In my recent blog post about St Fagans, the National Museum of Wales, I promised to tell you a bit more about St Fagans Castle, which is a Grade 1 listed building and ranks as one of the finest examples of Elizabethan manor houses in Wales – or anywhere, really.
Unfortunately, one isn’t allowed to take pictures inside, so all I can offer you here are some pictures I took of the outside and the lovely gardens. It’s a truly inspirational place for writers of fantasy and historic fiction, for it represents a real Welsh family home rather than the great fortresses built by the English to keep the Welsh from transgressing across the border and revolt.
The original manor house was constructed in 1580 on the site of a much earlier castle that dated back to the 13th century but was destroyed in 1536.
Like all aristocratic families, the manor’s Victorian owners followed the motto “if you’ve got it flaunt it” so they spent much of their income on remodelling and refurbishing their manor in the 19th century, when Cardiff’s high society grew fat and rich on the proceeds of mining and shipping. Inside the manor house visitors get to see collections spanning four centuries, including original furniture dating back to when the house was first constructed.
Upon entering St Fagans Castle one feels that this has always been a family home – it doesn’t feel like a museum’s piece or one of those grand country houses, those stately homes of England, many of which were erected with money from the slave trade and adorned with Adams fire places and gilded Venetian mirrors that were paid for with the lives of thousands of African men, women and children. One could, of course, argue that the manor houses of Wales were built and paid for by virtual slave labour and exploitation of Welsh miners, for most aristocrats based in Wales seem to have had a finger in the mining-pie at one time or another and loathed to spend money on improving living and working conditions of their “subjects”.
While most medieval castles and 18th century country estates are cold, echo-y and cavernous, St Fagans is a cosy country house, a family home that once belonged to Lord Robert-Windsor, who later became the Earl of Plymouth. He kindly donated St Fagans Castle along with 18 acres of land to the National Museum Wales in 1946. Perhaps trying to make up for past wrongs done to the Welsh mining public?
Come on a lovely spring day – choose the middle of the week or you get trampled by the crowds – and stroll through the gorgeous gardens that surround the castle on all sides.
The Italian Garden was created in 1902 and features several ponds. It was restored – to much acclaim – in 2003 and still contains many original features. So far I’ve yet to discover the thyme garden, but I have located the secret walled rose garden, an absolute delight on a hot summer’s day, as one can escape both the crowds and the hot sun for a quarter of an hour and recover in this tranquil and shady place.
Throughout the grounds of the museum there are wonderful man-made landscape features to explore; the real beauty is that one seems to come upon them unawares, as if by magic they had just appeared out of the mist. From fish ponds and mill streams to pretty fountains, from covered walkways and mulberry groves, to vinery, cottage gardens and vegetable patches from WWII, from woodland areas and farmyards to Anglo-Saxon round-house villages and 19th century shopping mall – soak up St Fagans’ past, breathe in deeply and inhale every-day-Welsh-history and when you get home, let it flow out of your fingertips and populate your laptop’s memory.
Gardens tell us so much about the Welsh people who once lived in these homes; rich or poor, Elizabethan castle dwellers in their embroidered finery and furs or humble prefab bungalow citizens in their 1950s petticoats, they all have one thing in common: they are part of Welsh history and equally important, when a writer needs inspiration for their characters!
St Fagans Castle is not imposing, not even that richly furnished. It has nothing of the grand regal gesture of Caerphilly Castle about it nor is there a whiff of Castle Coch’s romance and memories of courtly love present at St Fagans Castle. However, for my money St Fagans Castle is a real homely northern castle, one where I could envisage having been part of a busy household – perhaps as medieval seamstress pricking an amorous squire with my needle to put him in his place or maybe as cook preparing the master’s spit roasted piglet or plucking pheasant’s feathers after the hunt. Not unlike a modern day writer plucking the best bits from ordinary people’s past and using their lives to create a new hi-story.
If folklore, heritage and locations like this one influence and inspire your writing, be sure to visit St Fagans Folklore Museum one day, but if you can’t visit, here’s a virtual tour:
(copyright for all photographs: Maria Thermann; animation gif source: heathersanimations.com)