We have almost 50 historic buildings here at St Fagans, and most of us staff here have clear favourites. I find I have more than one categories of favourites - the one with my favourite story, the house I’d most like to live in today, and so on. For a spotlight tour I needed to consider all this, pick my favourites, and take visitors on a tour of my chosen buildings.
After thinking, and changing my mind a few times, I made a decision. I chose the Tollhouse with its connections to rich and fascinating political and social history, Nantwallter which has a great story attached, and Llainfadyn which is originally from Rhostryfan, not far from where I grew up in North Wales. I also noticed that they seemed to be linked, and not only by their period of interpretation.
Nantwallter is built from clom, a mix of clay, straw and fine aggregate packed in layers. As the house was being dismantled, a piece of newspaper was found. On the paper was an advert for a ship called the Halton Castle which was to sail on the 25th of April to Patagonia, y ‘wladdychfa Gymreig’, to establish a Welsh settlement in Argentina in 1865. This ship didn’t sail, however the more famous Mimosa sailed instead. It’s an amazing thing to come across. I can’t help wondering if this scrap of paper took them away for a moment to faraway lands, from their lives in West Wales, before they filled the gap in the wall.
Next stop was Llainfadyn, a quarry man’s house from Rhostryfan on the edge of Snowdonia. This was a chance to talk about the quarries and bring North Wales down to St Fagans. There are also plenty of great slate features and furniture inside. I’d recently been walking near where the house is from originally, so I showed some photos of the area, and wondered maybe if that was the view the quarry worker would have seen. The family who lived there later emigrated to America to work in the quarries of Vermont as the industry in Wales began to wane towards the end of the 19th Century.
The Tollhouse from Aberystwyth represents a turbulent past, and is a chance to tell the story of inequality and tension in the 1840s. Farmers had to pay extortionate tolls several times on a single journey. This was too much on top of tax and rent, and the tithe to a church they didn’t belong to so tension mounted, and Rebecca and her rioters attacked tollhouses such as this. Workhouses were also attacked, and the gap grew between the landed gentry and the farmers. Being inside made you think of the keepers of the tollhouses, and where might they stand. The leaders of these riots were punished severely, some being transported to Australia.
What stirred my imagination, was seeing the familiar stories and histories, settings and daily lives of the people and circumstances attached to them, when looking closer, being catapulted into the big picture, and the other side of the world. The story of the farmers linking in with social injustices of the 19th century, and the political activism and reform tied with it. But also, the contrast between the familiar homes from familiar parts of Wales, that have far reaching connections with countries and continents all over the world. Did they keep a little piece of ‘home’, this familiar ‘home’ now represented at St Fagans, with them – on the shores of their new worlds at the journey’s end?