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Real Wales, Real People: Sara Fox (The House Historian)

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Real Wales, Real People: Sara Fox (The House Historian)

Nia Knott

You’ve seen the pictures, you know just how beautiful Wales is, but how much do you know about its’ people? For a small population – just over 3 million people – the diversity is staggering. The Welsh are known as a friendly bunch, and whether they were born here or made the great choice to move here, you’ll likely receive the same warm welcome whomever you get talking to. One thing I learnt through my travels is that you can learn the most about a place by listening to the people that live there. The idea of this series of interview blogs is to give you an insight into the lives, loves & work of people that live in Wales.

Sara, thank you for agreeing to be interviewed for our new blog series. We’ve loved learning about your work researching the history of landscapes, buildings and the environment in Wales. You haven’t always lived here – what brought you to Wales, and how has your life been shaped by living here?

  I came to live in Carmarthenshire with my partner Tom in 1989. I suppose we were student drop outs, wanting to grow veg! I love Wales, I can't imagine living anywhere else now. We brought up our two children here and as they went to school I became more interested in the Welsh language and culture. I wrote a history of the village school when it was under threat of closure about 10 years ago which made me realise how multilayered and interesting the history of even a tiny community is. I then did an MA in Tourism Management and researched the potential for extending the shoulder seasons at a Towy valley heritage attraction. What visitors really seemed to want apart from a nice cup of tea and a cake was the story of the house and in particular the people who had lived there. The germ of an idea must have percolated through and after a further MA in Landscape management & Environmental Archaeology and leading a local history project on the farms and field names of the upper Towy valley which resulted in a rather cumbersome book, I realised that historical research was my real interest and wouldn't it be great if I could do this full time.

 It must be fascinating to spend your time delving into Wales’ past. What does a typical day look like for you?

 A typical day for me would be to check my emails and ring people if needed. I undertake research for private individuals on their family history, or the history of their house as well as consultancy work for public and private funded projects to do with the restoration of historic buildings and landscapes. So I am often out on a site visit to an interesting old house, or in an archive digging up information. 

 What are you working on currently?

 I am writing a book about Thomas Hornor an early 19thc panoramorist and watercolourist. He spent several years in Wales charming the newly rich owners of landed estates particularly the Neath valley into paying for his exquisite albums of narrative watercolours at £500 a pop quite a luxury item. He claimed to have invented a new device (a sort of camera obscura but portable) which enabled him to paint precise pictorial maps of the landscape. Hornor felt that mapmaking and art had become divorced and needed to be reunited. He overreached himself in the end with a project to create a panorama of London, his financial backer ran away to America and he was forced by debt to follow him, dying in penury a few years later. If only he had stayed in Wales where he had a nice life as the guest of Nabobs like Sir William Paxton of Middleton Hall (now the National Botanic Garden of Wales) and a guaranteed income! Many of the waterfalls of the Neath valley appear in his paintings and are just as beautiful today; however Hornor captured views of the loveliness of South Wales at a tipping point, the dawn of the industrial revolution, they are a mute record of a time before coal was king.

 You must get to see a lot of Wales during your research. How do you spend your down time?

 My perfect day is reading and sitting in the sunshine in the garden. But we often go out walking and still find new places in the valley after nearly 25 years of living here. We often take visitors to Junction Pool where the Towy and Doethie meet, it’s a special place watched over by Twm Sion Catti's cave. I would like to explore North Wales more but time and geography defeats me there.

 Have you ever found out something about a place in Wales that really surprised you?

 It is the valley I live in that has surprised me most, I was really unaware of the time depth in the landscape from the Bronze Age stone circles aligned to the moon to it becoming a monastic grange in medieval times, then after the Dissolution of the Monasteries becoming part of a great estate up until the late 20thc.

 Finally, what advice would you give somebody wanting to do their own research into the history a particular place in Wales?

 If you want to uncover the history of any place first talk to the locals before launching into books and archives, oral memories are often the most fascinating and illuminating.

 Thank you Sara for taking the time to tell us about your work. Readers can learn more about Sara’s work by visiting www.thehousehistorian.net