Building » Caldey Island – Abbey Church of Our Lady and St Samson

Caldey Island – Abbey Church of Our Lady and St Samson

Caldey Island, off Tenby, SA70 7UH

The Abbey church is an integral but relatively modest part of the monastic complex at Caldey Island, which was designed by John Coates Carter and is recognised as the most important early twentieth century complex of buildings in Wales influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. Built in 1909-10, the neo-Romanesque church was gutted by fire in 1940 and restored in 1951. Originally richly fitted up, it now has simple furnishings installed by the Cistercians.

A fuller outline of the development history of the Caldey Abbey monastic community is set out in the list description below. Very briefly, Caldey was established as an Anglican Benedictine priory under Abbot Aelred Carlyle in 1906. In 1913 most of the community was received en bloc into the Roman Catholic Church. However, it overreached itself financially and in 1928 decided to withdraw, relocating to Prinknash in Gloucestershire. The island was then purchased by a branch of the Cistercian order from the Belgian house of Chimay, an austere offshoot of that Benedictine order known as the Trappists, who took up residence in 1929. The priory became independent of Chimay and was raised to the status of an abbey in 1959.

In 1906 ambitious plans were prepared for the Anglican community by a novice in the community John C. Hawes (who trained as an architect and had a varied and colourful life, ending his days as a hermit on Cat Island in the Bahamas). The writer and illustrator Peter Anson (himself later a novice at Caldey) recalled in The Tablet:

‘…the plans and perspectives of an Abbey Gate House and Guest House, designed by Mr Hawes, which aroused my seventeen-year-old enthusiasm as a student of the Architectural Association. Even more exciting was a small bird’s eye sketch of a great Abbey, with a large apsidal-ended church, two transepts, three towers and an enormous cloister garth, which the ever optimistic Dom Aelred expected would begin to rise within a few years’.

Hawes’ plans were not realised, and while the abbey complex as designed by John Coates Carter is not exactly modest, the church (built in 1909-10) is relatively simple, originally intended to be temporary, and does not form a conspicuous feature of the large complex. It originally had a rich complement of furnishings, including a high altar constructed of stones from medieval Benedictine houses, with an elaborate painted reredos; some were removed at the departure of the Benedictines in 1928, while the remainder were lost when the church was gutted by fire in 1940. It was restored and austerely refitted by the monks and reopened for worship in 1951. No architect has been identified for this restoration. The buildings were repaired and re-roofed in 2002-4 with the help of substantial grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund and Cadw (architects Acanthus Holden). The monastery buildings are still occupied by the Cistercians and are not accessible to the general public.


See list description below, where those parts relating to the abbey church are highlighted in bold.

The abbey church stands at the rear south east corner of the main abbey complex. The building is not orientated; the liturgical east end faces to the west. All directions in the following description are liturgical.

The plan comprises a long nave and a short lower sanctuary under pitched roofs with a tower part way along the north side. The external walls are faced with whitewashed roughcast, with dressings and window surrounds of grey stone; the roofs are covered in plain tiles. The gabled west end has a round-arched main doorway with a rose window with plate tracery above. On the south side is a lean-to addition made in the 1950s in the form of an aisle, terminating in the tower. Above the addition are five small rounded-headed windows with a further two windows beyond the tower. The tower itself is battered with paired windows at belfry level. On the north side of the church is a parallel range containing a statio or assembly room which terminates at the west with an apsidal end belonging to a former chapter house. The small sanctuary was apparently converted from a former sacristy in the 1950s.

The interior is austere, as befitting a Cistercian house, with a woodblock floor, plastered walls and a timber hammerbeam roof. There is a timber west gallery. The small windows high in the wall are mostly clear glazed. In the body of the church are some stalls on both sides with panelled backs. In the east wall of the nave is a round arch leading to the sanctuary. The area in front of the sanctuary is raised two steps above the level of the nave and has an altar made of a single massive stone block. The sanctuary is raised a further two steps and has a modern stone altar set in a recess in the east end wall.

