The rain hammered against the car. We’d been twiddling our thumbs for a while, attempting to keep the windows from steaming up too badly while we grazed on what we had in the glove compartment, looked at the map and tried, unsuccessfully, to read the information board in front of which we had parked. The sun had fled the scene. Thunder rumbled overhead and the ‘Valley of Flowers’ was pretty much invisible.
Somewhere beyond the curtain of rain lay a beautiful valley nestled in the circling green of the hills. Even closer lay the ruined Abbey of Strata Florida that we had come to see. Yet all we could see was water and the blurred shapes of departing cars. No-one was fool enough to be wandering round ruins in this weather.
“How deep is it?”
“I’ll get the Wellies…” No-one, that is, except us.
The rain began to ease a little as we sploshed through the running puddles towards the Abbey. In the twelfth century, a group of Cistercian monks had begun to build a community in the area. The Abbey was founded around 1164, under the patronage of Rhys ap Gruffydd, with the church being consecrated in 1201.
The Abbey assumed an important place in Welsh politics and religion, and eleven princes of the Welsh Royal House of Dinefwr were buried there as well as the monks themselves. Then, in In 1401, Strata Florida Abbey was taken by King Henry IV and his son. Considering the monks guilty of supporting Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion, the community was evicted from the Abbey, though its final demise did not come until it was dissolved in 1539 under Henry VIII’s reforms of the Church.
Little remains of the Abbey at first glance, apart from the arch and the outline. Local buildings seem to wear its stone and memory, but there are a series of chapels that are quite unique. Their altars long stood open to the sky and the winds, but their floors remain, beautifully laid with medieval tiles.
Simple roofing now protects them, lending a shadow of intimacy once again to the little chapels. Where the rain had splashed the tiles, the colours sang once more and the intricacy of their designs could be seen, including not just geometries and floral patterns, but mythical creatures and, famously, a gentleman looking at his reflection in a mirror.
Here and there, odd details remain to show the erstwhile splendour of the Abbey. A carving on the gate, the base of a column, a spiral staircase…
And on the hill, a fourteen foot oak sculpture by Glenn Morris remembers those who have come in pilgrimage to the site over the centuries.
The torrential rain was a blessing in disguise. We had the Abbey to ourselves for quite some time, long enough to do what we had come to do, watched only by the birds and the Pilgrim.
The rain had filled the sunken well that once stood at the Crossing of the Abbey church. Its steps were washed clean and its water a pure gift from the heavens. Mainstream sources say little of this holy well and its odd position within the church. A place of baptism? For the ritual washing of the feet? This was important to the Cistercians in memory of Jesus, who had washed the feet of the disciples. Or perhaps the holy well is older than the stones that contain it..? Removing our boots, we descended the steps of this ancient well.
There was something else here too that we needed to see. On the transept wall is a huge stone, engraved in Welsh, that commemorates the poet Dafydd ap Gwilym, one of the leading Welsh poets and one of the great poets of the Middle Ages. Dafydd was born around 1315 and died young. Even so, over a hundred and seventy of his poems survive. He wrote of courtly love and of nature… as well as more earthy delights, capturing a moment in the mind of man.
… so it looked as if we needed to go and find an ancient yew tree and pay our respects.