Monday, 7 April 2014

A monastic mum on Caldey Island

The Caldey boat
As the little blue boat bobbed up and down, the sea spraying our faces, we approached Caldey - that oh so familiar golden stretch of sand, the jetty, the rising cliffs, and the little white cottages dotted around, and that same overwhelming feeling of excitement I had always felt as a child.

I was feeling apprehensive (but also excited) about my solo venture to an island I hadn't stayed on for at least thirty years. I have returned many times as a day tripper - but this occasion felt very different. I felt deeply privileged to be returning as a guest and not a common tourist.

And even though I was travelling alone, it felt as if I was accompanied by the nine-year-old version of myself, and my mum. A little troupe of us going around and having a magical, and fun time together.

One of my fellow passengers on the boat was a lovely Welsh lady from the Swansea valleys. She had been visiting Caldey for forty years and knew all the monks and islanders that I remembered as a child. In particular she remembered a monk, who I'd offended back in the eighties by hiding behind a bin when I saw him swooshing down the lane in his black robes, when I was seven. He took great offence and never spoke to me again. And I was offended too, by the fact that he'd handed out delicious ice creams to my brother and other children almost on an hourly basis and left me out.

My bedroom window
The island's guesthouse looked and felt exactly as I had remembered it. And although the wonderful hosts, Dawn and Peter, had done an incredible amount of work to it, I was delighted to discover the same seventies lino in the corridors and bedrooms. And the bedrooms still had the same very distinct smell of sand and sea, with their simple hand basins in the corner, and the bible and a crucifix.

Stepping back into the dining room, the room where as a child I would only eat bread at every meal (and chocolate when I could get away with it), prompted the memory of feeling the utmost excitement on our last day during one particular stay. The guest master, Father Joseph, had announced during breakfast that the sea was too rough for our boat to take us back to Tenby that day. The prospect of missing a day from school and eating yet more chocolate and bread was almost too much. I knew that back at home my mum would put us back on a strict lentil stew, and brown rice diet, and chocolate would be banished until Christmas.

On this trip, although I still had a bread and chocolate addiction, I happily ate delicious homemade filo parcels filled with spinach and feta, sweet and sour pork, and chorizo and pepper lasagnes. There was no bread in sight, and I was fine with that.

After each meal we all helped tidy away, wash and dry up, and set the table for the next meal, just as I remember my mum doing so three decades ago. Despite now having two children of my own, I rarely feel like a grown-up. But carrying out this activity made me feel exactly that - I was being my mum. I only wished my girls were there to witness it, and then they could hold the same memories close to them.

The round sitting room also had lots of memories for me. This time, I spent much of my time in this room, writing, and trying to give the illusion of being a fascinating and mysterious writer-type, while the other seven guests sat and read their books in silence. Breaking the silence, one guest asked me: 'Are you writing a thriller?'

Window in St David's Church
I remember sitting in this very room, aged about nine, with a massive crush on the young good looking man opposite me, who was thinking about becoming a monk, and was here to find out about monastic life. Even at such a young age I remember thinking it was a terrible waste. He was the reason I nagged my mum to let me come to Compline with her that evening, promising to be good.

The magical chanting of the cloaked monks and this young man had been almost too much for me. I was giggly and fidgety, which is probably why my exasperated mum sat us at the back of the Abbey.

During this visit, each time I went to Compline I would sit in the exact same place at the back of the Abbey. I would enter the building in darkness, apart from the faint glow of a burning candle, and sit down and wait, feeling totally at peace, and like I was in the best place in the world at that very moment. The smell of burning incense was wonderful, and the anticipation and what was about to come, overwhelming.

I would hear the stomping of the monks' sandals, and the swooshing of their white hooded robes coming down the dark corridor and into the Abbey. They each bowed low and long before taking their places in the choir stalls.

And then they began to sing, and it was spine tingling. To me they were like angels. Their heavenly sound made me shiver with happy nostalgia - it was truly magic. I felt safe and comforted being here, and it gave me such a warm glow. The words: 'As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be...' have been ringing in my ears for the last thirty years.

The Abbey
The Welsh lady pointed out Father Stephen who was now in a wheelchair and said that he was the only one left from the time I used to visit. I felt so blessed to have her here with me, and for her to be telling me these things. It brought me even closer to my memories.

As the monks' music washed over me, I hid my mobile phone in my hymn book and recorded the songs and later emailed them to my mum. I also listened to them several times before I went to sleep, in my little sandy room each night.

On the way back from Compline one evening, I was pleased to find the monastery wifi connection next to the duck pond. And so I sat on the wall in the pitch black, feeling privileged to be using the monks' wifi, but a little bit scared of the dark. The ducks noisily squabbled behind me while I uploaded some photos I had taken onto Instagram.