List description

Reference Number: 17324
Grade: II*  
Date of Designation: 23/09/1996  
Date of Amendment: 28/03/2002  
Name of Property: Caldey Abbey  
Unitary Authority: Pembrokeshire  
Community: Tenby  
Town: Tenby  
Locality: Caldey Village  
Easting: 214173  
Northing: 196605  
Location: On hillside above the village, about 500m SE of the harbour.  

History: Roman Catholic abbey built 1910-15 to designs by John Coates Carter of Cardiff. Built for the first ever community of Anglican monks, established in 1896 by B F Carlyle, who took the name Dom Aelred. The community followed the Benedictine rule, and was backed by the ‘high church’ or Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England. It first came to Caldey in 1901-2, invited by the owner, the Rev W D Bushell, but left for lack of funds. Support from leading Anglo-Catholics allowed the purchase of the island in 1906, and then began a small programme of building, but one with very ambitious intentions A first cottage-scale temporary range was eventually incorporated into the present quadrangular monastery, itself intended to become a boys preparatory school when a much larger monastery should be built on the higher ground to the SW. In the event the sequence of building was more piecemeal and stopped in 1913 when the monks were received into the Roman church, after the Anglican authorities took alarm at the increasingly elaborate rituals practised by the community. £68,014 17s 10d (£68,014.89) was estimated to have spent by 1913, including buying the island. Rising debts led to the community being moved to Prinknash, Gloucestershire in 1928, and the island was purchased by the Reformed Cistercian community of Chimay, Belgium. A fire on September 25, 1940 destroyed the older cottage part of the monastery (S range of cloister) and gutted the Abbey church, which was restored in 1951. The Monastery was raised to the status of Abbey in 1959. The sequence of building was that a row of cottages was built in 1907, to be used temporarily by the community. A chapel (the present abbey church) was added on the E end in 1909-10, and quickly filled with elaborate fittings, although still intended to be temporary. It was then decided to extend this S range into a quadrangular monastery. In 1910 the chapter house and statio (assembly room) were added to the chapel, and the abbot’s house begun to the W. The plans for the E, W and N ranges, drawn up in 1911, were broadly completed, around a cloister. The W range had the refectory with NW kitchen tower over bakery and laundry. A near-detached private chapel for the abbot was added in the angle between the W range and the abbot’s house. The N range had two floors of monks’ cells, ground floor offices and washroom, and basement workshops, with NE corner block of library, teaching and study rooms. This block was simplified in execution for lack of funds. The E range was most simplified for lack of funds. Intended to have had a complex of guest rooms E of the cloister, only an entrance facade into the cloister was built, with lawns where the guest rooms were to have been. Work finished around 1915. The elaborate fittings were either removed in 1928 or lost in the 1940 fire. Small items survive at Prinknash and elsewhere. The cottage range W of the chapel was never rebuilt after the fire, the front wall remains as the rear wall of the S cloister. The roofs were retiled in 2000-1 and some lost features restored, under Peter Holden, architect. The buildings represent the most important complex of buildings built in Wales influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement of the early C20.  

