Bardsey Island in Wales

This peaceful island off the tip of the Llŷn Peninsula may well be the most sacred site in all of Wales.

A modern Celtic cross overlooks the thirteenth-century ruins of an abbey on Bardsey Island. (photo by Lori Erickson)

Bardsey Island is one of my favorite sites in Wales, a place of deep serenity where you can feel the centuries of history surrounding you.

Just 1.5 miles long and a half-mile at its widest, the island is known in Welsh as Ynys Enlli, “the island of the tides,” because of the strong currents in the water between the mainland and the island. Despite the difficulty of reaching it, this has been a place of Christian pilgrimage since the early medieval period. Here you’ll find the remains of a thirteenth-century abbey, a modern-day church, and a small settlement that houses contemporary pilgrims as well as a handful of residents.

Signs of human habitation on the island go back more than 2,000 years. It’s speculated that the island was sacred to the Druids before the coming of Christianity, and there are stories that Bardsey is the Isle of Avalon from the Arthurian legends, which would make it the final resting place of King Arthur. Another myth says that Merlin sleeps in a cave of glass somewhere on the island.

On Bardsey Island, inside the ruins of the abbey is a simple outdoor altar. (photo by Lori Erickson)

In the early Middle Ages, Bardsey became an important center for Celtic Christianity. Tradition says that St. Cadfan founded a Christian community here about 1,500 years ago, and many other saints and pilgrims followed in his footsteps. During the Middle Ages, three pilgrimages to Bardsey were considered the equivalent of one trip to Rome.

In addition to live pilgrims, the island attracted dead bodies: it’s said that 20,000 saints are buried here. The number is likely an exaggeration, but there’s no doubt that many bodies were brought here to be interred because of the island’s reputation for holiness (and the fact it was believed that anyone buried on the island wouldn’t go to hell).

A description from the eleventh century gives an idea of the island’s significance: “It has been for ages a proverbial saying among the Welsh, that this island is ‘the Rome of Britain’, on account of its distance—it is situated at the extremity of the Kingdom—and the danger of the sea‑voyage, and also because of the sanctity and charm of the place; sanctity, for twenty thousand bodies of the Saints, both Confessors and Martyrs, lie buried here; and charm, since it is surrounded by the sea, with a lofty promontory on the eastern side, and a level and fertile plain, where there is a spring of sweet water, on the western’.”

Today the island—which is owned and managed by the non-profit Bardsey Island Trust—continues to attract pilgrims and wanderers. The only way to reach it is by a twenty-minute boat ride from the village of Aberdaron. Because the trips depend upon weather conditions, visitors need to be flexible in their travel planning. Most people visit for the day, but it’s also possible to stay overnight. The small number of residences on the island are rented by the week. Because there are no cars on Bardsey, the only way to get around is on foot.

With just a handful of permanent residents, Bardsey is a place for quiet reflection and communion with nature. One side of the island has high cliffs, while the other has gentle slopes and fields where sheep graze. From the island’s highest point, Mynydd Enlli, on a clear day you can see the mountains of Snowdonia and the Wicklow Mountains in Ireland.

A small chapel on Bardsey Island offers space for worship and meditation. (photo by Lori Erickson)

The small settlement at Bardsey’s north end includes the ruins of a thirteenth-century abbey and a non-denominational chapel for worship and meditation.

Bardsey is also known for its spectacular bird life: more than 300 species of birds have been recorded here. It’s especially known for the thousands of Manx Shearwaters that come to its cliffs during the summer to breed and raise their young. Another treat is to see the many Atlantic grey seals that like to hang out near the island’s harbor.

In 2023 Bardsey became the first site in Europe to be awarded the International Dark Sky Sanctuary certification. The 550-foot summit of Mynydd Enlli shields light from the mainland and the views of the stars are often spectacular here.

Bardsey Island marks the end of the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way, a 130 mile route that begins at Basingwerk Abbey. This is a fitting place indeed to end a pilgrimage!


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Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She’s the author of books that include Holy RoverNear the ExitThe Soul of the Family Tree, and Every Step Is HomeHer website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world.

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