Half term adventure in Wales: visiting Llancaiach Fawr – and even learning to pronounce it. (Say Clan, say Kayak, make Welsh phlegmy noise at back of throat, say Vow, make Welsh r-rolling noise with tongue, finish.)
This is one of those historical houses staffed with actual people from the 1600s, wearing doublet and hose and saying things like aye and nay and fare thee well. I love this sort of thing. (It may not be as trendy as immersive theatre but at £22 for a family ticket it’s a darn sight cheaper.) It was, we were told, the year 1645, the Civil War was raging and Colonel Prichard, the Puritan master of the house, was about to try a woman for witchcraft above stairs, if we would care to attend?
The trial didn’t seem very promising at first – all the slightly baffling language and scratching with quills on parchment made the Cutester subside onto my lap with her thumb in her mouth – but then the plaintiff and the defendant started exchanging insults. The plaintiff was the master’s warrener (raises rabbits for the king’s table) accusing a local woman of making all but two of the master’s rabbits disappear with her magic arts. The defendant was quick to point out that the warrener was fond of a beer or three and that she’d witnessed him half cut with his breeches round his ankles on the day in question. Once she had called him a ‘piece of earth’ and he had called her ‘a fat-kidneyed pignut’ the thumb came out of the Cutester’s mouth and she started grinning widely, especially as the court secretary repeated the insults while writing them down.
The woman was acquitted of witchcraft, but was being taken away by a guard for non-payment of sixpence for contempt of court, when an elderly lady in the audience offered to pay the fine. Of course, Colonel Prichard couldn’t recognise the ‘German-looking hag’ featured on the offered five pence piece, so the elderly lady was promptly led away for possessing ‘counterfeit coin’, and then one of her grandchildren as a possible accomplice, and then a bearded man sitting behind me for cheekily shouting ‘God save the King!’ in a Roundhead household. It was all very thrilling.
After the trial we were left to wander around ‘above stairs’, and those in doublet and hose spread out artfully so that one of them happened to be in whichever room you went into. I think as far as they were concerned the fun had just started. They didn’t speak unless spoken to, but there’s only so long you can stand around in 17th century costume in a room full of fascinating and mysterious objects before an eight-year-old dressed as Elsa from Frozen (but with zombie face paint, since this is Halloween week) asks you why there’s a salt shaker on the letter-writing table. Then you get to hold forth. Well, you see, it’s not salt, it’s ‘silver sand’ made from ground up cuttle fish, and you sprinkle it on your letter to dry out the ink quicker! What’s in that pot? Why, rabbit skin glue of course – what’s it used for, you say? For sticking things!
He went on to express horror that the eight-year-old in question could read and write, being a girl, and explained that girls should be left in the ‘natural imbecility that God intended’. Do you, sir, permit your daughters to be educated? he asked a passing visitor, who glanced around at the rest of us nervously, muttered something about being outnumbered and slipped out of the room. Colonel Prichard had just discovered that the mother of the Elsa zombie was a vegetarian as we were leaving the room ourselves, but we could hear him bellowing about MEAT! for some time after.
It was fab. In the following rooms, I learnt that it’s hard work having the King stay over, because his accompanying 1,500-strong army tend to dig long fire-pit trenches in your grounds for roasting meat, but not to fill them in afterwards, so your cattle fall into them and break their legs; that the lady rubs lard (and lead) into her face every morning and rouges her cheeks with cochineal, made from the red secretions of a truly revolting-looking beetle from the Americas; that the expression ‘sleep tight’ is a reference to the ropes strung across the bed to hold up the mattress, which have to be kept nice and tight; and that the master’s bed is so short not because people were shorter in those days (or Welsh, as the vegetarian mum suggested) but because the nobility propped themselves up in a sitting position to sleep in case the Angel of Death mistook them for dead when passing by in the middle of the night.
None of which could have been conveyed half as well by a boring old sign on the wall.
You can end up feeling foolish though. The court secretary, in the ‘withdrawing room’ (origin of drawing room?) after the witch trial, told me that I was unlikely to see much of the King in these parts, so I said cleverly that I was in fact from London. He asked me where, and when I said ‘Enfield’ he scoffed and pointed out that Enfield is in Middlesex which as everyone knows is nowhere near London. And that the King was on his way to Scotland anyway. I made my excuses and skipped off to the next room – I really can’t make intelligent conversation about the English political scene in 1645, given that 75 percent of my knowledge of English history comes from Horrible Histories (and that’s just from the songs). I guess there’s no question that ‘edutainment’ is my learning style…
I would say more – the climactic moment of any visitor attraction being the shop and the cafe (and sometimes the toilets, if they have a novel way of squirting handwash or a hand dryer that lights up blue, for instance) – but I’m out of time. I definitely recommend you go and see it for yourself.