Shirley in the UK 2012 travel blog

Tenby Harbour (with water)


St Catherine's Island with its fort built during the Napoleonic Wars

Caldey Island monastery - this building was closed to visitors

St Catherine's Island & part of the beach at low tide

Outside the Tenby city wall

Tenby beach

My plan was to have a quick look at the Tenby area, then spend the afternoon at the National Botanic Garden which isn’t far from here. That didn’t work out. I found so much to see at Tenby that I stayed there all day & got home about 5:30pm.

Tenby is on the Pembrokeshire coast just east of Pembroke. My first surprise was that it’s one of the most complete walled towns still in existence. The walls are only on 2 sides but that’s because the sea is on the other two.

As I reached the central square at about 10:28, I saw a sign about a guided walking tour starting at 10:30. The guide was waiting there but she said he needed a minimum of 4 adults to do the tour. We stayed chatting & no-one else turned up so we kept chatting & she asked me if I wanted to see the harbour so we walked down there & then if I wanted to walk back to her car with her, she’d tell me all about the wall.

In the end, we spent an hour & a half together so she might as well have given me the tour. We talked about lots of things including the Vikings, Strongbow, St David & which way I should drive to Conwy tomorrow but I did learn a lot about Tenby too.

It’s a very ancient town, in fact the castle area was probably an iron age hill fort. It became very rich through trade, especially with the Spanish but went into decline under Elizabeth I & was almost wiped out by the plague. Records say there were only 1 or 2 houses until the end of the 18th century when people discovered the benefits of sea-bathing & travel to the continent was impossible because of the French Revolution & then the Napoleonic wars.

William Paxton built sea-water baths & assembly rooms here in 1811 & the place took off as a health resort. I can see why – it has the most beautiful setting & was called the Naples of Wales. Lots of artists & writers came here & I found a plaque saying that Mary Anne Evans wrote her first novel as George Eliot here.

There’s not much left of the castle but Castle Hill is kept as a park with the most incredible views over the bay. My guide (I never did get her name) also told me about Caldey Island which is just a 20 minute boat trip away. It’s still a working Cistercian monastery so I had to go. The boats go every ½ hour & I found out that you could observe the monks chanting their office at 2:20 so I caught the 1:00 boat, after one of the best sausage rolls I’ve ever had, for lunch.

The island has been inhabited since the stone age & has been home to various orders of monks since Celtic times. It’s quite small – I walked from one side to the other in about an hour but there’s an amazing number of things to see. There’s a chocolate factory, a perfume shop that sells perfumes made by the monks, a museum, a post office & gift shop, tea gardens, a lighthouse, the old priory buildings & 2 churches.

I bought some perfume then got so involved in the museum I had to rush up to the abbey church to hear the monks. You could go upstairs into the choir loft which gave a good view & also didn’t feel like you were intruding. There were only 9 monks & the office was quite short – about 10 minutes but it was lovely.

I then went to St David’s church next door which is the parish church but I didn’t find out how many people live here. They have guest houses & run retreats so there’s a substantial number of lay people about. St David’s has some beautiful windows made by a monk in the 1920’s.

Back to the museum. Apparently from the 6th century onwards, this area was awash with Celtic holy men, some hermits & some small communities. Caldey Island became a Benedictine monastery until the Reformation & then it fell into private hands for several centuries.

Now it gets interesting. An Anglican Benedictine community under the leadership of Dom Aelred Carlyle, who resolved to establish organised monasticism within the Church of England, bought the island in 1906. By 1910 the community was no longer small and obscure. It had grown amazingly quickly with almost 40 monks & a world-wide circle of friends.

Then the Archbishop of Canterbury got involved because it came to his attention that the monks were observing the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception. Events culminated in the submission of the abbot & 22 of his monks to the Roman Catholic Church in April 1913. I don’t know what happened to the rest of the monks.

Then in 1921, Abbot Aelred resigned as a result of an investigation by Rome, leaving the community with a £20,000 debt. That’s all I know – I couldn’t find out what the investigation was about. The community’s financial problems continued until the island was bought in 1925 by the Cistercian monks of the Abbey of Our Lady of Scourmont near Chimay, Belgium. The Benedictines moved to Gloucestershire & the Cistercians settled here in 1929. A remarkable history, to say the least!

I walked across the island to the lighthouse which was a lot further than I thought, then made it even longer by coming back via the cliff path but the views were spectacular. It was a lovely calm day, I just had a short sleeved shirt & a jumper & it wasn’t cold, even in the boat.

I stopped off at the chocolate factory & bought a small bar of chocolate then it was time to get back to the boat as the last one left at 4:30. It was amazing how the tide had dropped during the afternoon. There’s a small island called St Catherine’s close to Tenby Beach & when we left it was well & truly surrounded by water but when we got back there was about 20 metres of sand connecting it to the beach & all the boats in the harbour were high & dry.

I walked back to the carpark along the seafront & was really reluctant to leave this lovely place. It was about an hour’s drive home & now it’s time to pack up, ready to go north tomorrow.

I couldn’t be bothered with Bubbles tonight & have settled for an iceless Bacardi & Coke.

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