The Isles are alive with the smell of… Caldey Island Lavender The Last of The Summer Scents III

Long before this simple, eloquent, exquisite near soliflore scent became something approaching sought after, it was the stuff of childhood memories for The Dandy.

Years (too many years) ahead of its being spoken of as the finest lavender perfume in the world, it was a cherished reminder of innocent seaside times and strange, solitary figures living out to sea.

Caldey Island sits in the North Atlantic just a few miles off shore from the town of Tenby.

Tenby itself is the nearest place temperamentally, not only in the county of Pembrokeshire but perhaps in the country as a whole, to the lost coastal resorts of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

It is a place of picture post card beauty and impish fun.

With its two glorious sandy beaches, one to the south: a vast lick of sand extending gradually to the sea; the other to the north, backed by short cliffs and enclosing a deep harbour at high tide; its pastel painted B&Bs (our equivalent of Italian Pensiones); it’s old town walls; tumble down castle; cobble streets; amusement arcades and ice cream parlours, Tenby is the epitome of what was once ‘The Great British Seaside’, oddities and all.

These peculiarities included until the 1980s a tiny zoo in an abandoned army fortress wedged on a island dividing the bays, a place that once supplied the town with the noise of wild animals to go with the crashing of waves.

And to this day, most pertinently to our perfume ready palattes, there is the other great curiosity: the little Island of Caldey, its Abbey and Monastery.

One of the British Isles ‘Holy Islands’ Caldey is part of a tradition dating back to Celtic times, a landmark of early Christianity at the North Western fringes of Europe.

From the sixth century right through to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536 various orders of monks flourished here, the most successful being the Benedictines who established a Priory in the 12th century.

Indeed it was an order of Anglican Benedictines that re-established the settlement in 1910 commissioning the architect John Coates Carter to create a collection of buildings in the Arts and Crafts style widely believed to be the most complete surviving to this day.

Sadly, the Bendictines second tenure was not to prove so successful, perhaps it was to do with Anglicanism’s difficult relationship with the monastic life. No matter the cause, funds soon dried up and the order was forced to sell in 1929.

In another part of the world, or at a another time it’s possible that this fairytale structure might have become a rich man’s folly… a San Simeon, Hearst Castle or Vizcaya transported to the North Atlantic.

But, happily, it was not to be… the holiness of the place endured as it had done before.

An order of Cistercians, Trappists from Belgium, took over the Island and brought with them their ideals of the nobility of manual labour and self sufficiency, their near silence and skills in the art of creating luxuries out of patient endeavour.

Elsewhere in the world Trappists would become associated most closely with brewing, but here they are makers of chocolate, cheese, shortbread and, most supremely, scent.

The early years of very few children of my generation in Wales would have been complete without some kind of trip to Tenby.

Weather it be an end-of-term school excursion, summer vacation or Bank Holiday expedition, in all probability at different times all three, the journey was made.

And once, at least once, the call of the ocean would prove too much and the brave little boats that make the crossing to Caldey would be boarded and the partial pilgrimage undertaken.

The aim always was to catch a glimpse of the reclusive holy men, who go about their business mainly out of sight, ministering to those on retreat and tending their gardens and island-sized industries.

Of course, if they proved elusive there was always the produce to be sampled.

Most children wanted the chocolate, most grown ups the shortbread. Cheese was as yet unfashionable.

Though I could, just about, be bought off by the above, even then it was the perfume I was really after.

Both my grandfathers had gardens replete with nature’s bounty, floral and vegetal, but neither, for some reason I still don’t fully understand, neither had any lavender. Perhaps it was too continental, not decorative enough, un-useful.

Whatever the reason, the effect was to render the plant somehow magical, existing as it did only invisibly, inside the lavender bags that relatives would sow by hand and present to my grandmother as gifts, only for the perfumed pockets to find their way into my bed, to nestle under my pillow.

Lavender was a vision on the side of packets of talcum powder and special soaps for summer holidays, a line drawing on labels glued to purple jelly bubble baths or creamy lilac-coloured body lotions.

