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Travel and retreats: Across the water

30 January 2015

Christine Miles picks five islands perfect for pilgrimages and retreats


Haven: the abbey looks over the Sound of Iona

Haven: the abbey looks over the Sound of Iona


IONA is often referred to as "the cradle of Christianity in Scotland". It was on this island, off the south-west coast of Mull, in the Inner Hebrides, that the Irish missionary monk St Columba landed in his coracle in AD 563, before establishing a monastery here.

Today, parts of Columba's monastery complex, laid waste in a Viking raid in 802, can still be seen. It is also the site of the now restored Iona Abbey.

The permanent population is about 120, but an estimated 130,000 people visit every year. Accommodation includes a hostel, two hotels, B&Bs, self-catering cottages, and a campsite. Retreatants can book to stay at Bishop's House, owned by the Scottish Episcopal Church diocese of Argyll & The Isles.

The retreat house offers some led retreats and open weeks throughout the year, but otherwise provides services and meals for groups organising their own retreat. Guests can attend regular daily services in the chapel and at Iona Abbey.

Alternatively, it is possible to stay on a programmed retreat week with the Iona community at the refurbished abbey: in dorms for two to five people (March to December), or in the MacLeod Centre, in rooms accommodating five to seven (April to September).


Iona is a ten-minute ferry ride with Caledonian MacBrayne from Fionnphort, on the Isle of Mull. Caledonian MacBrayne (www.calmac.co.uk) also operates the 46-minute ferry line from the Scottish mainland (Oban) to Craignure (Mull), which connects with buses and trains to Glasgow and elsewhere. Visitors cannot take cars on to Iona unless a permit has been obtained from Argyll and Bute Council (phone 01631 569160). For the Iona community's 2015 programme visit www.iona.org.com.

For Bishop's House (open March to October for full-board guests, or available to self-catering groups of up to 23 from November to February), phone 01681 700111, or visit www.island-retreats.org.


ACROSS the water from Largs, on the Ayrshire coast in western Scotland, is the Isle of Cumbrae. It has just one town, Millport. It is home to the smallest cathedral in Britain, the Cathedral of The Isles.

In about AD 710, the Irish monk and missionary St Mirin is said to have arrived, and rid the island of snakes. Today, modern-day saints can flock to the College of the Holy Spirit, a retreat house belonging to the diocese of Argyll & The Isles.

The College is a VisitScotland three-star-rated B&B, and offers 16 rooms, including five en suites (one with disabled access), a library, and two lounges. The Cathedral of The Isles is open every day for services and reflection, and the shared college and cathedral grounds offer eight acres for added contemplation.

Cumbrae has a circumference road that is popular with cyclists (bikes can be hired on the island). Other natural attractions include a resident seal colony at the Eileans (two islands in the bay), and occasional sightings of dolphins, porpoises, and basking sharks.

The College of the Holy Spirit runs a programme of retreats; and also welcomes bookings for individual and group retreats.


Cumbrae is one hour from Glasgow by train (Glasgow to Largs), and is served by two international airports (Glasgow and Prestwick). A bus runs to within 500 yards of the College of the Holy Spirit from the ferry. For more details, phone the college on 01475 530353, or visit www.island-retreats.org/cumbrae.

Bardsey Island

BARDSEY ISLAND (Ynys Enlli), off the coast of the Llŷn Peninsula, in north-west Wales, has been a place of pilgrimage and retreat since the Breton nobleman St Cadfan came here on retreat and founded a monastery in the sixth century.

This tiny island - it is only 0.6 miles long and one mile wide - became a focal point for the Celtic Church in Wales; and drew many monks here to seek a life of prayer.

In about 1200, the monks of Enlli joined the Augustinian Canons Order, who built the 13th-century Augustinian abbey of St Mary's. The abbey remained in use until the dissolution of the monasteries, and today, its roofless tower is the oldest standing building on the island, and is available for informal open-air services. A chapel (built in 1875) is also open to retreatants and groups for worship and meditation.

Those wanting to use Bardsey as a base for retreat can book to stay in one of ten self-catering cottages owned by the Bardsey Island Trust (which bought the island in 1979). And clergy on retreat who are willing to act as island chaplain for their week or two's stay can book Llofft Carreg Fawr, a former hermitage (a maximum of two people per stay).