I could see a figure coming down the track towards me. I hoped it wasn't a hide-away convict - I had been hearing all sorts of stories about hippies, junkies, criminals and homeless people trying their luck and seeking refuge here on the island. 

Thankfully, this person turned out to be one of the other guests, who cheerily announced: 'There will be a whisky waiting for you in the library,' as he walked past me.

I quickly accepted. Before this kind offer, I had considered trying to smuggle myself into the 'Caldey Club' above the Post Office, which is only open to island residents. I could hear laughter and rowdiness as I sat there on the wall and I had been gagging for a glass of wine, so the offer of anything alcoholic was very welcome.

Post Office/Caldey Club
I also felt it would be a good opportunity to get to know the other guests. On the first night I had joined them in the round sitting room but because they were mainly talking about their African safaris, and stroking cheetahs, and their bowls clubs, and cruises, and the baby names that they hated (most of which I really liked), I'd felt out of place, so I quietly skulked off to my room, and ate a chocolate orange, and emailed my mum some photos of my bedroom.

However my whisky-fuelled library rendezvous with them that night turned out to be a lovely occasion, all of us were now relaxed and chatting freely and happily. And it appeared that even anecdotes about bowling clubs and cruises can be entertaining. I also had respect for the fact that they had smuggled a bottle of whisky into the guesthouse. And I was thrilled that one of the guests thought I was twenty-two!

On my third evening, while we ate our sweet and sour pork supper, I managed to persuade a lovely Dutch lady who I'd met on the boat (and who was the Abbot's cousin), to join me for vigils at 3.30am the following morning.

At 3am, I put my clothes on over my pyjamas and the Dutch lady and I made our way with torches in the pitch black to the Abbey church, to hear the monks chanting and praying, while the rest of the world slept. It was a special time, to be up with the monks at this unearthly hour, hearing their heavenly sounds.

I thought of my husband and my children back at home, snuggled up and fast asleep in their beds. After an hour of this, as wonderful as it was, I began to wish that I was asleep myself – in fact, I think I may have momentarily dropped off.

Observing the monks conducting this service, I couldn't help but feel sorry for them having to do this every single morning, and I wondered what was going through their minds, and whether during the winter months when no one was watching, they just stayed in bed and ate toast like normal people.

But this wasn't winter, it was still the height of summer, a time when the island would normally be awash with day trippers milling around eating ice-creams and pushing buggies. Fortunately for us ‘islanders’, the boats were cancelled because of a south-easterly wind direction. So we had the island all to ourselves, for the first three days anyway – this felt like such a massive bonus.

So I was effectively on a desert island: a magical place that the outside world couldn't get to, and indeed we couldn't get off. And it felt a real honour to be roaming this enchanted place in peace.

The lighthouse in fog
For the first couple of days I walked around the island in dense fog, and I think I pretty much covered most of it. There was a very still and misty silence all around. Not even the birds were singing. I didn't see a single living thing, apart from some chickens, ducks, pheasants, and a few monks.

At one point while I was  mooching around by the perfume shop, a monk came speeding up to me in his battered silver Ford Focus, practically screeched to a halt, wound down his window, and asked me if I was having a nice time, before speeding off again up towards the monastery. I had an urge to run after him and make him talk to me some more, but I restrained myself.

I also passed the Dutch lady and the Abbot, sitting together on a bench near the lighthouse. I was amused to see him dressed in tracksuit and trainers. And another monk, (dressed in hat, coat and gloves) was sitting at the foot of the lighthouse and gazing out to sea. I would have loved to know what he was thinking. I gave him a wave. I found all these monk sightings very exciting indeed.

During my stay, I took many strolls down memory lane - one was along a pathway, over the sand dunes and onto Priory Bay. I remembered the freedom I'd felt as child on this exact route when my mum gave me pocket money and allowed me to go to the gift shop on my own to buy myself some chocolate and a gold necklace with something holy attached to it. I made this trip many times as a child, clutching my 30 pence – the price of the monks' chocolate back then.

I walked to the end of the beach and looked at the rock that I'd once climbed and got stuck on, and had to be helped down by a tall man. Moments before getting stuck I remember seeing my mum standing in the sea, laughing (not at me, I don't think) and not realising that her bikini had shifted in the waves and was revealing all.

I visited St Illtud's Church and St David's church, and lit candles in both, for my family. I also thought about the special people in my life who have passed away.

When I tried to exit St David's church a cockerel stood menacingly in the doorway and wouldn't let me out for several minutes. After feeling very peaceful, this incident really got my heart racing. It was a bizarre foreshadowing of an incident just six months later, when our own cockerel attacked me and I slipped in the mud, breaking my leg in two places. Maybe the island was working its magic, trying to warn me. Or maybe it was just an odd coincidence.