Lavender was an enigma.

Cadley Island was where lavender became real.

Not that I remember great fields of it there, like those I would see later in Provence at the Abbaye de Senanque. Indeed, I don’t believe they have them, not on that scale anyway.

No, Caldey was where the great purple aromatic would become abstractly alive.

It was the scent of lavender that would speak to my infant heart.

And it had that heart in an instant.

From the moment of entering the Island’s perfume shop doubling as a Post Office, I was head over heals, in a passion with the smell.

It was the beginning of a life long affair, a love that would take me to the South of France, Suffolk, Spain, and scent shops just about everywhere in search of a perfume as pure and wonderful as that first spray in the shadow of the Abbey.

But the simple fact is, there isn’t one.

Like an Yves Klein painting that defines the colour blue by being exclusively it, so Caldey Island’s lavender inhabits the scent completely.

It is a different kind of lavender, an absolute in the essential sense.

Perhaps the note should have its own name: “International Caldey Lavender”.

The Dandy came away that day with a tiny vial of what we used to call ‘lavender water’ and an ivory-coloured comb for my dark straight as a poker hair.

In my room back at the powder blue painted B&B I caressed my new-bought treasures and promised to keep them forever.

I still have the comb and the ‘lavender water’ still has my heart.

Yours ever

The Perfumed Dandy.

The Perfumed Dandy


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20 responses to “The Isles are alive with the smell of… Caldey Island Lavender The Last of The Summer Scents III

  1. Ann

    Fascinating in a way only you could do!
    I would love to smell Island Lavender. Lavender is one of those scents that I believe is very difficult to get correct- at least for my nose. Years ago I purchased a Lavender perfume in a Toronto perfumery no longer in business. I can’t recall the maker. I wore it and wore it though…

    • Dearest Ann
      Lavender is tricky, often over complicated or made too loud by the addition of amplifying aromatics.
      Caldey’s is soft and enveloping, not quiet as such, but somehow contemplative.
      Very fitting given where it comes from.
      If you ever remember the Toronto perfumer do let us know as I am rather fond of a fine lavender.
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

  2. Not only do I want to smell this lavender, but I also want to take a trip to the island. Excellent review, Dandy.

  3. I love lavender in all forms – perfume, oil, creams, etc. and I’d love to visit that island. Beautiful review!

  4. *sigh* So, so pretty! I loved every bit of the travel part of this post. (Mea Culpa, I despise lavender and my phobia towards it made me skip that part.) The last photo was so lovely, and reminded me strongly of the tiny village in Doc Martin, only these houses are a much prettier lot with their pastels and pinks. Thank you for the wonderful trip to Tenby!

    • Dearest Kafka
      This certainly isn’t scent for anyone with the slightest aversion to lavender… so best keep clear.
      The Island though, and Tenby too, is for everyone.
      Doc Martin is filmed in Porthysek (Kernewek spelling) on the North Cornish coast, sharing the Atlantic with Tenby (Dinbych-y-pysgod in Welsh) but separated by the Bristol Channel.
      It’s a very beautiful place, but rather overrun with film crews when I was there last!! They seemed to outnumber the 700 or so visitors.
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

  5. Lilybelle

    Mr. Dandy, my sincerest compliments on your very fine writing above. I can see your heart was really in this one. Not that it isn’t always, but this was extra special. I drank in every word. I hope I get to visit Tenby and Caldey Island some day. I adore lavender. I have had a special relationship with lavender since I was a child. I still make my own lavender sachets from dried lavender, and I always have a bottle of lavender essential oil on hand. One of my alternate fantasy lives is spent in some quiet, cloistered place with an herb garden and still room. Who knows, if we do reincarnate, maybe that’s exactly what I did once. I have a decant of Caldey Island Lavender cologne that someone sent me tucked away somewhere. It truly is very fine and pure when you’re in the mood for true, pure lavender, balm for the soul.

