Our last trip to Strata Florida didn’t get off to a great start. As Harri tried to park as close to a wall as possible, one of our tyres caught against a sharp stone; the result was a frustrated call to our breakdown company. It wasn’t all bad news, however; the recovery man hailed from Gwent and, as he changed our tyre, he regaled us with the chain of events that had led to his (happy) move to Ceredigion several years previously. The county, he declared, remained a place where you could forget to lock your front door and it wouldn’t matter. Would he ever return to his home county? Not in a million years!
To avoid any more unhappy incidences, this time around we parked elsewhere.
Don’t be decided by the name… Strata Florida is in mid Wales and, as such, is subject to rather a lot of rain. On this occasion – bearing in mind it was still early spring – we were lucky. Not warm and sunny exactly, but reasonably dry underfoot and with a hint of brightness in the sky.
Our route followed an ancient track known as the Monk’s Trod which connected Strata Florida with Cwmhir Abbey in Powys and would have been walked regularly by the abbey’s Cistercian monks. These days, we set out for even the shortest of hikes equipped with sturdy boots and waterproof clothing, but the monks would have had only their rough woollen habits to protect them from the changeable mountain weather. By modern standards, these men of prayer were foolhardy in the extreme!.
Fortunately, we weren’t walking all the way to Cwmhir Abbey, but just enjoying a 6.25 mile stroll up and around the Teifi Pools. We’d never headed in this direction before but, having seen the signposts to the pools on other occasions, I was really excited as we set off alongside the tumbling stream, Nant Egnant.
The Teifi Pools is the collective name for a group of small lakes; some are natural and others have been enlarged by dams. The pools are located high in the hills to the east of Pontrhydfendigaid so our walk began with the inevitable climb (I’m sure I wouldn’t mind hills quite so much if they weren’t always right at the beginning of a walk when my muscles have yet to warm up).
Surprisingly, the ground was nowhere near as wet as when we visited the area in mid summer; in fact, there was only one really boggy section and it’s easy to avoid if you skirt up and around the obvious clue – marshy grass. Confident in my solid hiking boots’ ability to keep my feet dry, I strode straight through the middle of the grassy area; Harri, wearing lightweight trail shoes, followed me with inevitable soggy results.
The lakes, when we reached them boast a stark, austere beauty. Llyn Egnant appears quite unexpectedly as you round a bend. Harri corrected prophesied that the only people we were likely to see that morning were anglers and there, on the far bank of the largest lake, Llyn Egnant, sat a lone fisherman.
It’s easy to see why this wild and bleak moorland some 1,500 feet above sea level is sometimes called the ‘Desert of Wales’. Apart from the winding single track we were walking along there is no sign of human habitation for miles… beautiful in summer but perhaps a place best avoided in the harsh winter months.
The undulating track meanders around and between the lakes in a very ‘yellow brick road’ kind of way, which meant we could see our route for a fair way ahead.
The largest of the Teifi Pools is Llyn Teifi which is traditionally considered to be the source of the Afon Teifi, which at 76 miles (122km) is the longest Welsh river which flows wholly within the country’s boundaries.
The Teifi Pools are well-stocked with wild brown trout, hence their popularity with anglers. On a warmer day, our fisherman would undoubtedly have been surrounded by other enthusiasts. As it was, Harri was right and he was the only other person we saw for the whole walk (even the farmhouse we passed was abandoned).
Back at Strata Florida, we took advantage of the fact it was March 31st… the £3.50 charge to wander around the ruins came into effect the next day.
Strata Florida was founded in 1164 under the patronage of the Lord Rhys (1132–1164) and it owes its historic importance to the loss of St David’s in Pembrokeshire to the Normans. The Welsh princes of Deheubarth (a former kingdom based in the south-west of Wales) transferred their patronage to the new abbey and transformed it into the cultural and spiritual centre of the Welsh fight for independence. The abbey grounds claim to be the final resting place of eleven Welsh princes and it was here that Brut y Tywysogion (‘Chronicle of the Princes’) was written, an important primary source for medieval Welsh history.
To be honest, 850 years later there’s not a lot left to see and visitors have to rely on various interpretation boards and their imaginations to visualise how the Abbey might have looked in its heyday. Llanthony Priory (Black Mountains) and Tintern Abbey (Wye Valley) are far more impressive.
If you pause to look up, you’ll see what appears to be a hiker striding across the mountain. This is a recent addition to the landscape and is actually a four-metre high sculpture by Glenn Morris. The figure, called ‘Pilgrim’, is made of recycled oak and old railway sleepers and was commissioned to celebrate the archaeological heritage of Strata Florida.
Back on the ground, it’s also worth popping into the graveyard next door to find the grave of the greatest of Welsh poets, Dafydd ap Gwilym (fl. 14th century) under the yew tree (you can read some of his poetry here).
We stopped for lunch on a beautifully situated bench in the valley below, with only sheep for company. It would have been easy to sit and enjoy the lovely scenery for longer, but we weren’t on holiday and we had another route to walk.