The tiny (20 x 12 ft) St Govan’s Chapel, at the base of high, steep limestone cliffs, is the subject of legend. Built in the 11th century, it is dedicated to St Govan, a 6th century hermit and disciple of St. Ailbhe. He is sometimes referred to as St Cofen, Gonen or Gobham, Purportedly, he landed in the area when travelling from Wexford, Ireland where he was Abbot of Dairinis. Pursued by pirates, he reached the cliffs that obligingly opened up and hid him in a crack. To thank God for his rescue he built the chapel at this dramatic site on the southwest coast of Wales.
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The chapel is reached by climbing down steep stairs. Count the 80 (?) stairs going down and climbing back up. Stories say the number is not the same number in both directions. Another legend says if you turn around in the crack, you will have good luck and your wishes will come true.
The chapel floor at one time contained a holy well, and Christian pilgrims came here in search of healing. Today only a stone altar on the east side remains. The cleft in the rock—the hiding space of St Govan—sits to the right of the altar. It is said you can see the imprint of his ribs in the stone. Outside the chapel, a silver bell—taken from the chapel tower—is supposedly ensconced in a large boulder. Stolen by the Vikings, it is now safe from harm.
Still another legend says that King Arthur's knight, Sir Gawain, lies buried beneath the stone altar of the chapel. The name appears in early Welsh poetry as Gwalchmai, Walwen, or Gauvain, and he was alleged in one story to be King Arthur’s nephew. It was probably the similarity of names that gave birth to this story. In early stories of King Arthur, Gawain was a brave knight, while in later ones his character deteriorated.
To the west of St. Govan's Head, limestone cliffs continue along the coast, providing a scenic coastal walk. Climbers as well as walkers like these challenging cliffs. Unfortunately, much of the area is used by the military as a firing range, and, at times, may be closed.
Whether any of the legends are true or not, the little Chapel of St Govan, in its tiny bay, is well worth a climb down the hill to visit.
St. Govan's Chapel is 7 miles south of Pembroke on B4319 to Bosherton and further to St Govan’s. Car park and path to cliffs.
For scheduled closings of the path, refer to the Pembrokeshire National Park Information Centres in Wales.