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.