This is St Govan’s Chapel, set almost at the bottom of a sea cliff on the Pembrokeshire coastline. It dates from the twelfth century, but is reputed to be on the site of a sixth century hermitage. The origins of the place are lost in myth, but it has long been (and remains) a place of pilgrimmage. It is a curiously peaceful place, given its location. On one side, and just below, are the crashing waves of the Atlantic. To the other side, and above, there is violence of another kind — an MoD artillery range. Only after crossing either of these formidable obstacles do you gain access to the slippery stone steps that will lead you into the chapel itself. According to legend, the cleft in the rock provided a miraculous shelter for St Govan which hid him from Viking pirates.
It became a base from which he could minister to the world. For pilgrims, it was and is a place of refreshment and encouragement, a temporary shelter from which to return to the work of God.
As a building, it is not especially inspiring. There is ample evidence that not all the visitors are pilgrims. Litter, graffiti and certain unmistakeable odours suggest that many who enter this little place are unmoved by the centuries of faithful witness to the gospel of which it is a symbol. When I look at the Church I see a lot that reminds of St Govan’s. I’m forced to wonder at the motives of some of my fellow-travellers. I can’t help but question the buildings we use, the places we put them in and the uses we put them to. Despite all these things, I found in my visit to this odd little building that God can still inspire us to faith, though the surroundings may be unwelcoming, the journey there difficult and the company sometimes unwelcome — it is the presence of God, not the perfection of the people or premises that keeps me returning to the Church as both temporary shelter and place of equipment.
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