As a retreat getaway, Bardsey will not disappoint. Declared a National Nature Reserve in 1986, mainly owing to its location on migration routes for many birds, Bardsey has no street lamps, roads, or cars to distract, and has more than 400 types of lichen, as well as seals, dolphins, porpoises, and whales in its waters.


Ferry services to Bardsey Island are operated from Porth Meudwy, depending on the weather. Visit Barsey Island Trust's website for details (www.bardsey.org). Bursaries for clergy retreats are available from the Carreg Trust, which also administers bookings of Llofft Carreg Fawr on behalf of the Bardsey Island Trust. For details phone 0151 608 4236, or email pam.c.hollinshead@googlemail.com. www.carregtrust.blogspot.co.uk

Caldey Island

VARIOUS orders of monks lived on Caldey Island, in Pembrokeshire, from Celtic times until the dissolution of the monasteries. But, in 1906, Anglican Benedictines bought Caldey, and built the island's beautiful Italianate monastery, now Grade II listed.

Today, the little village that grew up around the monastery has a post office, and a religious-book and gift shop.

There are a few self-catering facilities available on the island. But individuals and groups on retreat can book to stay at St Philomena's retreat house, which offers full-board stays from Easter to the end of October on a donation basis.

Alternatively, up to six men at a time can book to stay at the monastic guest-house, sharing meals with the monks and the abbey church's seven short daily services.

Other religious buildings of note on the island include the Old Priory, and St David's, with its Norman architecture, Celtic foundations, watchtower chapel, and sea view.

Caldey is a haven for seabirds. It also has Priory Beach - one of the best beaches in Pembrokeshire.


A fleet of boats runs to Caldey Island from Tenby harbour (Monday to Friday, Easter to end of October; Saturday, May to September). Crossings are weather-dependent (www.tourist-information-

uk.com/caldey-island.htm). For retreat accommodation, phone the Guestmaster on 07511 392658, or email guest.retreats@gmail.com. www.caldey-island.co.uk

Lindisfarne (Holy Island)

LYING just off the Northumberland coast is the island of Lindisfarne. Three miles long and 1½ mile wide, it is linked to the mainland by a causeway, and is cut off from the rest of the world twice a day by tidal water.

St Aidan, an Irish monk from Columba's monastery on Iona, established a monastery here in AD 635, at the invitation of the Northumbrian king, Oswald. It became the base for the conversion of the northern kingdoms, and a great centre of learning.

It was St Cuthbert, however, who joined the monastery some time in the 670s, who became the most famous bishop-monk of Lindisfarne, and sealed the island's fate as a centre of pilgrimage. Today, the parish church of St Mary's is believed to stand on the site of St Aidan's original monastery.

Lindisfarne Priory, which was re-established in Norman times, and is now located to the east of St Mary's, is a miniature version of the Romanesque Durham Cathedral.

Pilgrims flock to the island, particularly in summer. For those who stay, there are several retreat houses. One of them, Marygate House, welcomes up to 25 people in 14 rooms, in two Georgian properties on the island (retreatants stay on a donation basis). It is also possible to volunteer to help out at the houses, staying from two weeks to a year.

The Open Gate, run by the Community of Aidan and Hilda, offers organised retreats as well as accommodating individuals and groups.

The island, its tidal mudflats, salt marshes, and dunes, form the Lindisfarne National Nature Reserve, and attract visiting birds from thousands of miles away.

Just offshore is St Cuthbert's Isle, the site of the seventh-century hermitage used by Cuthbert and his successors as a retreat.


Within one mile of leaving the A1 at Beal, Northumberland, the narrow road to Holy Island reaches the start of the causeway. There are tide tables at the side of the road, and a small car-park. For Holy Island crossing times, visit www.northumberland.gov.uk. By rail, the nearest station is Berwick-upon-Tweed, on the London (King's Cross) to Edinburgh GNER line. A bus service operates from the station to the island, as do several taxi services.

For more information about Marygate retreats, phone 01289 389246, or email marygate.house@gmail.com.

For information about the Open Gate, phone 01289 389222, or email opengate@aidanandhilda.org.uk.

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