St Govans Chapel

St Govans is hardly the kind of chapel one would want to visit for worship every Sunday, unless, of course, it was for a penance.

For this tiny stone edifice is reached by a precipitous descent down a long flight of stone steps to the spot under the cliffs where the 5th century hermit Govan established his cell. It was not intended to be a place of easy access as hermits seldom welcome visitors.

Historians are not absolutely certain who Govan was. Could the chapel have been dedicated to St Gobhan, an Irish monk and a contemporary of Wales’s patron saint, St David? Could this obscure hermit have even been a woman, for the wife of the King of Glamorgan was named Cofen?

The building that tourists visit today is not the original hermit’s cell, which would have been a simple stone structure, like a vaulted beehive or igloo-shaped shelter such as exists at other parts of the coast, notably at Pwllderi in the north, which is thought may have been such a cell or even a medieval pigsty!

The present chapel has been dated by experts as of 13th century vintage and is located near an ancient well, which would have provided its occupant with a regular supply of life-giving water. Indeed, red mud from the so-called Holy Well at St Govans is said to have curative qualities when rubbed on the eyes. But no-one can test its efficacy now as it ran dry during the 20th century.

Antiquarian Major Francis Jones records that the water of St Govan’s well was reputed to cure not only eye complaints but also rheumatism and lameness. A sufferer from hip pains is said in the 18th century to have bathed the afflicted part and also drank the water using a limpet shell, and received some relief. He also placed some money on the stone altar in the chapel. Some people left their crutches on the altar, believing they had been cured. The red mud or clay used to be made into a poultice applied to limbs and eyes, the patients lying for some hours in the sun. Sounds like a kill or cure remedy!

Just across the bay on St Govans Head is a small coastguard lookout, now used only for rough weather watch. The flat-topped cliffs along this stretch are a favoured spot for climbers, who come from far and wide to test their skills on the sheer, but not too high, cliffs. A short distance to the west is Huntsman’s Leap, also known as Penny’s or Adam’s Leap, a deep fissure on the clifftop where a huntsman is said to have leaped across on horseback during a chase. The folk tale relates that the huntsman returned to the scene the following day and collapsed with shock, due to the realization of what he had done and what the consequences might have been, and died of a heart attack.

Better if he hadn’t looked.

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