Monday, 30 September 2013

Touching the past

A short questionnaire on a family history website recently asked researchers to identify their main purpose for their genealogical investigation. Was it to find people to compile a family tree? To discover something about the lives of their ancestors? As a way to learn social history?

Obviously all three are inextricably linked. Even if the initial intention is to construct a bare family tree, this naturally leads to discovering information about the people on that tree and, from there, something of the time in which they lived. 

My favourite way of learning more about our ancestors' lives is to visit one of the country's many open-air museums and yesterday I enjoyed a return visit to St Fagans, the Welsh National History Museum, near Cardiff. Researching my Shropshire heritage I have uncovered my own Welsh ancestry - and with surnames such as Roberts, Evans and Griffiths on my family tree, it would be surprising not to find my roots extending across the border into Wales!

17th century Gower farmhouse
This impressive museum was first opened in 1948 and with its treasure of over 40 re-erected historic buildings scattered throughout its 100-acre site, it shows how the people of Wales lived, worked and spent their leisure time over centuries.

A box-bed beside the fire - a common feature of Gower homes such as the farmhouse above.
Doors in the centre slide together to keep it draught-free and cosy inside... if a little claustrophobic!

18th century cottage from Carmarthenshire, built of compacted clay mixed with straw, known locally as 'clom'.
In Devon it's called cob.

A Tudor trader's house from Pembrokeshire - living accommodation above and storage below.
It is one of the museum's latest acquisitions, which you can read about here.

Whether you have any Welsh ancestry or not, I can thoroughly recommend a visit. As you walk around the site you discover reconstructed buildings from tiny cottages, a tannery, a Victorian farmhouse, shops (including a bakery where you can buy freshly bake bread), a school, barns and churches all set in dappled clearings amongst the trees.

Other similar sites elsewhere in the UK include:

 The Weald and Downland Museum, in West Sussex - 600 years of rural life told through more than 50 buildings on a 50 acre site, many furnished to recreate historic domestic interiors.

The Black Country Living Museum, in Dudley, West Midlands - this award winning museum telling the story of the industrial revolution, has an iron works, a complete Black Country village, trams, a traditional fairground, a canal, a colliery, a glass cutter's workshop and many other gems.

Blists Hill Victorian Town, part of the Ironbridge Museum, Shropshire, invites you to experience what life was like over 100 years ago through the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of this recreated Victorian town. The town's "inhabitants" wander through the town in character dress, giving visitors the sense of their daily life at work, in shops and in their homes. Watch them at work in the foundry, visit the fair and exchange your "new money" for old in the bank and spend it in the town

Billed as the living museum of the north, Beamish has a town, a railway, a colliery, pit village, 'Big House' and home farm amongst its many attractions and tells the story of life in North East England in Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian times.

The Chiltern Open Air Museum, in Buckinghamshire, cites its mission statement as "telling the story of the unique history of the Chilterns throuhg buildings, landscapes and culture for the endjoyment, inspiration and learning of present and future communities." The museum focuses on acquiring vernacular buildings that would otherwise be lost - houses and workplaces of ordinary people that are gradually disappearing from the landscape. Buildings on their site include a traditional farm, cottages on a village green, a barn, a toll house, a nissen hut and even a public convenience!

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