One Castle a Day – St Govan’s Chapel

Hello, hello and hello!

Welcome again dear readers – Tour De Wales continues! As we promised, the entire month will be dedicated to the land of red dragon and we have plenty of beautiful sights to show you. Be prepared for another exciting adventure!

Map of the local area

Map of the local area

If you have missed our previous entries, please take a look at the following links:

Ogmore-by-Sea Review Part1: https://cocamidemea.wordpress.com/2014/11/05/one-castle-a-day-ogmore-by-sea/
Ogmore-by-Sea Review Part2: https://cocamidemea.wordpress.com/2014/11/10/one-castle-a-day-ogmore-by-sea-part-two/
Saundersfoot in 20 clicks: https://cocamidemea.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/saundersfoot-in-20-clicks
Barrafundle Bay in 30 clicks: https://cocamidemea.wordpress.com/2014/11/17/barafundle-bay-in-30-clicks/
Broadhaven South in 27 clicks: https://cocamidemea.wordpress.com/2014/11/20/broadhaven-south-in-27-clicks/

Today, we will take you to one of the most mysterious and wild places in Wales – The Saint Govan’s Head. This remote but very popular location is perfect for entire families: history freaks will have a chance to learn about 12th century chapel, kids and dogs will have enough place to wander and those who enjoy sitting down will have plenty of room to set up picnic tables.

Closer look at the map

Closer look at the map

Chapel map

Chapel interior

Before we published this entry, we had a small discussion. Should we first write about Castlemartin Firing Range or should we introduce our readers to the chapel straight away? Castlemartin Firing Range is an absolutely wonderful place and since Govan’s Head is a part of it; our initial thought was to write about the range first. A bit later, we changed our minds. Three previous entries were dedicated to the beautiful shores of Wales and another photographic entry would be quite boring. So, enjoy the historical trip to St Govan’s Chapel with One Castle a Day and we will return to Castlemartin range some other time.

Picture of a picture - this is how St Govan's chapel looks through professional lence

Picture of a picture – this is how St Govan’s chapel looks through professional lance

Dramatic cliffs around the chapel - you will not find more beautiful sights anywhere else

Dramatic cliffs around the chapel – you will not find more beautiful sights anywhere else

Do you remember that we have left Stackpole Eastate and moved a little bit further? Two miles is not a big distance, but what difference it can make! The sandy beaches and azure blue water are now behind us and it’s time to investigate the rocky cliffs and limestone coastline that are Pembrokshire’s trademarks. Govan’s Head is actually one magnificent cliff named after an Irish Saints – but we need to start telling the tale from the beginning!

Enchanted steps

Enchanted steps

Valley surrounding the chapel looks like surface of an alien planet

Valley surrounding the chapel looks like surface of an alien planet

When Stackpole Estate fell on the hard times, part of the land has been taken away from the earls of Cawdor and given to the army at the beginning of 1939. It was a harsh blow to the proud landowners who felt betrayed and soon completely abandoned the grand mansion and returned to their native Scotland. Land taking was a necessity at that time. British Army lacked a good training grounds and the remote location (with a great overview of the Welsh coast) was a suitable place to train future soldiers and test the new equipment. Of course, Earls of Cawdor received a small payment for the land but not what it was truly worth. The Second World War was just starting and the government had little patience or the necessary resources to negotiate with the gentry. The entire transaction was quick and a bit ugly – what’s more important, there was no way back. To this day, Castlemartin and St Govan’s Head are the property of British Army and the training grounds are active for 44 weeks a year. To visit the brilliant place you have to pass through military gate and several guard stops. We were truly lucky – just few days before we arrived, the range was used for training and nobody was allowed in. To let the tourists know, the Army is putting notices in Bosherston’s village pub, but if you are here for the first time, you will not know about it. We were passing through the security checks with our hearts on our sleeves, expecting an abrupt stop and arrest for trespassing. After several minutes of travelling, we arrived at a large car park when we were informed that the range was open to visitors. We have never been happier!

