National Woollen Museum, Drefach Felindre
Don a hard hat and rattle 300 feet into the earth in a “pit cage,” the way Welsh coal miners did. See where workers turned out the wool that dressed Europe and where they mined the slate that roofed the world. Stroll through a superb collection of French art, amassed by two ladies from rural Wales. Visit a Roman fort, a living history center, and a high tech waterfront museum.
This spring, a visit could take you from Cardiff all the way to Snowdonia, making stops at the seven museums that together make up The Museum of Wales, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2007.
Along the way, you will learn about Welsh history, from the Celts, through Wales years as the most remote outpost of the Roman Empire, all the way up to the clanging, clamor and danger of the Industrial Revolution and on to modern times. Special Centenary exhibitions and events abound, admission is free, and by visiting all seven, you will also get a great insight into Wales and it’s people
Start at St. Fagans: National History Museum on the western edge of Cardiff, it stands in the grounds of the magnificent St Fagans Castle, a 16th-century manor house donated to the people of Wales by the Earl of Plymouth. During the last fifty years, over forty original buildings from different historical periods have been re-erected in the 100-acre parkland. The round, straw-topped huts of the Iron Age Celts begin the tale. Journey through time to a 1610 farmhouse. Look out forthe cattle, hogs, and wild boar in the neighboring fields. Stop at the Derwen Bakehouse for warm fresh-out-of-the-oven bread. The saddler, potter, wood turner, and cooper will tell you how they ply their trades. A Victorian school, chapel, homes, and shops prepare you to re-enter the modern age.
This spring, a new gallery will open at St. Fagans. Oriel 1 explores the theme of “Belonging”—what it means to be Welsh. In October, the 16th-century St. Teilo’s Church, lovingly moved stone-by-stone from the village of Llandeilo Tay-Y-Bont, will be added to the museum’s “collection”.
The National Museum Cardiff, can delight visitors any time, with its superb collection of art, archeology, and natural history exhibits. In 2007, four special centenary exhibitions make a visit even more worthwhile.
First, there is photography. Even if you don’t know the name Angus McBean, you know his photographs. The Welsh-born McBean’s work includes early portraits of such stars as Vivien Leigh and Marlene Dietrich, photos of Agatha Christie and Noel Coward, and extends all the way to Beatles’ album covers. “Angus McBean: Portraits” runs from March 31 to June 3. The show coincides with a rare chance to view 10 Leonardo da Vinci drawings, normally held at the Royal Library in Windsor Castle, also part of the Centenary celebration.
The award-winning Big Pit National Coal Museum forms the heart of the Blaenafon World Heritage Site, about 30 minutes west of Cardiff. There, you will don a hard hat and go down into the mine, where a guide—usually a retired miner—will tell you how coal was pulled from the earth. You will hear about the blind pit ponies that hauled the coal, and see the “pit baths,” where miners showered off the black dust. A 20-minute multi-media presentation takes you through a simulated modern coal mine.
In the 19th century Welsh economy, the wool trade surpassed even coal, and the wool industry’s history is captured in the recently renovated National Wool Museum You will walk through the historic Cambrian Mills, seeing each step of the process, from carding to sorting to spinning, and will have the chance to purchase some vivid, distinctly Welsh woolen designs. The National Wool Museum is in Dra-fach Felindre, in the Teifi Valley in Carmarthenshire.
On July 7 and 8, just 20 miles east of Cardiff, you can experience the Roman Empire at its peak, by attending the lavish Centenary Roman Spectacular at The National Roman Legion Museum, in Caerlon. Costumed soldiers will enliven the Roman fortress settlement, dating to A.D. 74. This farthest outpost of the Roman Empire’s 2nd century amphitheater could seat 6,000, its barracks are laid out in tidy rows, its hospital and bathhouse seem remarkably modern. In August, a new Roman Garden will enrich the setting.
The slate industry was to North Wales what coal was to the south, and the National Slate Museumin Llanberis, in the shadow of towering Mount Snowdon, vividly tells that story. You will hear about the dangerous lives of the miners, who dangled from ropes while cutting the slate from sheer rock faces. You can see the perilous inclined planes that moved the stone, and watch “splitters” demonstrate how raw slate became shingles. (Some went to roof America’s White House). Don’t miss the quarrymen’s houses, showing how miner’s lived, as early as 1860 and as late as 1969, when the mine was closed.
As you head back to Cardiff, stop in Swansea to visit the new star in the National Museum Wales constellation, The National Waterfront Museum The museum, housed in historic waterfront warehouses, tells the story of Wales’ industry and innovation through the eyes of its people. The story begins with the early copper and steel works and ends with Wales’ present-day animation industry. You will feel part of history, as you watch video diaries, peer at a detailed scale model of an 1864 steamship, enjoy interactive computer displays and 2-D graphics — using all your senses to feel the history.
Main and right photos, Crown © 2006-2007; left image, Britain on View © 2007; middle image courtesy of the National Museum Wales.