Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Further Adventures of O. Reader


            A recent “day out” we’ve had here is to visit the St Fagans Folk Museum. (Official title - St Fagans National Museum of History). Stretching over two large sites on the outskirts of Cardiff it has restored buildings and artefacts from all over Wales. Some date back to the 12th century, and some like a post war prefab to as recent as the late 1940s. Rare breeds of sheep and cattle munch away in the fields, and there are numerous workshops demonstrating skills from a bygone era. Saddlery, clog making, hide tanning, that sort of thing. There used to be a pottery - my daughter made a pot here many years ago - but since the Welsh government made entry free of charge, the demographic of the visitors precluded most from wishing to shell out 40 GBP for a pot.
            We have been here many times over the decades. For a number of years an open air theater was held here, and we saw versions of Shakespeare and Goldsmith and Gilbert and Sullivan and others, often with a crowd of friends. It nearly always rained on these occasions, which is what you sort of expect from open air theater and particularly open air theater in Wales. But a massive rebuilding program of the original entrance and linked museum meant the event had to move into Cardiff, so we hadn’t been to St Fagans for a while.
            Apart from a reconstruction of a 2000 year old iron age roundhouse (fire in the middle but no chimney or even hole in the roof to let out the smoke), nearly everything else is original. It has all been taken apart from somewhere in Wales, the stones and bits and pieces carefully numbered, and then loving recreated. Farm houses, churches, corn mills (that’s wheat in Wales not maize as in the US), pig-sties, tanneries, shops, Workmen’s Halls, you name it - if it existed in Wales, they have it here. Each building has its own curator, who will speak Welsh if you wish. That was part of Mrs O’s interest this time.
     We mixed it with several school parties of earnest eight year olds clutching clipboards and pens, heretically jabbering away in English, while their harassed teachers bawled them out in Welsh. We couldn’t get into the village school because the kids were being given a lesson as it would have been 120 years ago, back in the days when speaking Welsh in class would get you punished.
            There were two places of worship - a church that has bits dating back to probably the 12th century, with what can only be described as comic strips all over the walls. The original Catholic congregation was illiterate and the wall art was used as a teaching aid. However, to quote D. H. Lawrence - “to the Puritan all things are impure” - so when the Puritans came along in Britain they immediately covered the walls with whitewash. Only when the old building was taken down for removal and reconstruction at St Fagans, did the original pictures come to light again after hundreds of years, and it has been restored to its pre-Reformation splendor.
            The other place of worship was a very spartan Unitarian chapel, and Wales had a tradition of non-conformity which allowed the Unitarians to flourish for many years.
            Coming into more recent times there was an example of the very large provision store that each village and town in the Welsh valleys used to have. This one was called Gwalia Stores, which was a very common name. I only recently discovered that Gwalia is an archaic name for Wales, not the name of a Mr Fred Gwalia who ran the place. It is disconcerting when you see historical items that you clearly remember! I worked part-time in an old fashioned grocers shop in London in the 1960s. Like the store at St Fagans nothing was pre-packed, but ladled out of jars and tubs and pots and not a glimpse of “health and safety” in sight. I remember in London how my love life was seriously blighted by my having to skin the cheeses each week. They were like huge cartwheels and weighed a ton. Peeling off the muslin skin in one piece was an art that should probably still be on my resume, but I remember all too well how the smell just lingered and lingered.
            And then there was the rebuilt Workman’s Hall. These were a staple of valleys life, with the library and cinema and classrooms, and free newspapers on stands. When I first came to Wales most still existed, and I soon learned that by waiting a week for the movie to shift from the main picture house in town to the workman’s hall two miles up the mountain, I could see all the movies I wanted for a fraction of the price.
            And something I always enjoy visiting are the Rhydycar cottages. This is a row of six iron worker’s cottages from around 1800 that were taken down and rebuilt - and each one takes you several decades forward in time, starting around 1800 and ending up in the 1980s when they were abandoned. Each is furnished as it would have been at the time, and the gardens and outbuildings likewise. You can trace when the family Bible disappeared, and also when toilet facilities moved from a hole in the ground at the bottom of the garden to pipe work indoors.
            There are other folk museums in Britain of course. Another one is at Blists Hill near Ironbridge Gorge in the Midlands, where the staff dress up in period costume and you buy plastic money and then spend it on candles and beer and the like. Much closer to home there is a Manor House (where the last owner was a patient of mine) where they talk to you in 17th century English (and Welsh) and dress the part. They don’t do that at St Fagans, but the staffing would probably make that impractical.
            Nearly everywhere we go we seem to meet people we know. That is probably a sign both of having been around for a long time in one area, and also wearing various hats that bring us into contact with different groups of people. This time we were haled outside the Gwalia stores by M. Thirty years or more ago M was a miner who lost his job when the whole industry collapsed after the miner’s strike. His father was yet another patient of mine. M went to one of Mrs O’s Spanish classes. He did well, very well, and got a qualification. An aptitude for learning that came to the surface counted in his favor when he applied to join the Welsh police force. After thirty years here was M again. He had recently retired after a good career with the police, but had needed to learn some Welsh for the job along the way. Now he was enjoying himself as a part-time guide at St Fagans. He tempted Mrs O with the prospect of applying for the same. But the part-timers mainly work weekends when the crowds come, which doesn’t fit our existing schedule. But I think she is tempted. The thought of practicing ones Welsh, while getting paid for it, does have a certain tempting ring about it.
            So it’s “Mae hynny'n ddigon am nawr.” 
            In my case that sort of means, “Thank goodness for Google Translate!”


  1. I have visited St Fagans many times and it's a lovely place. I always remember the smell of certain houses, no doubt the coal fires and damp. Smells take you back though don't they? Has your demoralizing experience with cheese put you off the stuff for life?

    I also rely heavily on Google translate. Most recently because a growing number of my twitter followers are from China or North Korea. I can't see me planning a tour anytime soon but it's good to be able to see if their comments about my music are complementary before I reply with smiley emojis!

  2. Smells of coal fire and damp. I'm sure there's a song in there somewhere...

    1. There could be... watch this space