Ceredigion has several ancient routes and holy sites, from healing wells and early churches to centres of learning and culture. Several sites are on pilgrim routes to St David’s shrine from north and east.
Strata Florida and the Cistercian Way in Ceredigion
The ruins of Strata Florida abbey is set in a beautiful meadow setting in a mountain valley. The Latin and Welsh name - Ystrad Fflur - means Vale of Flowers. But the carved stone doorway survies intact, and hints at the importance of the site to Welsh history - and a pilgrimage site since the middle ages, and may have been a religious site even before the the abbey was established in 1201.
Strata Florida's Cistercian monks developed sheep farming and mining on their vast estates across the region, and the abbey and its cloisters became a cultural powerhouse under the patronage of the Welsh princes.
Within the abbey ruins you can still see the graves of generations of Welsh princes, celtic symbols carved onto the archway and floor tiles intricately decorated with oak leaves and griffins Look out for the enigmatic ‘Man with a Mirror’ - vainly admiring his elegant attire of doublet and hood.
Under the yew tree in the adjacent churchyard it is believed that Dafydd ap Gwilym, the celebrated Mediaval poet of nature and romance, is buried.
Five hundered years after the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, archaeologists are beginning to reveal the true extent of the abbey’s size and wealth. There's even an opportunity to take part in digs and guided walks with the Strata Florida Trust archaeology field school.
Pilgrims would travel by sea and make land at churches such as Mwnt and Penbryn. The Latin inscription on a five foot high stone near Penbryn church may record one such early pilgrim: 'CORBALENGI IACIT ORDOVS' which translates as ‘’here lies Corbalengi the Ordovician’, a member of the Ordovices tribe of north Wales.
Follow the Cistercian Way to Strata Florida, or join a pilgrimage - there are organised pilgrimages , which take in ancient and new routes across Wales.
Watch out for place names that give clues to pilgrim routes:'ysbyty' signifies a place where pilgrims could get hospitality on their journey.
Discover churches built on pre-Christian sites from their distinctive round churchyards, such as Llanwenog in the Teifi Valley, Pontsian in the adjacent Clettwr valley, Ysbyty Cynfyn near Devil’s Bridge in the Cambrian Mountains, or Penbryn on the Ceredigion coast.
There are a number of inscribed stones across Ceredigion from a Viking ‘hogback’ stone at St David’s church at Llanddewi Aberarth, to the ‘ogham’ stones at Llandysul and Tregaron, both of which recall women, and are by now incorporated into the walls of the church buildings. Fine decorated stones can also be seen at Silian, near Lampeter, Llanddewi Brefi, Gwnnws near Pontrhydfendigaid, and Llanbadarn Fawr on the outskirts of Aberystwyth.
Llanbadarn Fawr was an important monastic site of scholarship and education, as was Strata Florida Abbey near Pontrhydfendigaid in the Cambrian Mountains. Manuscripts copied by the monks can be seen at the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth. One of the patrons of Strata Florida abbey was the Lord Rhys of Deheubarth, who held the first eisteddfod at Cardigan Castle in 1176.
In 1110, King Henry I took Cardigan from Owain ap Cadwgan, as punishment for a number of crimes including the abduction of the princess Nest, wife of Gerald de Windsor. The king gave the Lordship of Cardigan, including Cardigan Castle to Gilbert Fitz Richard, of Clare.
In 1136, Lord Rhys joined forces with the Princes of Gwynedd to rebel against the Normans, securing a decisive victory at Crug Mawr to the north of Cardigan town.
Almost thirty five years after the battle of Crug Mawr, after taking control of the Norman castle the Lord Rhys set about fortified the castle, building it in stone from 1171 - the first of its kind built by a Welsh prince. The stone ramparts of Lord Rhys's castle greet you when you cross the Teifi from the south.
The history of Aberystwyth's castles is a stormy one, reflecting the tenuous existence of this Norman enclave in a resolutely Welsh part of Wales. The first castle was built overlooking the Ystwyth at Tan y Bwlch in 1110. Owain Gwynedd destroyed the castle after defeating the Normans at Crug Mawr. Roger de Clare re-occupied the site in 1158, only to lose it to the Lord Rhys six years later.
The castle changed hands at least five times in the early 13th century, in struggles between Deheubarth, Gwynedd and the English. It was finally captured by Llywelyn the Great in 1221 and probably destroyed it, since historical records are then silent until Edward I commenced the new Aberystwyth Castle a mile to the north.
Edward I’s great castle was built at the mouth of the River Rheidol from 1277 onwards. It was largely demolished by Parliament in 1649.