. . . where the Monks make perfume . . . and chocolate . . . and the wildlife is thriving.
Religious retreats are, by their nature, remote and often inaccessible. Caldey Island, however, is an easily accessible retreat close to the holiday town of Tenby on the south Pembrokeshire Coast in Wales.
Caldey Island isn’t the first place you’d think about when looking for nature-watching sites in Pembrokeshire. It doesn’t have the huge numbers of seabirds that you can see on Skomer, for example, but it does have some advantages over the other islands.
It is easy access
Boats every half hour or so from Tenby Harbour, starting around 10am, every day except Sunday – weather permitting – and the trip takes only about twenty minutes.
The boat lands at the only jetty, which is in Priory Bay, on the sheltered north side of the island. To the east is a large sandy beach, backed by sand dunes. Sun-lovers need go no further than the beach, which is never crowded, but then they would be missing the other delights of the island.
if you are not good with climbing steps or walking on uneven footpaths, you don’t have to do that here.
The only road runs from the jetty to the village and farm in the centre of the island, and then to the lighthouse. The trees and shrubbery alongside the road hide views of the farmland beyond. Caldey was an active farm, with mainly cattle grazing. This used to provide milk for the small village community, and for the produce of the island dairy – ice cream, clotted cream, yoghurt, shortbread and chocolate – which is sold in the shop. Now, the milk comes from the mainland. There are still a few cows, and sheep and ponies, but farming is a lesser part of the island now.
The village is small, the school having closed a decade ago through lack of pupils. There is still a gift shop, a post office, cafe, and a small museum, all under the shadow of the Abbey and other religious buildings. More about this later.
Beyond the village, the road continues through the farmland to the lighthouse. This south side of the island is much more exposed and windswept, and is probably where the island got its name – Caldey being derived from the Viking Keld-eye or cold island. The walk is worth it for the spectacular views: the Pembrokeshire coast and the Preseli Hills to the north, the Gower Peninsula to the east, and Lundy Island to the south.
The lighthouse was built in 1829, and together with Lundy North Lighthouse provides for safe navigation in the north Bristol Channel. It was originally powered by oil, was converted to an automatic acetylene system in 1927, and since 1997 has been modernised and converted to mains electricity. Like most lighthouses, it is a large white imposing structure.
The wild-flowers along the coast are spectacular. Thrift Ameria maritima and Kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria were in full bloom (above). Then there were patches of sea campion Silene maritima and spring squill Scilla verna. The best time is mid-April to mid-July. Bluebells Endymion non-scripta and three-cornered leek Allium triquetrum provide a spectacular early season display alongside the road through the village.
And with the flower come the insects. In June there may be small blue butterflies on the kidney vetch, 24-spot ladybirds on the sea campion, gorse bugs on the gorse and green nettle weevil on the patches of nettles. I’ve found several species of bumble and solitary bees here too, over the years.
From the lighthouse, there is a mown path a short way to the east, and a long way to the west. The path used to end at Windberry Bay, where you can admire the spectacular red sandstone cliffs. These cliffs are good for seabirds, but you really do need binoculars to appreciate them properly. You can see herring and lesser black-backed gulls, fulmars, razorbills, shags, cormorants, and choughs and peregrines. But remember that these seabirds are only here for the nesting season. By the end of July, most will have gone back out to sea.
A mown path takes you back across a field to the village, for tea and cake in the cafe.
Or you can follow the path further west to Sandtop Bay. We usually eat our sandwiches overlooking this bay, watching for the choughs that nest in the cliffs on the far side. Sometimes a peregrine passes over. Again, an easy track takes you back to the village, where you visit the cafe and shops, and join the hard track back to the boat.
In the far left of the photo above, you can see St Margaret’s Island, which is a nature reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and the main seabird colony. Again mostly razorbills and guillemots, but also the largest cormorant colony in Wales. At low tide (when this photo was taken), St Margaret’s appears to connect with Caldey, though the rocks are not quite continuous all the way across. At high tide, it is clearly a separate island.
The best way to see St Margaret’s is on a ’round the islands’ boat trip.
The red squirrels
Caldey Island is the only place in Pembrokeshire where you can see red squirrels. This species vanished from the county half a century ago as the introduced grey squirrels became more numerous here. After considerable consultation and an extensive program of rat eradication, three red squirrels were brought to the island in 2016, and then a further 12 were added in 2017.
The island doesn’t have the right habitats to support a totally self-sustaining population of squirrels, so they are closely monitored and given supplementary food. The aim is for the reds to live as natural a life as possible, so although some openly hang around the cafe area, please don’t give them human food. It isn’t good for them. The squirrels’ welfare is continually assessed, and so far they are enjoying their surroundings, building dreys, finding food, exploring the island, and raising young.
Hedgehogs have long been on Caldey, but now are being seen there more frequently – certainly, I’ve come across their droppings more often in the last few years (hedgehogs are nocturnal, so you are only likely to see one if you stay overnight on the island). They have probably benefitted from the rat eradication program.
Caldey as a religious retreat
The Abbey was built in 1910 by the Anglican Benedictine monks who came to the Island in 1906. It was designed by Penarth architect John Coates-Carter in traditional Italianate style, and is now a grade II* listed building. Tours of the abbey are available – but are for men only!
Older religious buildings include the Old Priory and the medieval churches of St David and St Illtud, where anyone can explore. The Priory is thought to occupy the site of the original 6th-century Celtic monastery, and was home to the Benedictine monks who lived on Caldey in medieval times, but has not been occupied since the Dissolution of the Monasteries in about 1540. Conversely, St Illtud’s, with its strange leaning spire and pebble floors, is, still a consecrated Roman Catholic church.
The original Anglican Community converted to Roman Catholicism in 1913 and then sold the Abbey to monks of the Reformed Cistercian Order in 1926. They still occupy Caldey Abbey today. They follow the strict lifestyle of their order, with vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, observing a rule of silence between the hours of 7pm to 7am and following a demanding timetable of prayer, study and work.
The work includes the production of Caldey Island Perfumes, an industry that started in the 1950s with the sale of bunches of herbs to visitors. It then became more sophisticated and popular until the island ran out of raw materials and had to start importing. The perfumes are no longer developed on the island, but by a Belgian company. However, they are still made on Caldey, using a mixture of local plants, such as gorse, and imported essential oils. Lavender is again being grown in the Abbey gardens and sold in sachets in the shop.
Half of the island is red sandstone, the other half is limestone. The limestone was quarried in centuries past. As with most limestone areas, there are many caves – inaccessible to the casual visitor – and some of these have yielded archaeological artifacts showing that the island was inhabited perhaps some 12,000 years ago. It wasn’t an island then, the sea level was much lower during the ice age, and Caldey would have been a hill on the Bristol Channel Plain.
More information on the Caldey Island website
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