The landscape

The historic landscape of Strata Florida is a major asset for the heritage of Wales. The current research project of the University of Wales Trinity St David has uncovered extensive evidence for how the land was used by this once great Abbey.

Aerial photograph of Troed y Rhiw and Teifi Pools (Toby Driver)

The Cambrian Mountains at Teifi Pools. These lakes were once stocked with fish by the Abbey (Photo: Toby Driver. Copyright: RCAHMW)

The topography of the landscape around Strata Florida is one dominated by the Cambrian Mountains of Central Wales. The Abbey itself lay in a small glaciated valley on the west side of these uplands and at the northern end of the Teifi river system, at the point at which it flows from its upland source at Teifi Pools and drops onto the flat floor of the valley. The river then turns southwards and flows through Tregaron Bog on its way to the sea in Cardigan Bay at Cardigan itself.

Aerial photograph of Maes Llyn and Cors Caron (Toby Driver)

The niche landscape: the farm of Maesllyn in the forground is on the edge of Tregaron Bog with the lower slopes of the Cambrian Mountains encroaching to the right (Photo: Toby Driver. Copyright: RCAHMW)

The best agricultural land is on the lower slopes of the hills and above the flood plain of the river in relatively small niches once used as arable, but now largely permanent grasslands. The valley wetlands, including the great expanse of Tregaron Bog itself, were traditionally used for pasture, hay, fish, wildfowl and peat. The mountains with their own extensive expanses of bog were traditionally used for summer pasture, while the steeper slopes had deciduous woodlands, providing wood for a wide range of purposes.

The lands granted to Strata Florida from 1164 onwards (based on the work of David Williams)

The lands granted to Strata Florida from 1164 onwards (based on the work of David Williams)

From surviving documents dating to the later 12th and 13th centuries we can create a map of how extensive were the lands which the Lord Rhys and other powerful men granted to the Abbot and his community of monks.

The lands were divided up into units known as granges for administrative purposes and, to begin with, were either farmed and exploited directly by the Abbey or were left in the hands of their former farmers and lords in return for a money rent. From our research most of this landscape seems to have been retained by its former users. Later in the Middle Ages all of this land was leased out for rent.

Map of the specialist farms created around the Abbey for its upkeep

The land around the Abbey with its specialist farms creating the produce needed to sustain the community

In an area around the Abbey itself, however, the landscape seems to have been divided up into specialist farms, each concentrating on making specific products needed by the large community within the Abbey for its daily existence. Thus there were farms for pigs, horses, dairy produce, grain (arable), fruit, and cattle for beef and for pulling carts and ploughs. There was also the great expanse of Tregaron Bog where fish, wildfowl and other resources were found in abundance. There were extensive upland pastures where the great flocks of sheep, on which the great wealth of the Abbey depended, were grazed and managed. In amongst this the monks brought new technology to assist in the extraction of metals, such as lead and silver from the rich ore lodes in the Cambrian Mountains. The monks also created a market at Ffair Rhos and a village at Pontrhydfendigaid to house the Abbey's secular workforce.

View of the Abbey leat system and Afon Glasffrwd in Dyffryn Tawel  (David Austin)

View of the Abbey leat system and Afon Glasffrwd in Dyffryn Tawel (David Austin)

An important element of the new technology brought to this part of the Welsh landscape was water engineering. Indeed to lay out the new Abbey the Monks had first to divert the Afon Glasffrwd from its original course and place it in an artificial channel along the edge of Abbey Wood where it still flows today. They also built a dam across this river higher up to create a series of ponds and water channels or leats which fed not the Abbey's Inner Precinct. Here it was distributed through stone-lined ducts to bring water to the Infirmary, the Kitchens, the Refectory, the Abbot's Lodgings, and into drains which flushed the toilets in the monk's dormitories and other waste and storm water from all over the Abbey. These ducts and drains had to be designed and laid out before the Abbey buildings started to go up.

A hazel coppice bole surviving in Abbey Wood
A hazel coppice bole surviving in Abbey Wood
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The Abbey's wood just to the south of the precinct was carefully and sustainably managed by the monks. In strict rotation trees were cut at ground level as coppices to provide tall and relatively thin pieces of timber for use in fencing or making handles for tools or cultivating vegetables. In addition they cut pollards at the top of the main trunks of trees to provide thicker poles for building uses or machinery. In both cases the trees naturally regenerated ad could be cropped again when they had grown to the required size. Some trees were allowed to grow, as standards, to full maturity and then felled for the more substantial timbers needed to carry the weight of heavy roofs in buildings or planks for floor and furniture. Wood of all kinds could also be made into charcoal for writing or heating metals or made into ash for increasing soil fertility.

This wood supplied power for the hearths and ovens of the Abbey for domestic purposes, and for the forges and the smelting of quarried ore to extract lead. Another fuel source for such purposes was peat cut from the bogs at Coed Dolgoed and Cors Caron. Turves were cut in deep trenches and then stacked to dry for a length of time before being transported to where they were needed.

The ride along the Monk's Trod in 2010: crossing the River Wye at the ancient ford below Nannerch

The ride along the Monk's Trod in 2010: crossing the River Wye at the ancient ford below Nannerch

The Abbey was built straddling the junction of two ancient trackways running eastwards across the Cambrian Mountains and westwards towards the Irish Sea coast. These transmonatin routes crossed the centre of Wales perhaps from the earliest prehistoric times. The most famous of these routes, the Monk's Trod, shows clear signs of being engineered by the monks to allow its use by horses and pack animals and ran between Strata Florida and its sister abbey at Cwmhir, north-east of Rhayader. This can still be walked today and as part of the project Dr Sam Hurn and colleagues rode it on the back of Welsh cobs, taking a whole day to make the journey.

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