And so the last day of sabbatical dawned. Looking out of the window the skies were still leaden there would certainly be no morning boat but, if the weather cleared, there may possibly be one in the afternoon. A slightly Agatha Christie atmosphere descended over the place, the kind of scenario where three people get stranded on an island and can’t off for weeks on end. It seemed strangely ironic that by now we had set foot on 25 different islands and travelled thousands of miles but it wasn’t until the final leg that we really discovered how unpredictable life can be with only a small boat to connect you to the mainland even though the stretch of water from Tenby to Caldey was one of the shortest we had crossed. Suitcases stood ready, packed in anticipation and we spent the morning reading and looking out of the window for any signs of a lift in the clouds.
At mid-day we went across to the Abbey for worship and found the service of Sext did indeed bring calm to our spirits. However by now we were well and truly ready to get off the island.
Over lunch we heard that there would be an afternoon boat and at 2.45 p.m. we assembled at the jetty ready for one final short sea crossing. As we made our way to the boat and took some photos we reflected on the unique nature of Caldey, the unusual architecture of the monastery buildings,
the cold war era amphibious landing craft now used by the monks to cross to the mainland at Tenby during exceptionally low tides, the anchor which greets visitors on the way up from the harbour (inspiring a spontaneous rendering of Will your anchor hold in the storms of life from my other half, and no he hadn’t had a drink!).
Also the sense of beauty, tranquillity and prayerfulness pervading the island.
Our return trip took us past St Catherine’s island with its fortress built in 1870 to repel the forces of Napoleon III. The fort’s interesting history includes a period in the early 1900s when it was used as a private family home with the gun shields being replaced by windows and the interior lavishly decorated. During the 2nd World War it was again used for defense and more recently The Final Problem in the BBC series Sherlock was partly filmed on St Catherine’s Island.
We arrived in Tenby with its bustling streets and visitors and were immediately struck by being thrust back into civilization. Soon we were on our way home to Somerset it was strange to think that now we were back for good for a while. I have to confess to having enjoyed our rather vagabond lifestyle. The past 3 months had brought variety, freedom and opportunities to see new places, meet new people, to listen and share stories. I also realized how much I would miss seeing the sea, our island adventures certainly hadn’t got the love of the sea and boats out of my blood. Other things I looked forward to, there’s nothing like sleeping in your own bed and having a reliable shower not to mention the luxury of a bath and a washing machine! It was good to catch up with friends and discover what had been happening in the parishes during the time we were away. We had left at mid-summer it was now early autumn and a host of harvest services beckoned. Some things had changed during our time away, others including the obsession in the news with Brexit, remained depressingly the same.
It’s amazing how quickly three months can go. On our return some people didn’t quite seem to realize that we’d even been away whilst others thought we’d be away for longer. ‘I thought you were off for 6 months’ somebody said, perhaps that was wishful thinking! Another lovely person obviously having misheard what I said thought the whole project had been about Ireland rather than islands. There were of course many questions the most popular one being ‘which was your favourite island?’ Each time I try to answer this it becomes more impossible because every place was individual in its landscape, community and history.
One of the things that particularly struck me was the warm hospitality we received throughout our travels, also people willing to stop and chat even when they were busy and for this I can only thank them. It has been a wonderful and incredible journey but we’re not quite done.
In the final section of the blog ‘Looking back’ I will weave together some further reflections relating to the spirituality of the islands we have visited. But as a little prequel let me end with the words of one of the great Celtic saints, Columbanus and the words of a more contemporary poet.
Here Columbanus reminds us that the whole of creation is satiated with the divine presence:
‘See no farther concerning God; for those who wish to know the great deep must first review the natural world. For the knowledge of the Trinity is properly likened to the depths of the sea, according to the sayings of the Sage: And the great deep, who shall find it out? If a man wishes to know the deepest ocean of divine knowledge, let him first scan that visible sea’
A Christian Theology of Place. p79
©John Inge. Ashgate Publishing Ltd 2003.
O, THE gray rocks of the islands and the hemlock green above them,
The foam beneath the wild rose bloom, the star above the shoal.
When I am old and weary I’ll wake my heart to love them,
For the blue ways of the islands are wound about my soul
From Three Island Songs
by Marjorie Lowry Christie Pickthall