The Topography and Environment


The Regional setting

This is a classic upland landscape with long-term settlement and farming on the valley floors above the flood plain and on the lower slopes of the mountain areas. In the entirety of the Project's study area of 4000 square kilometres in the western centre of Wales, the topography covers the Cambrian Mountains and the Mynydd Bach and the upper stretches of the river valleys flowing from them. The principal rivers are the Teifi, Tywi, Gwy (Wye), Hafren (Severn), Ystwyth, Rheidol, Wyre, Arth and Aeron. Their upper catchments consist of upland areas of bogs and lakes and vast stretches of what was, until quite recently, open moorland. Once out of the mountains, the rivers flow in glaciated valleys with meandering courses and, for the larger rivers, substantial flood zones. In places too these flood-plains have their own peat mires, the most spectauclar of which is Cors Caron at the centre of the upper Teifi valley.

The revealed bedrocks are largely sedimentary Lower Palaeozoic, Silurian gritstones, mudstones and sandstones which have been severely folded, sometimes with the strata being near-vertical. This can give spectacular land forms of vertical slabs of rock as well as shallow basins now usually filled with peat mires. The mountain tops have been smoothed and flattened in a plateau-like 'peneplain', caused partly by long-term weathering and erosion including glacial processes. This can give very long-distance panoramas especially from particular peaks which were often picked, in the later Neolithic and Bronze Ages, for burial cairns.

The valley floors have deep deposits of glacial debris and moraines with complex mixtures of sands, silts, boulder clays and gravels and these are overlain in places by post-glacial alluvial and colluvial silts brought by the frequent floods and the region's heavy rainfall. The soils for this reason are very mixed and vary from the highly acidic moorlands of the mountains to the less, but still, acidic ground on the slopes and valley floors. Over long periods of cultivation, especially around the historic homestead sites and their agricultural infields, these soils have, in the past, become a little more alkali and supported the cultivation of grain and vegetable crops, as well as fairly rich meadowlands.

Today the two dominant vegetation types are permanent grassland pastures and woodland of different forms. This is very much the result of a major change to mono-cultures in the years after the Second World War which brought a sea change in agricultural practice. The causes were complex, but centre around the fact that Europe's uplands as a whole had suffered from the encroachment of agrarian world markets which began in earnest in the 1880's and 1890s. Cheap grain from the Great Plains and refrigerated meats from Argentina and the Colonies saw the gradual decline, first in world and then in local markets. Farms re-trenched and most of those which had colonised the mountain areas from the 15th century onwards, failed in huge numbers leading to abandonment. This coincided with the collapse of the greater gentry estates which had dominated land ownership, society and the local economies since the sixteenth century.

Research on upland sheep breeds between the wars, some of it conducted at Pwllpeiran to the north of Strata Florida, leading to hardier and more productive stock as well as the creation and growth of the Forestry Commission and its plantations saw a transformation in the appearance of the regional landscapes. Many of these plantations were enabled by the collapse of the mountain farms and their mass purhcase by the Crown Estate, especially in the 1930s and 1940s. In the last 70 years enclosure, drainage and improvement of the mountain pastures enabled by new types of machinery, the steady decline of cattle whether for meat or milk, and shifts in the management of the forestry towards greater amenity access have all tended to embed even further the concentration of land use. This has all been confirmed too by the subsidy systems which also to tend to be predicated on existing land use. However, in more recent years, there have been increasing efforts to bring back vegetational and habitat diversity through a number of schemes.

Before the later nineteenth century agricultural practice was much more diverse and geared towards mixed farming, albeit with an emphasis on the pastoral. Local and regional markets were vibrant. Stock was taken by drovers over the mountains to great English market-towns on the March and beyond. This had begun in the late sixteenth century probably growing out of medieval and even earlier practices of transhumance. There were even boom years as in the later eighteenth century and the Napoleonic period when estate and freehold farms alike were at their wealthiest. This was also aided by the extraordinary explosion at the same time, in the deeper mining of the mineral ores, notable lead, but also silver and even gold, in which the Cambrian Mountains are rich. It is for this reason that most of the earliest architectures of the region belong to the later Georgian and early Victorian eras, built or re-built when there was cash around.

This world of mixed farming probably began in earnest in the earlier Bronze Age some 4000 years ago as clearance of the vast post-galcial forests began to gather pace on the upland and the valley floors. This clearance and conversion to agriculture reached its zenith in the later Iron Age and the early Roman period (200 B.C. to A.D. 200) when the landscape would have looked as open as it does today. After this there seems to have been a decline and then a massive collapse in both population and agriculture in the early Dark Ages, followed by a long slow recovery.

So the environmental story of the regional landscapes is a long and rich one, some of the evidence for which comes out of the pollen sequences trapped in the sphagnum peats of Cors Caron and other bogs as they grow year on year.

The Topographical Setting of Strata Florida Abbey

The lands occupied by the Abbey precinct and its demesne lie at the top end of the broad glaciated Teifi Valley. The ancient farms and sites identified from documents and archaeology lie on the best agricultural land between the bog and flood lands of the valley floor and the steeper slopes of the mountain (mynydd) edge. The precinct itself lies on the flat glaciated valley floor between two rivers, the Teifi and the Glasffrwd (its tributary), and is enfolded to north and south by high ridges each of which has an Iron Age hill-fort on it (Pen y Bannau to the north and Gilfach y Dwn Fawr to the south). To the east, immediately beyond the Presbytery of the Abbey church are the Cambrian Mountains of which the northern and southern ridge form a part. In effect the Abbey lies in a horseshoe of hills, opening to the west and the flat approach from the village of Pontrhydfendigaid.

The Afon Teifi flows eastwards past the Abbey along the northern edge of its precinct. At this point it is not far from its source, Teifi Pools. There is some slight evidence to suggest that this river was managed in the Middle Ages, but this is not as clear as the Afon Glasffrwd which forms the southern boundary of the precinct and which appears to be bedded into an artificial channel.

The Afon Glasffrwd stops being a fast-moving mountain river just at the point where it meets the south-eastern angle of the precinct and then becomes more slow moving along the glacial valley floor. This stretch is retained by a substantial wall which may also be the south wall of the precinct. It is from the valley of the Glasffrwd that the water supply for the Abbey was drawn and a sophisticated leat and pond system controlled the water east of the precinct.

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