Exterior: Abbey buildings, whitewashed roughcast, with red tile dressings in the form of sills, string-courses and arched hoods to windows. Red tiled roofs with prominent roughcast stacks. Free early C20 Arts & Crafts style with influences from Mediterranean and Romanesque Europe. Windows are either small-paned timber casements or leaded lights. Built around a cloister garth with church at SE corner, former abbot’s house and private chapel at SW corner, refectory to W, kitchen and laundry at NW corner, monk’s cells and offices over basement workshops in N range, with staircase, library and study room at NE corner. Single-storey E entrance facade, set back, in lawned courtyard, 3 bays, with arched main door in projecting centre with stepped parapet, and shallow curved oriel each side with tiny stone-framed window. Nogged brick string course right across, under empty narrow niche in parapet. Piers each side of doorway are in red and white chequerwork, arch is in brick. To R, a narrow link bay with small arched light, and then at right angles, S gable of library block with 3 stepped arched windows in gable, and 2 plain windows below; E side has gabled dormer with triple casement over 3 large arched windows. Forecourt has pergola on S, and single-storey N range parallel to church. Four casement pair windows under eaves to right, lighting statio, 4 tiny stone arched lights to left and 2 in apsed end, lighting chapter-room. Abbey church entrance faces E, with octofoil rose window, big Romanesque doorway with recessed inner arch, irregular quoins to jambs, and similar irregular quoins to angles, all in grey stone. S side has arched stone single-light windows at upper level, 2 to right shorter, lighting gallery, and 4 longer, over lean-to aisle added 1950 with 5 small arched windows and doorway to left. Sheer battered S tower, also roughcast, has pairs of stone bell-lights and parapet with minimal crenellation. Nave to left of tower has 2 round windows set high at eaves, and lower chancel (created in 1950 from former sacristy) has triplet of small arched lights. Blank rear wall of cloister S range with attached shed is remnant of the cottage range burnt in 1940. Former abbot’s house at SW corner is nearly free-standing with double roof running E-W (a tall chimney in the valley has gone). E front has stone quoins to left, 2 leaded windows in left gable above tiled lean-to each side of tall roughcast square porch with parapet and arched entry. Plank door with ornate hinges and latch within. Lean-to has hipped roof at left corner over chamfered corner window. S side has fine 2-storey gabled bay to left with chamfered angles and leaded lights flush with wall face. 4 lights to front, 1 to angle and 2 to sides, ground floor with two transoms. At SW angle a very tall thin circular stair-tower with tiny arched lights beneath flared conical copper roof (originally tiled with a timber belvedere balcony). W side has 2 gables, 5 leaded paired windows to first floor, a very broad arched window to ground floor left and 3 small stone arched lights to right. Quoins at left angle. On N wall, another round tower with conical copper roof, lower and broader than SW tower, containing external entrance to the abbot’s chapel, arched upper lights and arched doorway with stone jambs with small window to right, plank door. Chapel has apsidal ends to both walls and roof, louvred lantern on ridge, and row of 5 small grey stone arched lights under eaves. W refectory has basement storey, big roughcast N end stack with triple shafts, and slim round turret on centre of W wall with tiled conical roof. Two large plate-glass arched windows above (formerly with leaded glazing) lighting refectory. Red-tile sill course and linked arched hoods. Basement has broad brick arched window to left of turret. To left, a short link with hipped roof against refectory N gable, flat dormer, 2 C20 windows to upper floor and one arched basement window. Rainwater head dated 1913. NW prominent octagonal 2-storey kitchen with elaborate 2-stage roof, clerestorey glazing between stages, and louvred spired lantern above. Tall roughcast chimney with 2 round shafts to S. Large round-headed plate glass windows at each level (originally leaded) with linked tile hoods and sills. Short projecting lower N block has hipped lean-to roof and 4-light casement to upper floor on both W and E faces. Against N face is big covered external stair up from the N service court, with sloping tiled roof and 4 stepped arched openings on N. N range, set high above rock-face, is of 3 storeys plus attics. Full-height basement has massive red brick broad arches, ground floor has narrow arched windows with brick sill course and tile arched hoods linked by string course, and top floor has similar sill and string courses linking arches, windows are in pairs with stone jambs and centre pier. Massive hipped roof with end gablets and roughcast tall stacks, at left end, and on front roof slope. Six dormers of between 2 and 8 lights, 5 flat-roofed with pendants to cornices, the 4th with the main chimney rising through, the 6th with pyramid roof restored in 2001. Another tiny pyramid-roofed dormer restored on left end. Nine pairs of windows to 2nd floor to left of a bay with arched stair lights at intermediate heights. One pair and a single light to right. Ground floor has close-spaced group of 6 narrow lights with joined hoods to left, then 7 wider-spaced windows, and a pair of windows to right of stair lights. Basement has 5 broad half-round brick arches on low stone jambs of massive rock-faced stone blocks, and one narrower doorway with taller jambs to left of stair bay and another similar narrower arch to right, this one with stonework of left jamb also encompassing an arched doorway. Timber mullion and transom glazing with leaded lights. Stair bay has two arched lights, each with head breaking through sill course of a main floor level and tiled hood. To right, in angle to octagonal kitchen tower is a small room at ground floor level, corbelled out with chamfered NE angle. To L of main N range, gabled library block is set back, 3 storeys with buttresses framing basement and ground floors. Basement has 3 arched windows, first floor has double brick string course under 3 tiny arched windows with tiny roundels above, while gable has 3 stepped leaded arched windows as on S gable end.  

