Strata Florida Cistercian Abbey

Writing the last post about the tiny St Tanwg’s church in Gwynned and how it is one of the Small Pilgrim Places made me think about other early Christian sites and holy places that have a special atmosphere. There are so many such places in Wales. Places that are hidden away, or have a fascinating history that isn’t well known or churches and holy sites that are set in  the most beautiful and tranquil surroundings.

The ruined Cistercian monastery of Strata Florida isn’t one of the ‘Small Pilgrim Places’ – it’s probably too big for a start – but I’ve always had a special affection for it. Well off the beaten track and not on the road to anywhere, it doesn’t get the visitor numbers that the better known Cistercian monasteries get.

It is situated near the small village of  Pontrhydfendigaid, on the edge of the uplands, where fields, farms and narrow country roads start to give way to hill and moorland. The nearest town of any size is Aberystwyth which is 17 miles to the north west.
Even the name is captivating and enigmatic. Strata Florida comes from the Welsh, Ystrad Fflur, meaning Vale of the Flowers.

It’s a beautiful, peaceful setting and with so few remains left it can be hard to imagine that it was once a very large abbey and an important religious centre.

The abbey had vast estates of productive land that brought in a good income from sheep farming and other enterprises.  It was also a centre of Welsh culture and scholarship in the middle ages and would have been visited by  poets, Welsh princes and traders as well as pilgrims. An important Welsh annal, The Chronical of the Princes, is said to have been written here and relates how the Welsh Princes were brought here for burial in the late 13th century. Apart from the graves of some of the Welsh princes, the greatest poet of medieval Wales, Dafydd ap Gwilym is said to be buried here.

Looking closely at the photo below, you can see the sculpture of a pilgrim on the skyline.

The 14ft high sculpture by Glenn Morris stands on the hill above the abbey  and is made from old railway sleepers and recycled oak.

It was the result of an arts collaboration between the local community of Pontrhydfendigaid and Kells in Co. Kilkenny, where well-known sculptors made works inspired by the medieval abbey ruins in each community.

 

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St Tanwg’s – the church in the sand

A tiny medieval church nestled in the sand dunes at Llandanwg, near Harlech in west Wales. The present building dates back to the 13th Century but it has an ancient history, with the site itself dating  back to about 435AD, making it one of the very earliest Christian sites in Britain.  

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There are possible connections with St Patrick’s missionaries to Wales, as Llandanwg, along with Fishguard, was one of the main points of entry for visitors arriving from across the Irish Sea.

Inside the church, a 5th century inscribed stone refers to Ingenvus who is said to be a contemporary of St Patrick and the interesting thing about this stone is that it is not local stone but probably comes from the Wicklow mountains in Ireland.

The INGENVUS STONE, an 8ft high pillar grave stone

The church is dedicated to St Tanwg who was born on Anglesey and probably arrived here not long after a Christian foundation had been established at the site.

The church started to fall into disrepair after a new St Tanwg’s Church was built 2 miles away in Harlech in 1839, although it continued to be used for burials.
At one stage the roof had fallen in and the church became full of sand and briars and there are even reports of fishermen drying their nets on the nave.
Over the years the church has frequently had to be dug out of the sand and work to protect it from the sea and sand is ongoing.
Most of the graveyard lies underneath the sand dunes

However, no one wanted to lose such a special church and renovations were carried out at various times in the 20th Century, with major work in 1987.

Nowadays the church retains it’s simple medieval character and many of it’s original features. Services are held here again, particularly during the summer months and in 2000 it regained it’s licence to hold weddings again – and what a lovely, special place to get married in!

 The renovations in the 20th century  unearthed some fascinating ancient stones which provide proof that there has been a Christian foundation here since the earliest days of the Christian church in Britain. Below are parts of two inscribed gravestones from the 5th and 6th centuries and a cross from around the 9th century. These are of great historical importance.

The early 6th Century GERONTIUS STONE

The original bell had been removed to the new St Tanwg’s in Harlech but it was replaced in 1922 by this one (below left) which came from Doobeg in Co. Sligo, where it was used to summon farm workers to work.


Small Pilgrim Places

St Tanwg’s is on the Small Pilgrim Places Network .
These are special places in England and Wales that are small and peaceful and away from the madding crowds. Places for pondering, meditating, praying or just being, and they can be churches, wells, gardens , ruins or open spaces.
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Bach Wen Dolmen & St Beuno’s Church

A cupmarked dolmen and a pilgrimage church

Bach Wen Dolmen is on the north coast of the Llyn Peninsula in north Wales and the reason I sought out this particular dolmen was because its capstone is literally covered in cupmarks, not something I’ve seen very often on dolmens.

Someone must have counted them because there are reported to be 110 cupmarks and 2 shallow grooves on the top of the capstone, plus 8 more on the eastern edge.

Despite the iron railings around the dolmen, it’s still a lovely location, with the sea on one side and the hills of the Llyn Peninsula on the other. With such views, it’s easy to sea why the dolmen was built here.

We parked in Clynnog Fawr and set off on a well-signposted walk which took us from the village street, down little lanes towards the sea and the dolmen.

Looking back to Clynnog Fawr from near the dolmen

Arriving back in the village, I went to have a look at the church.

St Beuno’s Church, Clynnog Fawr

 I’m so glad I didn’t pass by without stopping to look inside. What struck me on entering was how incredibly light it was. I opened the heavy oak door and walked from the shade of the church yard into a  church bathed in light. The windows are large but I think it was the whitewashed walls that made such a difference.

There was plenty of interest to read about on the information panels and leaflets and I learned that St Beuno’s was one of the stops on a pilgrimage route and long distance footpath.

St Beuno’s was where medieval pilgrims converged to start their pilgrimage down the north coast of the Llyn Peninsula to the holy island of Bardsey. Today it is on the North Wales Pilgrims Way , a 130 mile long distance footpath from Holywell in Flintshire to Bardsey , which takes in little stone churches connected with St Beuno and Saint Winefride and many other holy and ancient places along the way.

The church is said to be on the site of a Celtic monastery founded by St Beuno around 630AD but the present building dates mainly from the late 15th, early 16th century. It used to be an important ecclesiastical centre for this part of Wales, which is why it is such a large church for a little village.

 

A rare example in Wales, of an Irish-style canonical sundial from the 10th-12th century.It was used to mark the time of the canonical hours which centered around the liturgy and don’t bear any relation to civil clock times. 

 

.A set of dog tongs!
These were used to grab hold of unruly dogs at a time when it was common for people to take their dogs into church.

One  thing I was sorry I didn’t see was St Beuno’s Well, which I read about on this information panel at the church.

We set off down the road to look for it but obviously didn’t walk far enough. Afterwards I thought of looking it up on the Well Hopper website, which is the place to find information about holy wells in North Wales and sure enough, there was all the information I needed and some good pictures of it, showing how it has been spruced up in recent years.

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