I was recently commissioned by a literary webzine to write a piece on Strata Florida Abbey in West Wales. This was one of a number of possible ideas I had pitched to the editor, but I must admit I was thrilled that this was the one they wanted, as it’s a place that’s very dear to my heart.
When I was 17 (a very long time ago), I was at school in North Wales and doing an innovative A level English course which included a large element of creative writing – this was very cutting edge in the 1980s! My group – there were just 5 of us doing the course – was taken on a number of field trips to provide inspiration for our writing, and one of these was to Cymer Abbey, near Dolgellau. Cymer was a small Cistercian abbey (the Cistercians were the ‘back to basics’ order of monks which emerged out of the Benedictine tradition at the end of the 11th century. They were into simplicity, austerity and self-sufficiency). Cymer was founded in 1198 and dissolved by Henry VIII in 1536. We spent a couple of hours there, taking in the peaceful location between the hills and the Mawddach river, beside a small farm, in the spring sunshine. We learned about the silver gilt chalice and paten (vessels used in the Mass) which had been discovered in the 19th century, treasure which was believed to have been hidden by the monks to keep it safe from the king’s men when they came to close and ransack the monastery. This is the poem I wrote:
The ruins lie like a cracked skull,
empty arches like toothless jaws:
bare homes of stolen treasure.
Each stone is a tombstone for a soul
through the processions of the past.
Chants sound in the vacant roof,
scents of incense in the mists of history.
The pale, thin, golden light of dawn
upon the parchment walls –
the candlelight of centuries.
OK, it’s a bit ‘A level creative writing course’, but I can kind of see why I ended up a writer, and especially a writer who loves writing about place.
My next brush with the Cistercians was a couple of years later – I was at university in West Wales, and every October a group of students would go to Strata Florida Abbey to hold a service in the remains of the abbey church. In practice, this usually meant a service in the little Georgian parish church next door, as the weather in late autumn in Wales was rarely conducive to outdoor services in the ruins! The video of that first visit still plays in my head – the little coach winding past the vastness of Tregaron Bog (Cors Caron), the village of Pontrhydfendigaid and the sudden right turn into an insignificant residential lane. The lane continuing out into the countryside and then, round a corner, the first sight of the abbey ruins – in particular, the iconic west doorway. At that point, I hadn’t read about the abbey or seen pictures of it, so I had no idea what to expect, except that the people who’d been before said it was rather special. They weren’t wrong.
The abbey nestles between the foothills of the Cambrian Mountains and the River Teifi. Even with the later house built over part of the cloister, the farmyard next door, and the parish church and extensive churchyard beside it, Strata Florida has the peace and beauty characteristic of Cistercian sites, chosen as they were for their remoteness from ‘the dwellings of men’. The west doorway is unique in its architectural style, the spiral triscele finials a nod to the Celtic culture of the generations of Welsh princes and bards who were buried here. I decided that I would love to be buried here, too.
In the years that passed, I visited Strata Florida whenever I could (easier once I was a grown up with a car!), and a few other abbeys too. In my 30s, I went back to university part time for a Masters degree, and two of the modules available were on the Cistercians, because a professor in the history department just happened to be one of the world’s leading experts on the Cistercians. Inevitably, perhaps, I ended up doing my dissertation on the Cistercians, with the title Living Water: a study of Cistercian water management in the context of twelfth and early thirteenth century monastic water systems, with particular reference to selected Cistercian sites in England and Wales (including, of course, Strata Florida!). I have explored the latrines, drains, troughs and water pipes of almost every Cistercian monastery in England and Wales where there are any ruins remaining. I have even infected my partner, who is, as I write this, wrangling an essay for a module on the Cistercians for her Masters degree.
You would think, then, that I wouldn’t have to do any research for the article I’ve been commissioned to write. But, frankly, any excuse to get the books out again! And fact-checking (dates etc) is important. Also, scholarship does move on. There have been a number of archaeological digs and research projects since I last wrote about Strata Florida, and Cadw (the Welsh government’s heritage agency, who owns and cares for the site) now has a visitor centre and facilities, as well as an excellent web page. My most recent visit was in late 2019, and I was able to take some photographs, to accompany the article and this post.
When the article is published, I’ll post a link to the webzine. Meanwhile, if you don’t already follow this blog, and would like to have future posts drop into your inbox, why not follow TheThreeHaresBlog by email? I post on average about once a week. Thanks!