I was 25 when I first visited the Welsh island of Caldey. Having spent the majority of my childhood holidays encountering the best and the worst of Pembrokeshire’s coastal weather, it seems odd to me now not to have made a crossing sooner. Ferried on one of the summer tourist boats leaving the South West town of Tenby, my family and I spent half a day roaming the little island and the buildings of its still-active monastery, crossing back to the mainland before sundown. Of that trip I remember swallows nesting above low chapel lintels, harsh cross winds on the dramatic headland and a dense mat of wildflowers softening rock faces that overlooked the Irish Sea. The brief visit left a lasting impression and when I returned, two years later, it was on the postman’s boat with provisions for a two night stay.
‘Only once can one tread new ground for the first time’, reflected ornithologist and great hopper-of-islands, Robert Atkinson. His remark documented the much anticipated experience of setting foot on the outcast, North Atlantic Scottish island of Rona. ‘Each new area was a precious exploration’, he recorded in his 1949 travel account, Island Going. Although it wasn’t my first visit to Caldey Island, during the course of that two night stay I do recall sharing in Atkinson’s sentiment. ‘All this will soon be familiar’; and each new discovery forged a lasting, personal acquaintance. Staying at the monastery guesthouse I spent my three days getting to know the island. Landmarks became quickly familiar: the headland lighthouse, a range of hard to reach bays, drystone walls dividing skylark-sprung fields, the monasterial wood; an eerie thicket of bolted sycamore and dense cedar, encircled by thorny gorse and a crumbling wall. On my final morning, curious to experience a coastal dawn chorus, I persuaded myself up in the small hours and walked, moonlit, to a shallow cave on the east face of the island. The walk meant passing through the wood at night: an experience equally elating as it was hair-raising. This event alone, so otherworldly in contrast to life back in London, was enough to promote my Caldey jaunts to an annual fixture.
There’s a long history uniting monastic life and botany, and where better to endeavour both practices than on a seclusive, untempered island. Although Caldey’s monks occupy themselves today with less botanical enterprises (such as the production of gift chocolate and perfume) the quiet, unobtrusive nature of their presence on the island chimes well with the resident wildlife. Across its modest 500 acres, Caldey boasts an unlikely range of habitats, playing host to a wealth of inhabitants. Avian rarities like the red-beaked chough are often spotted, spinning down to cliff edges populated with fulmars, razorbills and oystercatchers. Sea-campion and Devil’s-bit Scabious bloom colourfully on the sloping field margins while tracts of butterbur (Petasites fragrans) can be found running through damp courses in the wood. Across my visits I’ve attempted to note down the wildlife I encounter and the list continues to grow. During one spring visit I came by the pinky-red spires of Gladiolus byzantinus protruding from cracks along one of the inland stone walls. To what degree their orientation had been the result of human intervention I couldn’t say, however these Mediterranean natives have long naturalised in Britain, and here appeared very much at home among Caldey’s indigenous flora.
As a gardener I will concede that plants straddling the horticultural divide between the wild and the cultivated are those I often find most attractive. A sense of how one might apply a plant to a domestic setting can add greatly to its appeal. As one of horticulture’s geographical mongrels, the Byzantine gladiolus sits comfortably in many styles of garden, mucking in with formal planting as happily as it does wilder, more naturalistic schemes.
In the past I’ve found that weaving them through high grass or meadow achieves particularly affecting results, adding spikes of magenta among similarly upright, linear plants. Corms can be purchased online from suppliers such as J. Parker’s (www.jparkers.co.uk) all the way through the winter, and once planted will typically flower between May and June. For me this simple, unostentatious species of gladioli has become a lively reminder of the wilder places in my life.
Words by Matt Collins