St Govan, the man
St Govan was born of the Hy Cinnselach clan who lived in County Wexford in
Ireland. His proper name was Gobhan or Gobban, which means a smith. Possibly St Govan’s father was a worker in wood or metal.
As a boy St Govan was attracted by the preaching and teaching of St. Ailbe, a
native of Solva, Pembrokeshire, who founded the monastery of Dairinis, in
Wexford, and Govan joined the monastery there. It is said that he worked as a cook for the community of the followers of St Ailbe.
St Ailbe desired to have a correct form of the Mass, and sent Lugich, Cailcean and Govan to Rome. Also, we are told that for a short time, probably after St Alibi’s death in 527, Govan was a disciple of St Senan at the monastery of Inniscathy. Then Govan returned to the monastery of Dairinis, where he was elected Abbot.
Why did he come to Pembrokeshire? He may have come to visit a Welsh Abbot. He may have come to seek descendants of his beloved teacher, who had come from Solva. He may have been preparing a geographical survey tracing the coastline of Wales at that point which is nearest to Wexford. Or like a modem tourist he may have come to see the beautiful countryside now contained in the
Pembrokeshire National Park!
St Govan was already an elderly man when he came to Pembrokeshire and
tradition says that pirates from Lundy Island tried to capture him.
This is interesting and feasible for he would have been dressed as an abbot. His capture therefore could have resulted in a large ransom being demanded from the monastery, the wealthy house of the day.
The tradition goes on to say that the cleft in the rock at St Govan’s Chapel opened miraculously for Govan to hide in, and closed over him – opening miraculously for a second time after the pirates had gone away.
If St Govan was chased he probably found the fissure a safe hiding place. As he saw the pirates leaving he was filled with a sense of shame at his cowardice and
decided to remain so that in future he might convert the pirates. Or possibly he was aware that the local people were much troubled by the marauding of pirates and he decided to remain as a watchman, teacher and protector to them.
What we do know is that St Govan apparently stayed for the rest of his life in his cell, worshipping, preaching and teaching here in South Pembrokeshire.
His saintliness was marked by the Church, which designated March 26th as St Govan’s Day, and by followers who built the chapel in the cliffs. Tradition says that St Govan lies buried under the altar in the chapel which bears his name. He died in the year 586.
To enter this picturesque little building it is necessary to descend a long flight of steps which, legend asserts, cannot be accurately counted by a mortal being.
It is very strange that when a group of people are told to count the steps their answers always vary.
It may have something to do with the fact that the steps are most irregular, with many half steps. Depending on where a person places his foot the count could vary considerably. The number of steps is approximately 74.
The Chapel is simply constructed, having just a nave (main body) which measures approximately 17′ 6″ by 12′ 6″. At the east end is a stone altar and steps leading to the small cell formed in the rock. The south wall contains a piscina, a small aperture and the main window. The north wall is plain, except for the entrance and a small recess or shelf. The west stall has a circle in the rough plastering high up and to the right of centre.
Within the circle there was an inscription, but all that is now visible are what look like a 6 and a O. Experts say that these are the only genuinely original marks on the walls. There are sadly a number of modem graffiti marks now. The west wall also has a small window and a doorway leading out to the rocks below and to a roughly built well.
Inside the cell there is a fissure in the rock, and the sides of the fissure show rib-like characteristics. Legend says these are the imprints of St Govan’s body as he lay hidden there. Another legend says that if a person makes a wish and enters the fissure, and is able to turn himself around, his wish will be granted.
The Bell Rock
Outside the Chapel there is a large rock boulder known as the Bell Rock. The
legend is that St Govan was given a silver bell, which was stolen by pirates from its bell tower. St Govan prayed for its return and angels retrieved it and placed it inside a rock where it would be safe, and St Govan used to tap the rock which gave a note a thousand times stronger than the note of the original bell.
The Wishing & Healing Well
In the floor near the main entrance there used to be a well, the water from which could only be procured in a limpet shell or small spoon, drop by drop. It was said to be a cure for eye complaints, skin diseases, and rheumatic tendencies.
The rough built well outside the Chapel (which is also dry now) has a double
legend of being a wishing well and a healing well.
In August 1902 the Chapel was visited by King Edward Vll and Queen Alexandra, who expressed their delight at all that they saw.
Although falling within the ancient parish of Bosherston the chapel
is in the care of Pembrokeshire Coast National Park.
Access to the cliff-top path leading down to the chapel is dependent upon the Firing Range being open to the public.
LOCAL NOTICES MUST BE OBSERVED.
Image copywrite: Guy Candler Photography