Sunday, 20 November 2011

Halfway between Heaven and Hell - the life of a Celtic hermit

 St Govan and his chapel in the cliffs

Halfway down a cliff - hidden from Viking eyes!
 A number of accounts surround the origins and life of this saint of the early Catholic Church (not the Celtic Church as stated on the Pembrokeshire National Park literature).

The main elements and the common ones are as follows.

He came from Country Wexford in Ireland, he lived in the sixth century and he was an Abbot; that much, at least, seems to be pretty certain. He died in the year 586.

The entrance, 74 steps
down the cliff
In addition, we know that his name was Gobhan or Gobban which shows that he had some link with ironwork as a blacksmith, speculation is that his father was one. Other views range from the rather fanciful (that he was the Sir Gawain of Arthurian fame) or that he had travelled to Wales to meet with St David.
We shall not know the certainty in this world.

So here we have a single traveller monk; apparently then set upon by pirates from whom he hid in a fissure in the cliff face which then miraculously opened up and closed around him until said pirates had grown bored with their search and set off to undertake piratical duties elsewhere.

Overcome with a) gratitude or b) remorse at his ‘cowardice’ (you choose) the holy monk set up home on a damp and draughty cave adjacent to the fissure that had shielded him.

Crude but beautiful - a stone
holy water stoup
Here he lived the lonely existence of a hermit, eating the fish that he caught from the sea  below and, doubtless receiving some victuals from the peasant communities that he must have celebrated holy Mass for.

After his death (or, maybe before he died), it’s all a little vague, a stone chapel was erected over the site of his cave ‘cell’. Half way up or down the cliff, depending on how you views things; not high church, not low church but certainly Catholic Church.

St Govan's Well
A stone altar at one end (eastward facing naturally) a piscina and an ambry adjacent to the altar for the sacred vessels and water and wine cruets. The whole chapel measures, approximately 17 feet by 12 feet and, from a side window one looks out across the stormy Carmarthen Bay to Ireland and, beyond that Amerikay as my ancestors use to call it.

Looking west, to Ireland
and North America
Some thirty feet below the chapel is a stone arch half buried by rocks. Here was a well that served the holy man and, in time the water from  this well built up a reputation as a remedy for rheumatism (must have been endemic in those days) and from eye infections.

Some wonderful stories surround St Govan. There is one involving the chapel bell which was stolen by pirates – some things never change as, even today, church bells are in demand by the criminal element who then sell them for their scrap value. But back to the pirates. A group of angels (what is the collective noun for angels?)  descended upon on the pirates and retrieved the bell.
They returned to the chapel but, for safekeeping, they entombed the bell in a massive rock (now known as Bell Rock) alongside the chapel.
And ever after the saint would only have to strike the rock for the bell to sound at a volume estimated to be one thousand times louder than the original bell itself.

The crevice that saved him is still visible to the left hand side of the altar, and the sides of the fissure show rib like characteristics.  Legend says they are the imprints of St Govan's body as he lay concealed there.  Other legends say that if a person makes a wish and enters the fissure, and is able to turn himself around, his wish will be granted. That is, of course, not a Catholic legend.

For those who may wish to visit this unique chapel, they should head across the Severn Bridge from England into Wales and proceed, in a westerly direction until they reach Pembrokeshire. Then head for Bosherston, famous for its beautiful lily ponds, and the Ordnance Survey reference is SR967929.

Be prepared to descend some 74 uneven steps to reach the chapel and, even more prepared to ascend them afterwards!

The 74 steps......a penance coming back up!


  1. Fascinating, and a beautiful place. Beautifully told, too.

    Must visit. Thank you.

    Chris (still on Blogspot, but with the usual problem).

  2. Lovely. I have never been to Ireland and here's hoping I can visit this spot when I do.
    As for a group of angels.

  3. Thanks Chris, if you do visit we must have a pint.

    Maire - with a name like that and you've never been to Ireland? You are right of course, any of those cn's would do, I think on that occasion a band of angels sounds about right.

  4. A lovely post and wonderful photographs, Richard. I will try and look further into the Irish antecedents of this saint and see what I can come up with. When I was on holiday in Wales a couple of years ago I came across this poem to Saint Govan:

    St Govan

    St Govan, he built him a cell
    By the side of the Pembroke sea,
    And there, as the crannied sea-gulls dwell,
    In a tiny, secret citadel
    He sighed for eternity.

    St Govan, he built him a cell
    Between the wild sky and the sea,
    Where the sunsets redden the rolling swell
    And brooding splendour has thrown her spell
    On valley and moorland lea.

    St Govan still lies in his cell
    But his soul, long since is free,
    And one may wonder - and who can tell-
    If good St Govan likes Heaven as well
    As his cell by that sounding sea?

    A. G. Prys-Jones in D.M. and E. M. Lloyd, eds., A Book of Wales (Collins, 1953), 52.