Once I'd escaped from the cockerel, I found the gravestone of the monk I had offended all those years ago, and asked him to forgive me for hiding behind a bin. I also told him off for not giving me ice cream.

Priory Bay
Being back on the island I was overcome with happy feelings of nostalgia and emotion at every turn, and this is pretty much how I felt for my entire four-day stay. Every visit to a different corner of the island, the chapels, the beaches, the woods - every single sight and smell and feeling brought back a vivid memory for me.

On my last day the wind direction changed, the fog lifted and suddenly the island sprung back into life. The boat had made it across from Tenby and the island's crane lifted the recycling units onto the boat, and the shop workers arrived to open up the cafe, post office, perfume shop, gift shop and chocolate factory. Boxes of fresh cakes and Cornish pasties, and chocolate were loaded off the boat.

A couple of hours later the day trippers began to arrive. I sat on a table outside the now-open cafe with my latte, which admittedly after three days was a real treat, and watched the visitors slowly dribble through the village. Suddenly the island was less unique and mysterious and it felt like we were being invaded. I couldn't wait until 4.30pm when they would all have to go away again on the last boat.

And then the time came for me to say goodbye to the island. Governed by the tide, we had an early start - breakfast at 7.15am, in time for the mail boat back to the mainland at 8.20am.

Me with Brother Titus
Down at the jetty, I had my photo taken with the monk who drove the Ford Focus, who in a previous life had been a Formula 1 racing driver. Also a keen photographer, he showed me his camera, and how it can zoom in 84 times. He demonstrated this on some birds at the other end of the beach, and then gave me a big hug and a kiss goodbye.

I was then honoured to have a lovely chat with the Abbot, Father Daniel, and I felt a bit star struck. What an amazing man: insightful, humorous, clever and warm, and he loves the island so very much.

He spoke of the island's special and magical pull - the serious straight businessmen who once visited on a whim, and began play-fighting like children on the green, for example.

In answer to my earlier ponderings about the 3.30am start, the Abbot told me that vigils was his favourite part of the day, 'so new and pure.' He told me that he'd seen me there on Sunday and I was secretly thrilled that he had noticed.

We spoke of Belmont Abbey where my mum and dad got married and where my grandparents are buried; the men that arrive on Caldey but get cold feet about becoming monks and leave again; my sneaky trip down to Sandtop Bay; noisy day-trippers disrupting their services; and camping in Tenby.

The Abbot boarded the boat with us, and we sailed away from Caldey in choppy waters. I watched the island get smaller and smaller, and I felt a deep sense of fulfilment, and happiness, but also sadness that I was saying goodbye. But I knew that one day I would be back to re-live the magical memories, past and present, that this otherworldly island has given me.

And as I headed home to see my beautiful family, I felt truly blessed. Despite being on the island alone, the whole trip had somehow brought me even closer to them (as if that was even possible).

The forbidden Sandtop Bay
One memory lingered with me on the journey home. On my ramblings one foggy day, I was thrilled to see that they had re-opened part of the island that had been closed off since the times we used to come and stay. I came upon a big open track that lead to Sandtop Bay - and even though I hadn't been on this part of the island for many many years, it was so unbelievably familiar, and it made me feel very nostalgic indeed. The last time I walked this track was as a nine year old, full of excitement about the steep bank we were about to scramble down to get to Sandtop Bay, the secret beach that Father Joseph had shown us, and a beach that was now out of bounds for health and safety reasons.

Ignoring the 'No public access' sign, I scrambled over the stone wall and struck out through the long grass. I reached the edge of the cliff and peered over, and there it was, the beach that I remembered as if it were yesterday. The familiar rocks in the middle of the sand, the steep pathway down to it, and the caves off to the side.

At the bottom I felt exhilarated and triumphant. I was the only one in the world on this forbidden beach, a beach that held so many wonderful memories and was so special to me. I remembered, as a small girl, feeling happy and sandy and sunburnt while playing by the rocks and finding tiny special shells I had only ever seen on this beach. For a little while, my younger self and the presence of my mum merged with me, there was no distinction between us, just the spirit of my family moving slowly over the sand in search of treasure.

4 comments:

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Past Life Regression said...

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Single With Kids said...

This really is one of the UK's hidden treasures. I only discovered Pembroke 5 years ago and it's now an annual pilgrimage for us. The beaches are simply amazing (we stay near the award winning Barafundle Bay)and it's far from the madding crowds of Cornwall. Well recommended, though on the other hand, perhaps it's worth keeping it just for ourselves? :-)

Elsie Button said...

Pembrokeshire is my absolute favourite place - so beautiful - we go at every opportunity! Am so glad you have discovered it! X