It’s not surprising that in an area with so much history and heritage Southern Wales has it’s fair share of top class museums. They cover everything from Romans, Welsh history, industrial history and an impressive art collection. And what’s more, those attractions which are part of the National Museums group (including those mentioned below) are totally free to enter, meaning there’s no excuse not to visit.
Set in the grounds of St Fagans Castle, a 16th Century manor house, the museum’s collections comprise over 40 historic buildings from every corner of Wales. Moved from their original location, they were then transported to the site before being re-built brick by brick by skilled craftsmen.
Buildings on site include farm buildings, a school, a workingman’s institute and a row of 5 Ironworkers’ cottages originally from Merthyr Tydfil where each cottage is decorated in a style from different eras, from 1805 to 1985.
Undoubtedly, the most impressive building on the site is the 12th century St Teilo’s Church. Originally standing on the banks of the Lougher estuary near Swansea, the church was carefully dismantled before being transported to St Fagans where it was restored both inside and out in a 16th century style. The whole relocation project took an incredible 20 years to complete before the church was opened to the public in 2007.
As well as the buildings, visitors to the museum can see skilled craftsmen and women at work in their various workshops. A blacksmith, Welsh clog maker, potter, saddler, miller and backer can all be seen making their wares using traditional techniques.
Only around an hour north of St Fagans, is Southern Wales’ other major museum, the Big Pit National Coal Museum. Situated in the South Wales valleys, an area once synonymous with coal mining, the museum is a fitting reminder of the industry that once powered the world.
The museum itself is part of the Blaenavon World Heritage Site, an honour bestowed on the area in 2000 in recognition of its historical and industrial past.
The museum itself sits on a hillside above the town. It closed as a working mine in 1980 and reopened as a museum in 1983. Today visitors can see historic colliery buildings, including the former pit head baths.
But the undoubted highlight of any visit is the Underground Tour. Get kitted out with your helmet and light in the lamp room before joining your guide, a former miner, in the cage for the ride to the bottom of the pit.
The tour will take you through the warren of tunnels 300 feet underground. You will hear tales of what life and conditions were like for the men (and indeed boys!) who worked down in the pit. And being a former miner himself you may even hear first hand stories of what your guide and his colleagues would get up to.
The museum was opened in 1927 and is situated in the Cathays Park district of Cardiff, just a short stroll from the city’s shops and other attractions.
There are galleries and exhibition spaces devoted to subjects such as art, geology and natural history.
In the Origins: in search of early Wales exhibition, visitors can discover the ancient history of Wales and its people, while the Evolution of Wales gallery does what it says, takes you on a 4000 million year journey from the big bang right up to the present day including a chance to get up close with the dinosaurs and woolly mammoths that once roamed this land.
As well as the history collections the site is also home to the recently opened National Museum of Art. It features a wide range of art including 16th & 17th century European Old Master paintings, contemporary works as well as the museum’s world class collection of impressionism and post-impressionism paintings, the largest such collection outside Paris.
These days it is home to the remains of a roman amphitheatre, once the site of bloody entertainment and a barracks which once housed hundreds of soldiers and the only one of its kind still on view in Europe.
The town is also home to the National Roman Legion Museum. Here you’ll find all sorts of exhibitions and artefacts. There are over half a million objects held by the museum which just goes to show how important a town Caerleon was to the Romans.
Beth Cummings is Marketing Manager at Southern Wales Tourism.