Strata Florida is such a lovely name and I was always keen to go there. It is 14 miles from Aberystwyth and has a beautiful position just outside the village of Pontrhydfendigaid near Tregaron. In Welsh it is Ystrad Fflur, which means the Vale of Flowers.
It is neat, well -tended and atmospheric. The arch which once framed the west door calls you in and inside there is a peace and a real sense of history. The hills behind have seen the Abbey rise and fall and they have seen it rediscovered.
It was the Victorians who began its restoration, once such remoter parts of Wales were opened up by the railways. Steven Williams, the engineer building the nearby railway line to Aberystwyth in the middle of the nineteenth century, began a huge excavation revealing most of what we see today.
There is little left now of the building that was once larger than St David’s Cathedral. The Cistercian Abbey was founded in 1184 and it became not only an important religious centre but also a place of political and cultural influence in medieval Wales. Welsh princes are buried here, like Gruffudd and Maelgwyn. In fact there are eleven of them apparently. Llywelyn Fawr summoned all the rulers of Wales there in 1238 to swear allegiance to his son Dafydd who was to succeed him. It was regarded as the Westminster Abbey of Wales. It was badly damaged by a lightning strike in 1285 and a few years later it was burned on the orders of Edward 1. It was finally destroyed in 1539 and the stones eventually re-appeared in many local buildings.
For me there are three interesting graves within the walls. The ancient yew in the centre is said to mark the grave of the great Welsh poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym. He died in the middle of the fourteenth century, possibly from the Black Death. There is a commemorative plaque too, though there are those who suggest his real resting place is at Talley Abbey further south, near Llandeilo. One day soon I shall write a proper piece about him.
Close by there is a considerable oddity, a gravestone which commemorates the left leg of Henry Hughes. If you look closely you can see its outline cut into the top of the headstone. Th e inscription reads
The left leg and part of the thigh of Henry Hughes, cooper, cut off and interr’d here June 18th 1756.
The poor man lost his leg in a farming accident and emigrated to America where the rest of him was eventually buried. Part of him of course was forever at home in Wales, where throughout the rest of his life he had one foot in the grave.
A little further away where the ground is less even and little more unkempt there is an altogether sadder grave. It is the grave of a tramp who had once, allegedly, been a soldier in the Afghan Wars in the 1880s. His frozen body was discovered in February 1929 by the side of the Teifi pools in the hills which overlook Strata Florida. His possessions were meagre – a copy of Old Moore’s Almanac, fourpence and a picture of a young girl. The local people buried him and paid for a headstone on which you can find this short verse –
He died upon the hillside drear
Alone, where snow was deep.
By strangers he was carried here
Where princes also sleep.
I think that is a very effective and moving piece of poetry. His identity remains unknown; the grave of an unknown soldier. It is some comfort to know that even then, 90 years ago, just as today, people did not ignore those who suffered in that dry and forbidding country