Sitting serenely some two miles off the southern shore of Tenby, Caldey Island has had a monastic presence since at least the 12th century.
Although the noted ecclesiast Gerald of Wales, who was born at Manorbier, ranked it as a simple cell with only one monk in the 12th century, following the decress of the Lateran Council in 1179, the church and buildings were of such a scale that it evidently had greater importance before that.
The saints occupied it during the 6th to 8th centuries and Samson, a friend of David and Teilo, was Abbot before his missionary journeys ended in Brittany.
Over the centuries the monastery’s fortunes ebbed and flowed. From 1113 to 1534, the Benedictines occupied it, but there was a long period of difficulty after the Dissolution. In 1906 the Benedictines returned, but in 1928, when they moved on to Prinknash Abbey, trappist Cistercians arrived from Belgium in 1929 building the Monastery in its present form. The white walls and red roofs of the large and imposing Italianate building stand out, and are clearly visible from the mainland. And when visitors to the Island approach, they are astonished by the scale and beauty of the building, now occupied by only a handful of monks. Caldey’s history, however. has not been totally dominated by monks. There were bad men too who took advantage of the islands position to line their pockets.
The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 did not end Spanish ambitions and, Elizabeth 1 was persuaded to build stronger fortifications at Tenby and Milford Haven following piratical raids off Caldey and in other parts of the Bristol channel.
Caldey and Lundy Islands were described as “pirate’s dens,” by Captain Richard Plumleigh, who was sent to clear the Irish Sea and Bristol Channel areas of privateers.
Caldey today is a tranquil retreat for visitors who are shipped there in their hundreds from Tenby in the summer. The two mile crossing of the sound on calm days is idyllic and the island offers fine cliff walks, beautiful beaches with deep golden sand and tours of the Monastery. The island shop has a range of gifts which included perfume, yoghurt and chocolate made by the monks. The perfume includes home-grown lavender and other ingredients while the dairy products are made with milk from the island dairy farm. The monks have farmed successfully over the years and used to win prizes for their cattle and pigs at the three-day County Agricultural Show at Haverfordwest and at the local shows in South Pembrokeshire.
The old priory church is well worth a visit and the walk to the lighthouse, once manned but now automatically operated, affords gentle exercise and magnificent panoramic views towards Tenby and over Carmarthen Bay to Gower and the Somerset and Devon coasts. The flora and fauna are also interesting and the ancient objects found in the Caldey caves are a talking point.