Caldey island, three miles off the coast from Tenby, Pembrokeshire, is a private island, a religious site run by Cistercian monks. Much of the 1.5 mile long by .75 mile wide island is uninhabited. The 550 acres were, in prehistoric times, joined to the mainland by a low marshy area. The island can only be reached by boat. Private boats are not allowed unless permission is granted beforehand.
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In addition to the monks a small community of islanders live and work on Caldey. There are only a few hundred yards of roads on the island and several vehicles, so a tour of the island must be done on foot. However, a tractor will take you from the boat landing jetty to the village green (a short walk) for a fee. All of the island is not open to visitors.
Before the monks, prehistoric man lived on the island, and remains have been found. Caldey has been a place of worship for monks for 1500 years. Caldey’s original Welsh name was Ynys Pyr. Caldey comes from the period in the 10th century when Norsemen raided the area. It means ‘cold island’.
The island was given by Henry I to Robert Fitzmartin, but in 1136 it was gifted to Benedictine monks from France. They proceeded to build an abbey on the site of the early monastic settlement of St Pyro. A small corn mill was established on the island. The Benedictine monks were forced to leave when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. The island then passed through a number of hands.
In 1786 the then owner, Thomas Kynaston, built a mansion in the priory grounds and a number of farm buildings. They quarried limestone on the island. In 1866 James Hawkesley purchased the island and encouraged market gardening. He built greenhouses. The island was purchased by the Reverend Done Bushell in 1897, who renovated the priory and St Illtud and St David’s churches. He is the person responsible for bringing monks back to the island. They established the monastery there and purchased the island in 1906. The abbey was built in 1910 and further restoration of other buildings took place. In 1926 the island was sold to the Reformed Cistercians. In 1940 a fire burned the south wing and abbey church.
The parish church is St David’s. Foundations are 10th century, the main part is Norman, but restoration was done in 1836. The church served as a blacksmith’s forge for a while before returning to its purpose as a place of worship. There is an unusual stained glass window of a fish, an early Christian symbol. St Illtud’s, a Catholic church, was built over a number of years and is part of the old priory buildings. The chancel has a barrel vaulted ceiling. After the monasteries were dissolved it was used as a malt house, barn, forge, and laundry. It was restored as a church in 1897. A 6th century Ogham stone is located in the church. On the southern side of the island is a lighthouse.
The monks make perfumes and chocolate, but not from scratch. They put it together from imported ingredients.
Boats to Caldey island from Tenby harbour run from about spring bank holiday to late September. The crossing is 20 minutes and boats run every 30 minutes from about 10am-4pm, Mon-Fri; closed on Sundays but open Saturday June-early September.
Island facilities include light refreshments, shop, post office, small museum, and phone box. Men only are allowed to tour the monastery.
Tel. 01834 844453
Abbey photo courtesy Tony Richards at Lakeland Cam