Exultate deo, brother, and pass the bin liners

The monks of Caldey Island, off the Welsh coast, have a nice little earner - cash for trash. By Tony Heath
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The Independent Online
AN ORDER of reclusive monks leading a Spartan life on an island off the West Wales coast is negotiating a contract to dispose of the community's rubbish by shipping it to the mainland in their motorboat.

The deal under negotiation with Pembrokeshire County Council offers the prospect of adding pounds 4,000 a year to the ecclesiastical coffers of the 16 Cistercians who share Caldey Island with some 30 lay people.

The island lies in the Irish Sea, two miles from the resort town of Tenby, known as the "Brighton of West Wales".

It is an undertaking at the opposite end of the olfactory scale of the monks' main source of revenue - the sale of perfumes the brothers make from the wild lavender and gorse that carpet the 500-acre island.

Once upon a time, detritus was simply taken to a cliff and thrown into the sea. That environmentally-unfriendly practice ceased more than a decade ago. Land-fill - rather than hole-fill - was inaugurated. The monks excavated pits which, when full, were earthed over.

Years of digging have taken their toll, and today there is an acute shortage of sites. Little remains to fall to the monastic spade apart from a green sward on which summer visitors picnic.

Caldey is in the bailiwick of Pembrokeshire Council, in theory responsible for services such as refuse collection - a difficult task to provide by conventional means.

"We don't have an amphibious refuse lorry," a council spokesman joked last week when the authority undertook to investigate the proposed ecclesiastical take-away.

The Post Office already pays to have mail ferried to and from the mainland in the monks' sturdy craft, based in Tenby's snug harbour.

It is all a far cry from the Cistercians' foundation at Dijon in France, 900 years ago this month. The island's religious connections go back even further. In the 6th century, a holy man named Pryo is reputed to have retired to the island, living in a cell near a freshwater spring which still supplies the monks and lay people.

Some of the monks are in their seventies and all live a life of austerity and prayer. They rise at 3.15am for the first of seven daily services - properly called Offices. They work in the fields in complete silence, harvesting much of their vegetarian diet. They retire at 7.30 in the evening.

Women are not allowed in the Abbey, but, under supervision, male visitors are permitted a glimpse of this closed world. But the 20th century is beginning to intrude. A bid for Lottery cash to set up a video centre is being put together.

Brother Gildas, white-bearded and bespectacled, is the contact with the outside world. "We aren't people who have run away from the world. It is still part and parcel of our lives," he says. Rubbish and rubbish disposal included.