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Handle without care

Actors at a Welsh manor are bringing history to life. Victoria Neumark reports

The year is 1645. Colonel Edward Prichard, master of Llancaiach Fawr manor house near Caerphilly, is expecting a visit from Charles I, King of England, to whom he is still loyal. A bare two weeks after the Royal visit on August 5, Colonel Prichard will switch his allegiances, along with most of the Royalists of Wales, who have grown sick and tired of being underpaid infantry in the cause of the "Man of Blood", and come out for Parliament.

These were stirring times - and times that defined many social divisions persisting until the present day. Wales, for example, has only recently abolished the remnants of its "dry" Sundays, when public drinking was banned; theatres do not open on Sundays. The move to concentrating power in the hands of a mercantile rather than an aristocratic land-owning class was unstoppable. And, dare I say it, more frivolously, 10,000 people get togged up in Civil War gear most weekends to re-enact battles fought 350 years ago.

Just now, though, the house is at a pitch of excitement, or at least the gentry are. The servants are a bit more cynical and can spare the time to show you around, offering, on the way, their views on such things as poaching, the Puritan movement in religion, the proper place of children and women, fashion, music, the war.

You can touch everything, from the kitchen implements to my lady's clothes, try on armour, bounce on the beds, stroke the cat, smell the herbs hanging in the kitchen and peer disbelievingly down the garderobe or privy (although not use it, wiping with moss). But what really brings Llancaiach Fawr to life is the servants. The vivid personalities and staff quarrels ensure you will be gripped, and you will never forget your trip back in time.

The 15-20 actorinterpreters, who include professional actors, social workers and ex-salesmen, do not merely describe the furnishings or history of the house, or, like animatronics, recite a canned autobiography. Instead, they interact with their audience, joking with the more sceptical, deferring to the touchy, enjoying the unexpected which children so often produce and never, never coming out of character.

Kevin Joss, the centre's manager, says:"OK is a word that is not to be said." The interpreters are frequently tested - a favourite is to ask "What is that up there?" pointing to an electric light. The correct answer is "nothing", however many times the question is asked, but, says Mr Joss, that is part of the challenge of the job.

At least five interpreters are on site at any one time, with up to nine working at peak periods. Fixed roles and characters ensure an ever-evolving plot line of backchat and back-biting. It takes at least six months after the initial couple of weeks' training, estimates Kevin Joss, for the act to become fluent, and about 18 months for it to be second nature. That's when a character can make statements such as: "You're worth your salt" and go on to explain that the best servants were paid in salt because it was so expensive, or can counsel someone about to sneeze to be careful because the devil may fly into the hole left by their soul, and mean it.

On our visit we encountered the young assistant gamekeeper, the colonel's valet and the surly footman. All were excellent, although the favourite was the colonel's valet, who supervised and explained the wearing of Civil War arms and armour. This includes such wonders as a leather coat soaked in urine to make it more pliable and a huge musket with loading rod. Girls in the party (there are a lot of opportunities for discussing sexism in the 17th century) were encouraged to try on the lady of the manor's garments, featuring the padded "bum roll".

Everything in the manor, apart from the walls, is reproduction and can be handled. Some objects, like the storm lanterns, have been bought by the Friends of Llancaiach Fawr, others are added each year by Caerphilly County Borough Council, which runs the centre.

Some aspects of 17th-century life strange to us are neatly encapsulated in the vertiginous strangeness of objects: the newness of "forks" for eating, the foreignness of cotton for the bedspread, the reserving of chairs for the adults.

The lady of the manor had her lying-in bed above the master bed. During childbirth her lord would drink his "groaning cup", a heady mixture of wine and cider, to help drown out the sounds of labour. The lute and the symphony box played to entertain the gentry, the board stool which could be both card table and chair, the trenchers out of which the servants ate, the fancy French wardrobe in which the Prichards kept their clothes - everything tells its story and has a place in the overall narrative.

Special programmes can be arranged for educational visits. Nursery children and GNVQ leisure and tourism students make up part of the 25,000 annual visitor figures; A-level and GCSE history students also come. But by far the greatest number are from key stages 2 and 3, and for them a special teachers' pack (price Pounds 15.95) includes such goodies as recipes of the times and magic and witchcraft as well as straightforward historical information and resources.

The centre can also help in building up a school-designed study unit based on the Tudor manor house and offers everything needed for national curriculum history on Tudor local and social history, as well as Stuart history and the Civil War. At key stage 3, the political and social aspects of the conflict between monarch and Parliament can be explored, with reference to the local economy.

Other activities include Civil War re-enactments, medieval banquets, Roman and Celtic skirmishes, and evenings of ghosts and magic. All are based in the real history of this place, where the bats wheel in the high trees as the sun sinks behind the thick stone walls of the grey house in the green hills.

As well as the Living History show in the manor house, a small museum contains real objects from the house's long history (it was first built in the 15th century). Prominent among these is a stone with a pentangle inscribed on it. Whether it was meant for good or ill depends on which of the points was uppermost - and no one now can tell. Like all the best history, it's up for anyone's guess.

Llancaiach Fawr Living History Museum, Nelson, Treharris CF46 6ER, tel: 01443 412248; fax 01443 412688. Prices for schools: tour of the manor house Pounds 2.60; tour with one additional craft (candle-rolling or pomander-making) Pounds 3.10; with two additional crafts Pounds 4.10. One adult free per 10 children. Half-day costumed visits to schools are available: the cost varies according to location

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