WHERE THE FOLK can I find a Pirate-Fighting Monk?
Updated: Feb 23
THIS IS A CAUTIONARY TALE about how you should always look up the history and mythos of a place before visiting, or you might miss out, even if some things were staring you right in the face…
It wasn’t long after the first national lockdown in 2020. Summer was just about clinging on and I was feeling a bit constrained, so I decided to dust off the blow-up mattress and mouldy old festival tent I keep under my bed and head to the country for the weekend. Just me, some ale and an entire cow’s-worth of beef, camping beneath the stars to the sound of crashing waves...
I had it in my head to camp near a beach, you see, but each and every seaside campsite in South Wales was fully-booked, what with it forecasted to be perhaps the last sunny and warm weekend of the year. Eventually, I booked a night at the Freshwater West & Gupton Farm campsite, owned by the National Trust, right at the edge of the Castlemartin Peninsula, near Pembroke. I did a quick Google-search of things to see and do in the area the night before and saw, amongst numerous other things, a neat-looking chapel built into some cliffs, with stormy seas raging below it.
"Smart!" I had to see it.
The following morning, I loaded everything into my car, taking my duvet with me, as I hadn’t realized I didn’t have a sleeping bag anymore, for whatever reason... then stopped at Tesco to stock up on supplies before heading on my way. I had never gone camping on my own before, and it felt like I was off on some important, soul-searching solo mission of some kind. Truth is, I ended up just getting drunk on my own in a field next to a gas power station.
It began as a straight-forward drive along the M4 from Cardiff, but it was a bit too easy, really, and I got to day-dreaming, so it took me a while to realize when the motorway ended. The looks I was getting when I casually overtook everyone were like:
Then the roads became so narrow that there was barely enough room for one car to get through, and I clenched my cheeks each time I went round a corner for about an hour. As I neared my destination, passing through tiny villages along narrow lanes, with bushes so tall it made you feel like you were trying to find your way out of a giant hedge maze built for cars, a strange sense of nostalgia overcame me, and I thought of home. Hiraeth.
I bypassed Tenby, skimmed by Pembroke, then Maiden Wells and Castlemartin, before finally arriving at a small cluster of farm buildings with a handful of tents set up nearby. My poor suspension took a beating as I bobbed, rocked and tumbled down Lunar Lane in my tiny red Fiesta before I finally parked up in one piece.
Due to the pandemic, there were no staff there to greet me when I arrived. Instead, I checked myself in and picked up a brown envelope full of leaflets on local attractions and a handy little map they had prepared for me and headed on my way. Out on the field, from where you could just about see the ocean over the hedges, there were enough people for everyone to feel ‘alone’ but without the niggling fear of being murdered- perfect! The only down-side was that the view was that of a huge power station.
I was planning on going to St Govan’s that evening, but to get there, you must pass through Castlemartin Firing Range, an MOD-owned army tank range. During training, the roads and lanes leading to the small chapel on the cliffs are shut, so you must check the firing times online before going, or you might end up wasting a journey. But the roads are usually open on weekends, and that was a Friday, so I decided to hang around the campsite for the night.
From Gupton Farm, you can go down a long walking trail which takes you down to the beach, which itself is huge and very popular with surfers. I sat on the dunes for a while, drinking some berry-flavoured Belgian beer I’d picked up, watching them all bobbing and swaying like seals, with the sun setting on the horizon, then I went for a swim myself. Eventually.
Back at camp, I lit the barbeque and ate an unnatural amount of meat for one man then drank more crazy Belgian beer and went to sleep. During the night, however, I realized that the strange hissing noise I could hear wasn’t the sea breeze, after all, but a puncture in my mattress. I did move so that my back lay on top of it, which delayed the inevitable, but when I woke up in the morning, I lay flat on the ground in agony, with blood rushing to my head from pointing in the wrong direction on the sloping field. Mattress binned and tent packed up again, I made the twenty-minute drive to St Govan’s without any mishaps, though I wasn’t sure the Fiesta would make it up back up Lunar Lane, to be honest with you!
When I arrived (and just in time before the car park got full to the brim, by the way, even though it was only around nine in the morning), I was greeted by the most magnificent view- miles of mighty cliffs, waves crashing against them in dramatic fashion, and behind me, a canvas of rolling green hills. You must walk through a bit of the military training ground to get to the chapel, passing trenches and bunkers along the way, and you can also join the Welsh Coastal Path from there.
Then there it was- Saint Govan's Head, looking far more dramatic than any photograph can give it justice. I climbed down a set of steep, narrow stairs then entered the tiny place of worship. The fairy-tale setting had 'pilgrimage' written all over it. Stepping out, near the water’s edge, I saw a strange-looking rock formation which I couldn’t make heads nor tails of, so I sat on it and admired everything else around it.
After that, I huffed, puffed and cursed as I climbed back up those damn stairs and went back to my car, spending the rest of the day swimming at various beaches along the coast as I made my way back to Cardiff, completely oblivious to the marvels I had just seen. For you see, though I had briefly read the legend of St Govan’s on an information sign near the car park at the time, it wasn’t until a few months later, when I began writing WTF, that I realized just how much I had actually seen…
One version of the story of St Govan's (or 'Sant Gofan' in Welsh) says that Govan was an Irish monk, who came to Wales in search of the friends and family of the abbot whom had trained him back in the day- none other than Saint David himself.
