St. Govan’s Well and Chapel

A more romantic spot for a holy well one could hardly find and as such it is one of my favourite sites. Tucked within a rocky chasm struck from the Pembrokeshire coast, the sound of sea birds crying, the wind whistling and the waves crashing forcefully on the rocks below; one could easily imagine oneself back in the time of the saints, when a new faith was brought into these heathen heartlands and changed them perhaps forever. A remote site and perfect for a hermit. To reach the well below and its romantic chapel, the modern pilgrim descends a long row of steps, said impossible to count and these enter this delightful chapel of St. Govan.

Who was St. Govan?

No hard evidence can be found of the founder of this chapel. Some authorities identify him as King Arthur’s Gawain, but he is more likely to be Gobhan of Wexford as in the early medieval period there would have been links between the coasts. A legend tells that the saint journeyed to reach the family of St. David, the saint who trained him. Another legend identifies him as a repentant thief.  Doubtless a chapel existed from the early times but the present algae covered chapel was built sometime between 1300-1500.

The birth of a chapel

Local legend tells that the saint was sent upon by pirates and at the spot the cliff opened up to form a cave which allowed him to escape and prevented them from reaching him. Another legend is that the saint’s hand prints were imprinted upon the chapel floor. A story tells that he had a silver bell which he placed in the chapel tower. It was stolen by the pirates but it was reclaimed by angels who encased it in a rock at the sea’s edge. It is a legend with is similar to that of St. Declan at Ardmore where his bell was left on the rock. When the saint died he was buried beneath the altar and indeed may still remain there. This cave formed the nucleus of the chapel and he survived on fish and water from two springs one within the chapel and the other covered in well house, both are now dry but the later is traceable.

The Holy Well.

This holy well is tucked below the chapel almost blending into the boulder below is St Govan’s Well It is a small well house made of the nearby boulders and stones with a round rough roof.  The chapel itself is said to be built over the springhead and local legend records it never flooded. The water cured lameness, eye problems and rheumatism and those cured would leave their crutches and walking sticks at the altar. Its waters were collected by a limpet shell by the faithful. However there are cures no more as if one looks inside we shall see nothing but small wave worn boulders. Despite the dryness of the well, the atmosphere of this rocky crevasse and its delightful chapel is worth the pilgrimage.

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About pixyledpublications

Currently researching calendar customs and folklore of Nottinghamshire

Posted on June 14, 2013, in Pembrokeshire, Pilgrimage, Saints, Well hunting and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. Would that be St Declan of Ardmore? mentioned above.

  2. St Gobham or Gobhan abbot of Dairinis near Wexford early 6th century was a disciple of St Ailbhe or Ailbeus (known in south-west Wales as Elvis). Churches at Portbraddan and Graigavon in Ireland are dedicated to him. I believe he is Patron St of builders with his feast-day on 26th March.

  3. Kupala is widely Slavic for the pre-Christian midsummer customs associated with the summer solstice. What the name in Britain was no-one knows, Bede gives us ‘Litha’ which in effect he dismisses with the same breath. However Litha may be cognate with Ligo, the Baltic name for pagan midsummer, since both words may derive from a proto root meaning pliable – a root word in Sanskrit may be ‘lata’. So yes, the customs are similar, they are almost certainly related albeit distantly.

    For example, the instances you provide elsewhere for the sun dancing at Easter can be found from Ireland to mainland Europe and I think they may constitute a pagan observance given a Christian gloss. I have found that it is useful to compare customs far and wide, because researching British folklore in isolation can lead to limited conclusions.

    With regard to the link, it is to a still from the film ‘Andrei Rublev’ by the great, late Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky. I am not sure what you mean by feeling unsure about celebrating ‘pagan fashion’ at holy wells or indeed at any other location. If the uncertainty pertains to ritual nudity then please consider the following: In Ireland, if a girl walked into a field of dew and “was daring enough to undress and roll naked, she was given great beauty of person”

    whilst according to the folklore of St John’s Wort … “if a childless wife walked naked to pick it she would conceive within a year” – from, Baker M. Discovering the Folklore of Plants, p59, Shire Publications Ltd, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, UK, 1981

    Thank you for your response and I do hope this answer clarifies my post?

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