Majestic lime stone walls

Majestic lime stone walls

The roof of the chapel with a bell cote

The roof of the chapel with a bell cote

Just one look is enough to understand why the Earls were so angry about losing this piece of land. The range is breathtaking! We have never seen such wild beauty, high cliffs, natural stone arches and rocky shore. We are also very pleased that the range is off limits for the majority of the year. It is now rarely used for arterially training and became some sort of a natural reserve with many endangered birds nesting among the rocks and feeding its young. The military polygon is also perfect for small animals; the wild meadows and uncut grass help maintain the diversity of local fauna and flora. Don’t get us wrong, the range is still actively used for any kind of military training, but the part opened to visitors has been mostly preserved for its ecological and scientific value.

The slate roof is a modern addition to protect the ancient building

The slate roof is a modern addition to protect the ancient building

We don't know  when the roof has been created, probably around 18th or 19th century

We don’t know when the roof has been created, probably around 18th or 19th century

The cliff known as St Govan’s Head is located some 700 meters from the car park and you can get there by walking along the turfed footpath. It is worth going there first before seeing the chapel but we will leave the decision to you. We have seen the chapel first (the entrance is situated just at the edge to the car park) and wandered to the cliff after – if we knew, we would do it the other way around. All legends about St Govan start at the cliff and the action moves to the site of the chapel. It almost felt like watching a movie from the end and then skipping to the beginning. We have a real vivid imagination and we could see with our mind’s eyes how the entire story unfolded. Some people however arrive here just to admire the views and they don’t care in which order they are visiting places.

Entrance to the chapel

Entrance to the chapel

Well defined archway leading to the single chamber

Well defined archway leading to the single chamber

According to legends, St Govan or Gofan was an Irish traveler who arrived to the United Kingdom by boat to visit his friend or mentor. His profession is not known, different versions identify him as a monk educated by Saint David, a teacher, a merchant, a poet and even as a thief. There is also a tale connecting Gofan with mystical Gawain, one of the noble Knights of the Round Table who came to Albion looking for a place to rest as an old man. Govan’s roots might be shrouded in mystery but all legends agree that he crashed at the Welsh shore in dire circumstances. The boat that Govan hired to take him to Great Britain was attacked by pirates and the entire crew was slain. Govan somehow managed to escape and swam to the shore near the Govan’s Head. Pursued by bandits, Govan ran along the rocky beach, climbed the rocks and looked for a place to hide but there was nothing around him. Fearing for his life, he started to pray and then miracle happened – a small fissure in the lime stone opened, allowing him to sneak inside. Pirates scouted the area for hours but they could not find him. Thinking he might have drowned, they finally left and Govan was able to leave his hide-a-way. He made his way to the nearest village (probably Bosherton) where he alerted the local inhabitants. The villagers took him in, gave him food and a place to sleep but Govan was not yet safe. Local people were terrorized by pirates and many of them have lost their lives trying to protect their homes. Govan listened to their stories and decided that running away would not solve the problem. They needed a plan and military help from local ruler. He volunteered to return to the coast to watch the waters waiting for the pirates to return. Upon seeing them he was to alert the villagers and then they would call the King for assistance. We will never know if the plan worked, but for many years, Govan lived in the cave that opened for him and was respected by villagers. His fame grew bigger and bigger and many traveled to see him or to seek his advice. He ate fish and drank water from a small spring that after his death became sacred – the water could cure blindness and other ailments.

Inside the chapel - please excuse the bright lights  streaming through the windows. It was hard to take good quality pictures during the midday. the chapel is situated especially to receive a lot of sunshine in the summer

Inside the chapel – please excuse the bright lights streaming through the windows. It was hard to take good quality pictures during the midday. The chapel is happily situated to receive a lot of sunshine in the summer

Doorway from the inside of the chapel

Doorway from the inside of the chapel

Legends cannot be taken for historical truth, but it has been established that the site of what is now known as St Govan’s Chapel has been used since the 6th century. Archeologists surveying the chapel have discovered signs of an earlier building, probably a small monastery or a single dwelling. The chapel as we know it today has been erected in the 13th century at the exact place where St Govan has supposedly died in 586. His body is now believed to be buried under the main altar. To reach the chapel, you need to climb down 52 steps and you have to do it very carefully as there are no rails and the steps are slippery even on a clear day. This single chamber chapel is built into the side of a tall limestone cliff in a small triangular valley. It has a tiny steeple with a bell-cote and measures only 6.1 m × 3.7 m. Its slated roof looks a bit out of place – it is a modern addition raised to protect the entrance to the grade I building.

