Priory Bay Beach

Priory Beach is the wide sandy embrace which welcomes visitors to the monastery island of Caldey off Tenby.

The landing jetty is right in the centre of the beach, which stretches from Eel point to the Old Quay, and the visitor has only to walk a few yards to sink his feet into the deep, warm golden sand of Priory Beach, which is a veritable seaside lover’s paradise.

The tourist guide advertisements invite the visitor to “Take a boat to a different world,” by visiting Caldey, and they could also suggest that it is a trip into the past, for a visit to Caldey is certainly different and feels almost like journeying back into a time warp.

And the beautiful welcome accorded by the sight of Priory Beach certainly adds to the experience. On a clear, sunny day the view of Caldey from Tenby is a magical sight with the red and white Abbey forming an imposing backcloth to the golden sands of Priory Bay.  It is a sight which beckons the viewer to make a visit to this enchanting island with its long history of monastic occupation and its timeless ambiance contrasting so sharply with the frenetic pace of 21st century life.

It is a beach for buckets and spades, swimsuits and picnic baskets, ideal for families with small children, and some people crossing to Caldey go no further, spending the whole day relaxing and playing with the children on the sands, despite the attractions further into the island.

The Abbey is an impressive Italianate building with dazzling white walls and red roofs, surprising the first time viewer by its scale and grandeur. The public is allowed a guided tour of parts of the building at certain times, and will also see the monks in their brown habits working around the island at various outdoor tasks. They have a working farm, with a herd of cattle producing dairy products, while pedigree pigs which often won prizes at local shows were bred there. During the last few decades these enterprising monks have specialised in producing delicious chocolate products and yoghurts, which can be bought in the island shop. But perhaps their best-known product is the perfume which they make in a well-equipped perfumery, using home-grown lavender and other plants and also exploiting the golden gorse blossom which proliferates on Caldey.

The gift shop sells all kinds of items, including cards, religious icons and many mementoes to remind visitors of the unique Caldey experience which remains in the memory and draws people back year after year.

For the historically-minded, the old medieval priory is worth a visit with its Ogham stone, which suggests there may have been a 6th century monastery on Caldey.

A legend told in the Breton book ‘Life of Gildas’ states that when Gildas arrived on the island  he found it ‘narrow, bare and barren.’ But, taught that the power of prayer could change things, he prayed that the island be enlarged, and when he emerged from the oratory it was wider all round with fruitful soil.

Corn was sown, but the seabirds ate it as it emerged. Samson, Gildas and Paul caught the birds and herded them to the monastery, but the Abbott urged them to set them free and tell them to spare the crops. It is said that seabirds are never seen beyond a certain wall to this day.

Priory Bay, facing due north towards Tenby, is the widest of the several Caldey Bays, and the best known as it is the place where the hundreds of summer visitors  make their landing on the monastery island, the haunt not only of saints and scholars but also of smugglers, saxons, pirates and Norsemen.

Although there is no direct evidence that Caldey was ever pillaged by the Vikings, they certainly knew of it, doubtless as a place to obtain fresh water and seabirds and their eggs. In fact, they named it Cald (cold) ey (island), as they did all the islands around the Pembrokeshire coast and the Bristol Channel - Skomer, Skokholm, Ramsey, Gateholm, Grassholm, Lundy to name but a few.

The Ogham stone, with its Christian inscription, in Caldey’s medieval Priory, which gives its name to Priory Bay, suggests that there was a sixth century monastic settlement on the island, and scholars record that the first Abbot was Piro, whose name is perpetuated in the Welsh name for Caldey (Ynys Pyr). It is also the root of the name Manorbier (Maenor Piro) on the mainland west of Tenby.

The earliest surviving Life of a British Saint dating from around 600-25, is that of St Samson of Dol, and it refers to an island ruled over by an aged abbot named Piro where Samson settled, becoming steward and then Abbot. Samson has always been the island’s Patron Saint. Although the Vikings pillaged Lindisfarne and Iona at the end of the 8th century, there is no firm evidence that they attacked Caldey, and the hated piratical Saxons were on the rampage at around the same time. The Norsemen were indeed less of a threat during their later wanderings as they had mellowed and turned to colonisation and integration, some of them actually becoming Christianised.

The notorious 18th century Scottish-born smuggler-turned-pirate Paul Jones operated in the Bristol Channel area and used to visit Caldey allegedly to stash booty. Indeed, one little bay on the north-eastern side of the island is called Paul Jones Bay and there is a local legend that he was buried on Caldey when he died in 1792 and his ghost still haunts the island. A member of the Society for Psychical Research, Miss Renee Haynes, who stayed on Caldey in the 1920s, wrote of an eerie incident she experienced at the time, when she heard sounds of iron spades digging in the sand and shingle and occasionally striking rock on a very dark night. Others had reported hearing the same strange noises there.

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