    • Dearest Lily
      Thank you so much, as always, for your exceptionally kind words.
      Caldey (or Caldy, the spellings are alternate) grabs hold of one, especially if experienced when young, perhaps this possession is what came through in my words.
      Like you, I always have plenty of lavender on hand in oil and creams, bags and in the summer the odd stem or two.
      The last of the lavender, which is planted widely in London’s parks and gardens is just withering in the late Summer sunshine, but the tiny dried petals still release a beautiful scent when crushed in the palm of one’s hand.
      Perhaps we will both be reincarnated to elysian fields of lavender…
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

  6. fleurdelys

    What a beautiful spot! I’ve heard the term “Caldey Island Lavender” but never knew where it was. With its history, architecture, and wildlife, it’s definitely a place I’d like to visit one day.
    Overdosing on Yardley’s English Lavender as a teen has rather put me off the note as an adult. Also, its overuse in functional fragrance conjures an association with the dreaded (to me) terms “fresh” and “clean”. However, my phobias aren’t lavender’s fault, and I like dried lavender sachets hanging in my closet. I also like the combination of lavender and carnation that gives Elizabeth Arden’s Blue Grass its characteristic scent.

    • Dearest Fleur
      Yes, the overuse of lavender in ‘air fresheners’ as they are (unintentionally) ironically called here has much to answer for.
      But one encounter with Caldey Island Lavender can banish those thoughts forever it captures the plant itself more acutely than any of the other, very admirable, lavender scents we have on sale and in a country beset by renderings of the purple plant that;s saying something.
      As to the place… it is one for which the word ‘unforgettable’ was coined.
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

  7. Dear Dandy

    This is a truly wonderful post. Thank you!

    Yours ever
    The Candy Perfume Boy

  8. Dear Mr Dandy

    What are you trying to do to me? You showcase my favourite town in the whole of the UK and then illustrate it with mouthwateringly beautiful photographs and describe it with love. Tenby is also part of my childhood memory bank (who knows, we may have kicked down one another’s sandcastles unknowingly before blogging was invented). I still try and go at least once a year, but sadly failed thus far in 2013.

    I still haven’t been to Caldey Island, and it’s on my To Do List. I remember my mother buying a small vial of violet perfume from there long ago, and I can remember the smell very vividly.

    I also love the smell, look and colour of lavender and seeing it listed in the notes of a perfume can often swing me into a purchase.

    If anyone reading this has not been to Tenby, then please do go. It is simply wonderful, with charm in spades (and buckets).

    Your friend,

    all misty eyed and nostalgic,

    • Dearest Iscent
      First and foremost I must clarify that The Dandy, even as a child, never kicked another’s sandcastle over, ever.
      It simply wouldn’t be gentlemanly. Not cricket.
      Now, when you go back to Tenby (for I can hear in your note that you will return) you simply must visit Caldey.
      I wonder if they still do that violet, another note I love, for I will be sure to seek it out if they do (here I come website).
      As for your little plug for this most delightful of all seaside towns I can only second it. If you have the chance to go to Tenby… seize it!
      Lavender scent and all.
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

      • Dear Mr Dandy

        I can assure you that any imagined sandcastle demolition would have been accidental and without malicious intent! I cannot imagine The Dandy demolishing anything other than a cup of Lapsang after a tiring day.

        Your chuckling friend

  9. As a child we had a holiday home in manobier and a small (16′) boat in the harbour at Tenby so my childhood memories are of viests to caldy and in those days you could even visit the monestry.Your post transported back through the years and the scent of lavender has always reminded me of the island and it still has to be the scent I find most calming thank you for making me smile

    • Dear Mark
      It’s my very pleasure.
      Yes, I to, am unable to smell a pure lavender without thinking of bobbing boat trips out from the harbour to the Island, which I always remember as being warm with yellowish grass, a hay scent to go with the perfumes they made they.
      So wonderful to share the memories.
      Yours ever
      The Perfumed Dandy

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