People leave graffiti on the walls of the chapel since  the middle ages - we didn't feel inclined to do the same

People leave graffiti on the walls of the chapel since the middle ages – we didn’t feel inclined to do the same

Chapel's end seems to be semi-collapsed

Chapel’s end seems to be semi-collapsed

Other way out of the chapel

Other way out of the chapel

Main altar - legends say that St Govan's body is hidden underneath it

Main altar – legends say that St Govan’s body is hidden underneath it

Small cross made of straw left by one  of the pilgrims

Small cross made of straw left by one of the pilgrims

There are two stories connected with the chapel. One tells the tale of a silver bell that St Govan used to alert the villages with when the pirates were spotted and the other claims the steps to the chapel are enchanted. The small bell was given to St Govan by the King and it was made of purest silver to give a clear and loud sound. Each time the pirates were getting near, the bell would ring so powerfully that the villagers were able to hear it. Infuriated that their attacks were so easily thwarted, the pirates stole the bell and thrown it into the ocean. Govan prayed long for the bell to be recovered and his calls were heard by the angels. They removed the bell from the ocean floor and hid it in a large stone near the chapel so the bell would not get stolen again. From now on, St Govan had to tap the stone twice and the bell would ring, thousand times stronger than before alarming not only the nearest village but the entire coast as well.

Chapel seen from the outside - back entrance and the bell cote

Chapel seen from the outside – back entrance and the bell cote

Postcard shot - we are very pleased with this one!

Postcard shot – we are very pleased with this one!

Our favorite myth is that about the stairs leading to the chapel. The steps said to be magical and their number depends on many things: the weather, the time of the day or night, how many people were going up or climbing down. Some tourist guides swear that the difference can be huge: between 74 for certain gentlemen to 35 for the ladies. We have seen the groups of visitors counting each step very scrupulously but we haven’t asked about their mathematical skillsJ. To be very honest, it is easy to make a mistake – some steps are nearly invisible, some are cracked in half and people could count them separately, others are connected and potentially could be counted as one step. It doesn’t matter how many steps you counted, the number will be unique to you and maybe you can use it to play lotto! The chapel has long been associated with good luck; some still believe that a wish made there will come true.

Sacred spring and  another steps leading to the coast where St Govan was running away from the pursuing pirates

Sacred spring and another steps leading to the coast where St Govan was running away from the pursuing pirates

Chapel as seen from the shore

Chapel as seen from the shore

Chapel from  the cliffs - our farewell picture

Chapel from the cliffs – our farewell picture

The chapel may be small and simple but it makes strong impressions on those who visit it. If you’d like to learn more about this fantastic building, please take a look at the following links:

Visit Pembrokshire: http://www.visitpembrokeshire.com/attractions-events/st-govans-chapel/
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Govan
Wikipedia again: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St_Govan%27s_Chapel
Pembrokshire Coast: http://www.pembrokeshirecoast.org.uk/website/AppAccess4All/stgovans_head.pdf
Britain Express: http://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=645
Destinations UK: http://www.destinations-uk.com/articles.php?country=wales&id=115&articletitle=St%20Govan%20Chapel,%20Pembrokeshire

Coastline seen from the valley

Coastline seen from the valley

St Govan's Head in the distance

St Govan’s Head in the distance

The cliff walls are excellent for climbing - just not when the military training takes place!

The cliff walls are excellent for climbing – just not when the military training takes place!

Well, our visit to the lovely chapel of St Govan came to an end. In few days’ time, we will write about the Castlemartin Range and then we will finish our tour the Wales with a visit to the magnificent Pembroke Castle! Come back soon!

Lots of love,
Rita and Mal D.

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