Chris Catling, Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales Secretary tells us about his love for maps as part of our #LoveMaps campaign.This map, dated 1765, shows one of my favourite spots in mid Wales, the former Cistercian Abbey at Strata Florida, the Flowery Vale, with the parish church alongside and the churchyard, burial place of that great medieval Welsh poet, Dafydd ap Gwilym (c 1315/1320–c 1350/1370.) The cartographer’s depiction of the ruined abbey is rather fanciful. It suggests that far more had survived above ground than probably was the case. We know that the church was demolished pretty rapidly after the monastery was suppressed in 1539: archaeologists from Lampeter University have found the remains of furnaces set up to convert large quantities of lead stripped from the roofs into manageable ingots, and a document of 1555 records the removal of 10 tons of lead to Aberystwyth.
Stone from the abbey was recycled to build nearby cottages and farm buildings. Some of those are depicted on the map. Immediately south of the abbey church is Mynachlog Fawr. This farmhouse stands on the site of the abbey’s refectory, and was built in the 1560s by John Stedman, who acquired the site of the abbey and its lands. That house has survived remarkably untouched and was last ‘modernised’ in the 18th century when it gained fine panelling and a splendid staircase.
Facing the farmhouse, there are some farm buildings that were extended in the 19th century to form the enclosed courtyard that exists today, with threshing barn, cow house, cart sheds and stables. Immediately south of the farmstead is the Abbey Wood (labelled W33). The map does not give very much away – you can see a track winding its way into the wood and crossing the Afon Glasffrwd, the river that descends from the heights of the Cambrian Mountains to the south east, and that the monks diverted to provide their monastery with fresh water.
In fact, if you were to explore those woods, you would find plenty of evidence for monastic activity in the form of overgrown banks, kilns, charcoal platforms and furnaces. The monks not only derived huge wealth from their three great sheep farms in the Cambrian Mountains, they also mined for silver and lead. But for Henry VIII, who seized the monasteries and took their wealth, the mining innovations of these monks might well have ushered in the industrial revolution 150 years sooner than it occurred. As it is, the lead mines and spoil heaps that you can now see on the valley side to the north of the abbey were opened in 1856.
The good news is that Mynachlog Fawr and the farmstead opposite have just been acquired by the Strata Florida Trust. Plans are being drawn up to conserve the buildings and create better visitor facilities and a field study centre for further research into the site, including archaeological excavation. A copy of this map will no doubt be displayed in the planned visitor centre – capturing one moment in the long history of the abbey, which was founded in 1164, but that incorporates a water shrine in front of the altar that may well have been a sacred far back in Wales’s prehistory.
This post is also available in: Welsh