Interior: Cloister garth has 2 broad lunette openings each side with brick arches and leaded glazing. Stone sill course right around, and N range has arched centre doorway in massive rock-faced stone and brick steps down to grass. Stone jambs of window each side are carried down to ground framing 5 small basement lights below string course. Lavabo bay in NW corner with bell-cast pyramid roof and stone small lights. Stained glass by Dom Bede Bailey. N range has flat-roofed dormers as on N front, paired first floor windows with sill course and impost band linking paired hoods. Other 3 ranges have lean-to roofs. Some stained glass by Dom Bede Bailey. Refectory has elaborate 6-bay open timber roof with cambered tie-beam trusses on corbels, the bracing a full semi-circle under thin collar. Windbracing in 2 tiers. Fine large hooded fireplace to N wall with splayed stone jambs and timber lintel. The statue of St Michael formerly on the hood is now at Prinknash. Tiled hoods to windows and to arch over pulpit in W wall. Pulpit has panelled timber front above top of wooden wall panelling. Stepped triple window above S dais end. Blank tympanum over arched doorway to left of fireplace to kitchen. Kitchen has elaborate conical arch-braced roof with oculus. Simple wood fittings and remarkable glass tile wall cladding. Simple aisleless church has interior of 1949-51. Thin hammerbeam roof, gallery to E, round-headed arch to sanctuary. Chancel N window with monogram ABC. To N, the parallel statio has fine arched scissor-braced trusses and wind-braces to roof, at E end massive stone doorway with monolith jambs and lintel, plinth and impost stones and relieving arch. This opens into former chapter house with similar roof and apsidal end. Arched door with fine wrought iron hinges from cloister to statio. Abbot’s chapel has barrel vault, apse to each end, stone jambs to arches, and stone cornice. Oak panelling to c 2m high, oak plank doors with wrought iron hinges and good metal fittings. Stone arched piscina and shelf. Stained glass (not made at Caldey) with 6 figures associated with the Benedictine order (Benedict, Bruno, Romuald, John Gualbert, Bernard Ptolemy and Bernard of Tiron). Black and white marble floor. The elaborate fittings have been removed: it has an alabaster altar with tabernacle. Circular porch has stone piscina. Former abbot’s house main room has exposed ceiling beams, oak panelling to c 2m high, round-headed doors to cupboards, kitchen and hallway, with good door fittings. Large fireplace with decorated cornice, wooden beam corbelled from stone jambs. Arch to bay window with carved oak seat. Stained glass roundel by Dom Bede Bailey. Adjacent kitchen (originally abbot’s private secretary’s room) has oak doors to full-height cupboards with strap hinges. Stair hall with open-well oak stair, square newels with ball finials. Main newel has obelisk finial with flat top. First floor panelled doors, fireplaces with tiled cheeks in single-colour tiles. Corner room has arched door to turret. Turret is of concrete with semi-circular cast concrete landings up to observation level. NE library block has stained glass window of St Ambrose, by Dom Bede Bailey, in former scriptorium to ground floor; novices room above has scissor-braced roof. Stair adjoining to N block long corridors with cells to each side on first and attic levels. Plain stairs with ball-finials to newels.  

Reason for designation: Graded II* as striking complex of buildings with high quality architectural detailing and massing in a unique location.

Heritage Details

Architect: John Coates Carter

Original Date: 1910

Conservation Area: Yes

Listed Grade: Grade II*