In the early 1900's, why would a little Welsh girl and her family of 10, travel 55 miles from Llanelli to visit the ruins of a Cistercian Abby, known as Strata Florida? The answer to that question, or at least some insight into why, is the reason we are in Pontrhydfendigaid.
Built in 1156, Strata Florida, to replace a smaller & older Abby from the 9th century, Strata Florida was located on 12,000 hectares. As a hectares equals 2.47 acres, this was a big place.
The Abby building, now in ruins, was the home of a secluded community of Monks for over 400 years.
Although the total numbers varied, in it's day, the Abby housed groups of brothers the size of a small army.
As time went on and the numbers of monks diminished the final 8 brothers abandoned Strata Florida, at Henry VIII's forceful suggestion, or what was called suppression, in 1535.
Divided into two categories, Choir Monks" and "Lay Monks" they worked hard to make the Abby successful. Both groups followed the same basic routine. Every day started at 0230 and lights out came at 2030 (known to us as "Cruisers Midnight"). Days were filled with prayer, meditation, reflection, and work. The type of work, however, differed between the two groups.
Choir Monks mostly came from the aristocracy. They were educated in the sciences & mathematics of the day, they were industrious and literate. Most were second or third heirs to large English Estates, who volunteered because they had no hope of inheriting any of the family money. Their work consisted of scripture translation and designing new income flows to support the Abby.
Lay Monks were the "worker bees". Much less educated they were former servants & slaves. They too volunteered because it meant food, clothing, shelter and even a small retirement in their later years. Lay Monks performed the day to day manual labor needed to run the Abby.
Although, an archeological assessment is not complete, it's easy to see that the Monks generated a fairly large income to adorn the Abby with carved stone work
and decorative tiles for the chapels.
Some of the income sources included, tending sheep for wool, mining, and farming field crops of wheat, oats, & barley (sounds like beer making was going on too...;) The monks diverted streams to generate water power for lumber mills & the mines. They built foundries and forged & sold metal tools.
Just like what we saw at Hadrian's Wall, as the Abby fell into disrepair, farmers and towns people "recycled" the cut sandstone to use on their homes, field walls, and even to build St. Mary's Church alongside the Abby Ruins, in the 1700's.
The church building that stands today was built in 1815, on the foundation of a church from the 1700's. Along the back wall of St. Mary's is a stone cross dating back to the 10th century. This could be from the original 10th century Abby?
Today, St. Mary's Church is the Parrish Church for the area around Strata Florida. As we walked around the large cemetery, there were many headstones dating back to the early 1800's. We also saw headstones, written in Welsh, with the familiar family names, of Lewis & Griffith.
Like so many other family mysteries, lost to the past, there are more questions than answers. We have walked through the cities of Llanelli & Cardiff, toured the rugged countryside of Middle Wales, and strolled these hallowed grounds at Strata Florida. Through it all, we have gained better insight into what life was like when Wendy's grandmother lived in Wales, but specifics remain lost.
For that little Welsh girl, was her visit to Strata Florida part of a trip to the beaches of Aberystwyth? Was it a "holiday" vacation with family? Was it a trip to visit pay respects to lost relatives, buried in St. Mary's cemetery?
Or, was it like us as we travel by ferry back to Ireland, was it their chance to take one final look at the beauty of Middle Wales, before heading to far off lands.
Fair Winds and Quiet Anchorages,
Wendy & Jeff