En route, Govan was attacked by pirates (with different versions of the story claiming they were Irish and others claiming they were from nearby Lundy Island).
Govan was doomed, and the pirates were hot on his trail. Then, miraculously, the cliffs themselves opened up, providing a space just big enough for him to squeeze into. He abandoned his boat and hid until the pirates gave up their search and went on their way. It is said that his ribs left an imprint in the rock, and you can, indeed, see a pattern resembling a set of ribs running along the rockface today.
To show his gratitude, he vowed to stay there and protect the locals of nearby Bosheston from pirates by raising the alarm should they come back, and he spent the remainder of his days living as a hermit in a small cave in the cliffs. He survived by catching fish and drinking from two nearby springs, both of which were said to have magical properties. One was a Wishing Well, the other, a Healing one, existing where the medieval chapel (made of local limestone) now stands. Both wells have since dried up.
The chapel was built in the 14th Century, way after Govan’s time (who reportedly died in 568 AD), though the site may have been of monastic importance way before that, perhaps as far back as the 5th Century. It is said that Saint Govan himself is buried beneath the altar. It is also said that his handprints can be seen on the ground there.
When the chapel was built, it was said that the place had some magical healing properties, due to the remnants of the old well that lay underneath it, and was said to help sort out eye problems, skin conditions and stiff joints, though I’d be surprised if anyone’s knees didn’t ache after climbing those stairs!
Which, themselves, are said to be a bit ‘magical’, by the way, for it is rumoured that no mortal man nor woman can count them. As in, if you counted the number of steps on the way down, the figure would be different on the way back up. I, of course, did not count when I went, so am unable to tell you- all I know is that the chapel did nothing for my aching legs, awful skin nor my prescription lenses.
But Govan’s tale doesn’t end there, for you see, the pirates did, indeed, return. Although, for the sequel to make any sense, then Govan must have lived for several hundred years, for it is said that he kept a silver bell in the tower of the chapel (which was built centuries later), which had the most perfect tone when pealed.
Govan put up a good fight when the pirates returned, but they nicked the bell, regardless, and went out to sea with it. However, a group of angels swooped down from the heavens and snatched it off them and took it back to Govan. Then, as a precaution from more marauding pirates, they encased it in stone, thus forming the ‘Bell Rock’, being the strange-looking formation I had seen when I visited the site myself. An altar was carved into the rock for travelling pilgrims to come and pray. It is said that whenever Govan as much as gently tapped the Bell Rock with his finger, it would give out the most tremendous chime.
But others claim that Govan wasn’t an Irish monk, at all, that he was, in fact, 'Gawain', one of the Knights of the Round Table. Gawain, also known was 'Gwalchmei', was King Arthur’s nephew, and featured in many Arthurian legends, including the Mabinogi. He has been referred to as one of the greatest knights of his time, and one of Arthur’s closest companions. Heroic, a true gentleman, a fierce warrior and immensely loyal to Arthur and his family, he was said to have been a ‘defender of women and the poor’ and a bit of a “Maiden’s Knight”... I can only imagine that made him a feminist. He had a horse named ‘Gringolet’ and he even used the legendary sword Excalibur, itself. One recurring theme in Gawain’s tales is his friendship with Sir Lancelot, which later turned into a bitter feud.
It is said that this sparkly-eyed dream-boat (although, historians and story-tellers who were on Lancelot’s side portrayed him as a bit of a douchebag) retired early and chose to live a solitary life in the cave in the cliffs, essentially becoming a hermit. However, he was eventually brought out of retirement to fight pirates, like Steven Seagal. This would certainly explain how Govan, supposedly a monk, was able to put up a decent fight against them when they came back for Round Two.
However, the divine intervention (in the form of a group of guardian angels) suggests a particular closeness to God, which would help defend the claim that he was, in fact, an Irish monk. Then again, King Arthur et al have long been associated with the Christian faith and religious symbolism, so the debate lives on.
But whatever his origins, the moral of the story remains… Google places before you go!
Thanks for reading. I’m interested to know what your opinions are regarding Saint Govan’s origins… also, does anyone have any similar experiences of having gone somewhere without doing your research and regretting it?
Davies, Sioned (2007), The Mabinigion: A new translation
Guest, Lady Charlotte (1838-1845) The Mabinogion
"St Govan's Chapel". Monkton Rectorial Benefice part of the Anglican (Episcopalian) Church in Wales in the Diocese of St Davids.
Manners, Sarah (25 September 2008). "The holy wells of Wales". Western Mail. Wales.
"St. Govan". Saints & Angels. Catholic Online. Retrieved 19 December 2009.
Holden, Luke. "Pilgrimage to Saint Govan's Chapel, South Wales". Orthodox Christian Contact Wales. Retrieved 19 December 2009.
Richard Keen and Ian Burgum, pg. 111, Wales. Orion Publishing Group (1997).