OS grid reference SR 9669 9296. At the church of St Michael & All Angels in Bosherston village take the road opposite (Buckspool lane) out of the village for about 1 mile. If there is an MOD sign displayed you may not be able to proceed any further for a few hours due to military training on the firing range. There is a car-parking area on Travallen Downs by The Pembrokeshire Coast Path – just above the medieval chapel of St Govan which nestles down on the rocky shoreline below the precipitous cliffs of St Govan’s Head. A flight of stone steps leads down between a large ravine in the cliffs into the ancient little building; the number of steps varies between 50-70 but there are said to be 52 steps all told. However, it is difficult to count the exact same number coming back up again! Near the chapel there is a dried up holy well called Ffynnon Govan (St Govan’s Well). The place has been regarded as a sacred and holy pilgrimage site since the Middle Ages, a place where miracles of healing were wrought in past times; even the soil is said to be curative. The county town of Pembroke is roughly 7 miles to the north on the B4319.
The little chapel solidly built of limestone is said to date from the 13th century – being restored at that time, so I think we can assume that there was an earlier chapel on this site, possibly one founded by the saint himself. Inside the building measures 18 feet by 12 feet and it’s roof is vaulted. At the eastern side an entrance leads to a hermit’s cell in the cleft of a huge limestone boulder. According to the often-told legend: the saint was pursued here by marauding sea pirates; he hid in the cleft of the great boulder which then closed up, hiding him from view, or his hermit’s attire matched the rock thus he became invisible. You can still make out some marks in the boulder that were made by the saint’s fingers when he hid here back in the 6th century AD. If you make a wish while standing in the cleft of the rock, facing the wall, your wish will be granted, hopefully!
At the side of the hermit’s cell is a stone altar beneath which, according to legend, St Govan is buried. A holy water stoup (piscina) is built onto the wall and, beneath this a spring of water runs out of the ground but is never said to run across the chapel floor, though it has been known to happen! The spring is said to have miraculous healing properties. There is a recess in the wall (aumbrey) that may have been used for sacred vessels or perhaps relics, and there are some solid looking stone seats up against the wall. The little bellcote on the roof did once possess a bell but this was long ago lost to the sea; it can apparently still be heard ringing on stormy nights from beneath the turbulent waves off shore, foretelling an impending disaster at sea. Another tale put forward says the bell was stolen by pirates, but later rescued by sea nymphs who placed it inside a rock near the chapel. It was said that if you struck the rock the bell would ring out.
Some steps lead down below the chapel to a rock strewn area and St Govan’s holy well (Ffynnon Govan) covered over by a stone hood. However, this well has been dry for a long time now, but up until the mid 19th century it was the site of many healings with crutches being left by previously crippled pilgrims as a votive offering. Red soil that is found around the chapel site was used in a poltice form to cure sore, itchy eyes, and it is still said to be effective today! Francis Jones in his well-known work ‘The Holy Wells of Wales’ says about this well: “On the cliff side by St. Govan’s Chapel, Bosherston parish : especially famous in the cure of failing eyesight, lameness, and rheumatism.” “Near the well is a deposit of red clay formed by rock decomposition, and great virtue was attached to it : a poultice of this was applied to limbs and eyes, and the patients then lay there for several hours in the sun.”
So who was St Govan? It is strongly believed that he was St Gobhan who founded the monastery of Dairinis-Insula near Wexford, Ireland, about the year 530 AD and was a follower of St Ailbhe, bishop of Emlech (Emily) in County Tipperary. Gobhan (Govan) came as a missionary to south-west Wales in old age and became a friend of St David. He may have been present when St David died in 589 AD? Gobhan became a hermit in south-west Pembrokeshire and lived out the rest of his life in a cell beside the rocky cliffs, now known as St Govan’s Head. His feast-day is celebrated on 26th March. He died towards the end of the 6th century, and is patron saint of builders. However, some individuals have tried to link the name Govan with Gawain, King Arthur’s knight who supposedly retired to this hermitage after the death of Arthur, or to a St Cofen, daughter of King Brychan. This is unlikely. And St Ailbhe, mentioned earlier, also came to Wales and baptised Wales’ future patron St, David, at Porthclais. He is called Aelbyw or Elvis and was said to have dwelt in the area to the east of Solva at St Elvis farm, now named after him.
At Bosherston in the medieval church of St Michael, a stained-glass window shows St Govan as a bearded old man holding a model of his chapel; another window shows St David, patron St of Wales. The churchyard has a 14th century preaching cross with a tiny carved head near the top, which is thought to represent Christ. It stands on two-tiered steps that enabled it to be used as a sort of stone crucifix. The cross was found in the 16th century having survived the Reformation; the head was placed on top a standing stone that may date back to pre-Christian times or the Dark Ages?
Spencer, Ray., Historic Places In Wales – An Exploration of the Fascinating and Mysterious, (Unpublished manuscript), Nelson, Lancashire, 1991.
Spencer, Ray., A Guide to the Saints Of Wales and the West Country, Llanerch Enterprises, Felinfach, Lampeter, Dyfed, 1991.
Jones, Francis., The Holy Wells of Wales, University of Wales Press, Cardiff, 1992.
Barber, Chris., Mysterious Wales, Paladin (Grafton Books), London, 1987.
August 25, 2013 at 3:36 pm
I have visited this Chapel in the past. An interesting historical site in quite a remote part of Pembrokeshire but seemingly in good repair. I remember the precarious flight of stone steps and spectacular views. Certainly secluded. You say that it was still a site of healing well into the 19th Century, but is there any information on when the chapel itself was last used as a place of worship, or was it more a place of pilgrimage and therefore not actually occupied by a priestly individual except on certain days?
August 25, 2013 at 9:15 pm
Thankyou BarryS for your interesting comment on St Govan’s chapel. I have not come across any evidence to say whether it was ever used for religious services, but it could have been. And I have no doubt that on the saint’s feast-day a small service for pilgrims, and more recently, for local people attending a special baptismal service of some kind was, and is still is, held in the tiny chapel. There is still a stone altar in the chapel, a piscina for people to dip their fingers in when entering the chapel, and an aumbrey for the washing of sacred vessels by a priest. Worshippers would be able to sit on the stone benches against the chapel wall. I hope that answers your question. Webmaster.