St Govan’s church, shrouded in myths and legends and once famed for its healing powers, draws hundreds of visitors each year. Wedged almost impossibly in the limestone rocks, between sea and cliff top, on the southernmost tip of Pembrokeshire, this 800 year old sanctuary is a place to fire the imagination and touch history.
One of many churches in Wales founded on a magical site by a 5th or 6th century saint, this place is dedicated to St Govan, an Irish monk from Wexford. Legend has it that he was being chased by pirates when a fissure opened in the cliff face, allowing him to slip inside and closing up behind him. When the marauders had gone, he emerged and founded a chapel on the spot; a celebration of hope and the triumph of good over evil. St Govan died in 586 and has been linked with Gwalchmai fab Gwyar, the Mabinogion tales of Pwyll and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, of Arthurian legend.
This ancient place of pilgrimage is made of local limestone, with a vaulted roof and the simplest of interiors. A bare stone altar, much older than the stone walls, is the focus inside, with low benches and a ‘piscina’ in the wall, where the priest would wash his hands, beneath which flows a spring. Go through the doorway to the tiny cave, this was St Govan’s original hermit’s cell, can you see the grooves in the stone? These are said to be the imprint of his ribs.
Outside notice the red clay soil around the chapel, which is said to have healing properties, and the holy well (now long dry), famed for its healing powers and where wishes are still made. Pause for a moment to remember St Govan, and all the pilgrims who have sought solace here over the centuries.