I could hardly see a thing. Inside I was stumbling through the blackness and there was mud everywhere. If they had lit the fire in the middle the whole place would have been full of smoke and very smelly. It's just not a very nice place to live, but I suppose that is the type of thing you would expect for 2000 years ago.

It was interesting to see how other people, the rich and the poor, would have lived. I suppose they would have been used to it so they wouldn't have minded living like that. I am very glad I live now.

Richard: This was a great day out because the whole thing was so highly structured that we didn't have to inject too much as parents. The children enjoyed following the route in the guidebook, which was also clearly signposted. Around every corner the children could dive into something new, whether it was a pigsty, a worker's cottage, a toll house or a sawmill.

The notice-boards at each site were good for a quick overview but the costumed staff working at each site were terrific. Ashley was interested in the clothes in the tailor's shop so the man opened a drawer, showed him some clothes and measured him for a suit. Nicole was interested in the war coupons, so he explained the quota system to her and told her it would cost her two-thirds of her annual quota for a winter coat. The guide had lived through the Second World War so he was part of the social history himself.

Ruth: I thought this was a good way of learning. It was suitable for all ages; even my grandparents would enjoy it.

I enjoyed seeing how the different buildings related to one another; the tailor's shop, ironmonger's works, school, chapel, the saw mill and the workers union all gave the place a sense of community as well as putting each other in a historical context.

The deal

Location: The Museum of Welsh Life (01222 569441) is four miles west of Cardiff off the A4232, 3 miles from junction 33 of the M4.

Access: The large car park at the entrance includes bays for the disabled. Access on good paths around the open-air museum is on foot only. Much of the museum is level, but there is a steep climb at the castle end. The site is large, so be prepared to walk a fair distance if you wish to see both the castle and the majority of sites.

Opening times: Daily, 10am-5pm (1 Oct-30 June), 10am-6pm (1 July-30 Sept). Closed 24 and 25 Dec.

Admission: November-Easter: Adults, pounds 4; OAPS, Students, UB40s, pounds 3; Children (five to 15) pounds 2: Under-fives free. Family day ticket based on two adults and two children, pounds 10. Easter-October. Adults pounds 5; Concession pounds 3.75; Children pounds 2.50; Family pounds 12.50. Dogs are allowed on a lead but not inside the houses or the Visitor Centre. Guidebook (pounds l.50) is well worth having. Tactile map and Braille worksheets for the visually handicapped.

Food: The self-service Museum Restaurant offers hot and cold meals. Welsh specialities include faggots, steak in ale pounds 4.25. Children's meals pounds l.95. The Gwalia Tea Rooms, above the Gwalia Stores in the middle of the park, serve 26 different varieties of tea with traditional cakes; hot and cold snacks include soup and roll, pounds 2.25; lasagne, pounds 3,25. Fresh bread and cakes are also sold on the site at the Turog Bakery.

Attractions: Excellent playground for 4-14 year olds. Throw a pot at the pottery

under expert supervision, pounds l.40. Horse-and-cart rides from Cilewent Farmhouse, Adults pounds l.50, Children 50p.

Events: Christmas tree, carols, story-telling, craft stalls: first week in December, three evenings, and all day Saturday. Shops: The shop in the main building sells postcards, craft souvenirs, books, films etc. The Gwalia Stores sells similar goods. The craftspeople working on site at the castle - cooper, clog maker, wood turner - often have items for sale.

Toilets: five separate sites, including two for disabled. Baby-changing facilities.