History and Mystery on Caldey Island – Part One

Tree of Life
The Tree of Life Window on Caldey Island


History and Mystery on Caldey Island – Part One

Caldey Island lies a half hour boat ride from the beautiful Pembrokeshire resort of Tenby. Tenby is bustling and vibrant. Caldey is a quiet and contemplative, and feels like a very different world.

Bernie and I had visited Caldey many years ago. Back then there were some unanswered  questions in my mind, following our short visit; so, this time, I wanted to take a better camera and record some of the things that had fascinated me.


As the above photo shows, just leaving Tenby can be a challenging affair. The Pembrokeshire coast has a wide tidal range and very low tides can mean the whole boarding pier being pushed into or (as above) pulled out of the cold ocean to gain access to the beach or the waiting boat! This is not a luxury crossing…

Once at sea, the splendour of Tenby’s Georgian skyline becomes apparent.

Leaving Tenby

The short crossing ends with a view of a wonderful, golden beach to welcome visitors to Caldey.

First glimpse of Caldey

Disembarkation can be just as challenging, for, as we shall see later, both ends of the sea journey can involve some ‘roughing it’.


Once on Caldey Island, the routes available to the visitor are well signed. The majority of visitors are there to see the beautiful Cistercian Monastery, but there are other attractions, including the poignant Glade of Calvary.

Map of Caldey

From the quay, a short walk of half a kilometre reveals the first view of the Cistercian building. The complex of buildings was constructed in the decade from 1906 onwards by a group of pioneering Anglican Benedictines who bought the island island and, in a brave attempt to establish their dedication to the church, set about building the present structures. A bold Italianate style was used, topped by the imposing red towers, roofs and turrets.

First View of Caldey Monastery

Abbey Turrets close up

In recognition of their efforts, the bold Benedictines were received into the Catholic Church in 1913, but, tragically, increasing financial difficulties forced them to sell the entire island, including the Abbey, in 1925.

The present Order of Cistercians, who live by a stricter and more contemplative variant of the Benedictine Rule, descend from a ‘rescuing’ group of monks from Scourmont Abbey, in Belgium. In 1929, they were sent to ‘seed’ the island as a ‘daughter house’; and to work for its full restoration, though from a slightly different tradition.

In a remarkable gesture, this group of Belgian monks honoured the original sacred tradition of Caldey Island, which was Celtic Christianity, by adopting St Samson, an early abbot of the original sixth century settlement, as their patron saint.


The threads that link back to that Celtic world are everywhere to be seen on Caldey. Some of them are obvious, but many are hidden, suggesting a complex weave of ancient and modern that make up the spiritual foundations of this enigmatic island. These threads will be followed in subsequent posts…

(to be continued) 





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