Caldey Island is the home of a community of Cistercian monks of the strict observance - generally called Trappists, from the name of the mother house. It has been a holy place for well over a thousand years.
Caldey is probably the Ynys Pyr where Pyro, a disciple of St Illtud, founded a monastery in the fifth century. St Samson of Dôl came here when the bustle and worldliness of Illtud’s main monastery at Llanilltud Fawr (Llantwit Major) became too much for him. He attempted to reform the lifestyle of the monks at Caldey but failed and was driven out.
He retired to a cave to live as a hermit, then eventually went to Brittany, where he settled and founded the abbey of Dôl, from which he takes his name. The monks were eventually driven away by Viking raiders, who gave the island its present name.
After the Norman conquest of south Wales, the Norman lord of Cemais, Robert Fitzmartin, gave Caldey to his mother, Geva. She founded a small community of Tironian monks here under the abbey of St Dogmael’s. The remains of the priory buildings are impressive, though it was only ever a small community. The church is still used as a place of worship. You enter it through the western tower, which has been twisted out of shape by subsidence. To the left of the tower is the gatehouse, and beyond this is the guesthouse, with storage rooms underneath.
Across the cloister, the east range of buildings contained the monks’ dormitory. The prior’s accommodation was in the north-east corner of the cloister, over the kitchen, and the refectory would have been to the north of the cloister. At present, these buildings are being repaired and can only be viewed from the exterior. Outside the cloister were the monks’ fishponds, now used as watercress beds.
Caldey also has another early church, St David’s, near the modern abbey. This is a simple stone building very like the Irish churches of the eighth and ninth centuries, with a Norman west door. The modern abbey is an Italianate building of the early 20th century. It was founded by Aelred Carlyle, an Anglo-Catholic who was determined to restore Benedictine monasticism in the Anglican church. He established a little community of monks in Yorkshire in 1902 with the help of the Anglo-Catholic peer Lord Halifax. In 1906, he raised the money to buy Caldey and moved the community there. They were later joined by the last few monks from Father Ignatius’s foundation at Capel-y-ffin near Llanthony (we visit this later in the route).
In 1913, Aelred Carlyle and most of his monks converted to Catholicism. The community found island life increasingly difficult, and in 1928 they moved to Prinknash, where they still live today. The following year, Caldey was taken over by a community of Trappist monks from the abbey of Our Lady of Scourmont in Chimay, South Belgium. They run a retreat centre at the abbey. Only male visitors are allowed into the monks’ church, but women are welcome on retreats.
The island is a popular tourist attraction in the summer, and a regular boat service runs from Tenby, but the crossing is surprisingly dangerous and the abbey is often cut off in the winter. The monks make perfume, shortbread and other goodies to sell in the island shop and have recently embarked on an on-line ordering service to combat the vagaries of the weather - see the abbey's web site.