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Cors Caron & Strata Florida Abbey

Cors Caron & Strata Florida Abbey
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Exploring what was, to him, a completely new part of mid Wales, Brian Spencer came across two features he feels are worth bringing to the attention of Country Images readers.

Cors Caron is a raised bog alongside the River Teifi in Ceredigion, Wales near the small market town of Tregaron to the south of Aberystwyth. The word Cors incidentally is Welsh for ‘bog’ and the site is also known as the Tregaron Bog. Covering an area of about 862 acres, Cors Caron represents the most intact surviving example of a raised bog landscape in the United Kingdom.  The strange and wild landscape is home for around 44 different species of land and aquatic plants and animals not found elsewhere, including fish, insects, crustaceans, lichen, fungi along with terrestrial animals and birds. Bracken, sphagnum moss, gorse and heather grow alongside Scots pine and animals range from adders, badgers, fallow deer, polecats living alongside rare birds such as Dartford warblers, nightingales, nightjars, willow warblers, woodcock and the once endangered but now almost ubiquitous red kite are all finding safe haven within the confines of the bog.

Lying beside the track bed of a railway line that once linked Aberystwyth to South Wales, it is possible to walk right into the heart of the bog along a wooden walkway linking parts of the walking and cycle trail along the old railway.  Cors Caron began to be formed 12,000 years ago, at the end of the last glacial period when the retreating ice left a hollow that soon filled with water draining off the surrounding high ground.  A raised bog of this type develops from a lake or flat marshy area, over either non-acidic or acidic foundations.  Over the centuries there is a progression from open lake, to marsh and then fen.  Turning acidic, plant deposits brought down by feeder streams, slowly turn into peat that builds up, layer upon layer to a level where the land is too flat for ground or surface water to reach the centre of the wetland.  Trees that grew in the area about 3,000 BC were killed off when the land became too acidic and were preserved by conditions created by the bog.  These remains are helping scientists glean information on past climate changes in the area.

For many centuries peat in the bog was cut and dried for use as fuel and many bog ecosystems have been destroyed by this practice. As a result of international concern, Cors Caron was designated as a nature reserve in 1955.  Formerly in the ownership of the Earl of Lisburne’s Trawsgoed Estate, the bog is located in the 2,000 acre Cors Caron National Nature Reserve.  In 1956 the 7th Earl of Lisburne entered into a management agreement with the Nature Conservancy Council, and the reserve lands were sold to the Countryside Council for Wales in 1986.  The estate retains grazing and sporting rights over some 700 acres of the reserve and adjoining farmland.  On 2nd September 1992, Cors Caron was put on a list of wetland sites of international importance.  The bog is now maintained by Natural Resources Wales, successor to the Countryside Council for Wales.

There are three car parks at the side of the old railway trail accessed from the B4343 road between Tregaron and Pontrhydfendigaid.  There is a 3km circular path using a boardwalk across the middle of the bog, giving safely accessible places from which to view the wildlife and bog features.  A longer and slightly trickier walk is the 7km riverside walk on a raised path.  Alongside the reserve is a cycleway using the disused trackway of the former Aberystwyth to Carmarthen railway which forms part of the Ystwyth Trail.

Opened in February 2006 and costing £80,000, a state of the art bird hide provides a viewing point to observe wildlife, especially birds at close range.

The scant, but attractive ruins of Strata Florida Abbey lie a few miles to the north of Cors Caron on a side road outside the village of Pontrhydfendigaid.  It is quite likely that the Cistercian Monks who lived there dug peat from the bog, augmenting the dwindling stocks of timber closer to the abbey.

The abbey was originally founded in 1164 through the patronage of Rhys ap Gruffydd and the name ‘Strata Florida’ is the Latinised version of the Welsh Ystrad Fflur, ‘Valley of Flowers’.  Fflur is also the name of the river that flows nearby.  Unlike many abbeys Strata Florida was a working abbey, acting as the headquarters of nearby lead mining operations and iron smelting and overseeing satellite farms, or ‘granges’.  Early in its life the abbey became an important resting place for pilgrims travelling to St David’s in Pembrokeshire.

By the early 1200s Strata Florida had become an important and powerful religious centre in mid-Wales, featuring strongly in medieval Welsh politics.  In 1238, the powerful Welsh Prince Llywelyn ap Iorwerth made other Welsh leaders acknowledge his son Dafydd as his rightful successor. In the years that followed, the abbey became the focal point of Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion against King Henry IV and his son, later to become King Henry VI.  He rightly deemed that the monks were sympathetic towards Glyndŵr and had them evicted from the monastery.  Because of its situation in central Wales, the abbey was turned into a military base for campaigns against Glyndŵr and his fellow rebels; once this was over, the monks were allowed to return..

All went well until 1539 when Henry VIII in his argument with the Church of Rome decided to ‘dissolve’, or close monastic orders throughout his realm.  Unfortunately for the monks, Strata Florida was one of the first to suffer this fate.  The buildings and their contents were valued and then sold off; the church and most of the ancillary buildings were demolished and their stones along with lead from the roof and glass from the windows finished up as part of nearby farmhouses.

Following its dissolution, the site of Strata Florida Abbey was left to deteriorate.  Little of the once proud abbey was left standing apart from the graceful entrance arch of the Great West Door and tiled floors soon to be covered by centuries of soil deposits.  It was not until the coming of the railways in the late 19th century that interest in the site was rekindled.  Stephen Williams, a railway engineer, was surveying a possible route through the area when he took an interest in the ruins.  Mindful of the influx of tourists hopefully coming into the area on his railway from Carmarthen to Aberystwyth, he invited a group of archaeologists to visit the site.  Williams who was to become a leading expert in the archaeology of the Cistercian Order, was placed in charge of excavating the site.  Over the years, much of what he uncovered is still on view today.  Along with the arch, holy well and a number of partly demolished walls, the most important relics are the tiled floors of a line of chapels paid for by medieval gentry. Many of those eminent gentry and princes from all over Wales are buried in the adjacent churchyard.  Amongst them is Dafydd ap Gwilym, a famous bard whose Welsh poetry is carved on his a memorial next to a venerable yew tree.

Strata Florida Abbey Ceredigion is maintained by Cadw, the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage and the site is open most days during daylight hours.

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