Tracing legends in Pembrokeshire

Legend has it that if you walk inside the tomb at St. Govan’s Chapel and turn around without touching the walls, your wish will be granted. Then again, there are many legends surrounding this beautiful and desolate stretch of land on the Pembrokeshire coast of Wales.

St. Govan’s Point is the most southerly spot on the Pembrokeshire Coast. Below the point

St. Govan’s Point is the most southerly spot on the Pembrokeshire Coast. Below the point

Legend has it that if you walk inside the tomb at St. Govan’s Chapel and turn around without touching the walls, your wish will be granted. Then again, there are many legends surrounding this beautiful and desolate stretch of land on the Pembrokeshire coast of Wales.

Situated on the southernmost point of the Pembrokeshire coast, St. Govan’s Chapel dates to about the 13th century, with parts of the structure dating to as early as the sixth century AD. It was on this windswept point in the sixth century that Sir Gawain — the nephew of legendary King Arthur and one of Knights of the Roundtable — is said to have retired and lived out the remainder of his days as a hermit following Arthur’s death. His body may have been buried on the site and some believe it is he who grants the wishes.

Another story relates to a legendary figure known as St. Govan, who reputedly established a hermitage at the site after escaping from pirates. In a miraculous act of God that proved his sainthood, the rocks of the cliffs opened up to hide him from his pursuers and kept him hidden until the pirates had gone. His body is also believed to be buried in the chapel tomb, so it may be the saint who grants the wish.

Since the names of both figures are so similar, some suspect they could be the same person.

Even if you don’t put much stock in the ancient folklore surrounding St. Govan’s, the tiny stone chapel nestled between the craggy cliffs is worth a visit. A flight of worn stone steps leads down to the ancient stone chapel that measures only 3.5 metres by 5.5 metres.

You can stand on the rocks above or below the structure and take in the view of the shoreline. With the wind blowing relentlessly towards the cliffs, one can imagine that it would take a saint or a fierce knight to live in a wild and desolate place like this.

Exploring Pembrokeshire — The countryside of Pembrokeshire County is both rugged and gentle and abounds in wonderful little spots that are surrounded by legend and folklore. The stories behind these places paint a picture of the people who lived here in ancient times and create an aura of magic and adventure. Here are a few more recommended sites if you want to do your own driving tour of this part of Wales.

St. Non’s Chapel and Holy Well —St. Non’s Holy Well is believed to have remarkable healing powers and was a popular pilgrimage site for centuries. Some people merely dip their hands in the well, while others submerge their entire bodies in its waters hoping for a miracle cure or some other type of blessing.

The site is said to be the birthplace of St. David, the patron saint of Wales. According to Christian tradition, Saint Non was born around 475 AD and lived as a nun near Whitesands Bay until she was raped by Prince Sandde of Ceredigion. She gave birth at the wellsite to a boy who became St. David, the patron saint of Wales.

The ruin that is thought to be on the site of St. Non’s house is one of the oldest Christian buildings in Wales and it overlooks the rocky coastline of St. Non’s Bay. A visit to this site can include a walk along the Pembrokeshire Coast Path that leads along the tops of the Cambrian cliffs back towards the tiny city of St. Davids.

St. Davids — With a population of less than 2,000 souls, St Davids is the smallest city in the UK. In this part of the world, the designation “city” does not refer to the size of the community, but rather the presence of a cathedral. Since the tiny community of St. Davids is home to St. David’s Cathedral, it qualifies for city status.

The city of St. Davids was built by the patron saint of Wales sometime near the middle of the fifth century AD, but the cathedral that is seen today was built between the 12th and 15th centuries. During the Middle Ages, the cathedral was such a popular place of pilgrimage that Pope Calixtus II decreed that two pilgrimages to St. David’s were equivalent to one pilgrimage to Rome.

In addition to the cathedral, visitors to the city can see the 13th century Tower Gate, the Celtic Old Cross, and enjoy a number of art galleries and restaurants. St. Davids is also a popular starting point for walkers, as the city is located inside Pembrokeshire Coast National Park and near the popular Pembrokeshire Coast Path.

Pembroke Castle — Set on the banks of a river estuary in the Town of Pembroke , Pembroke Castle is the birthplace of Henry Tudor, father to Henry VIII and grandfather to Elizabeth I.

Although the fortress looms above the main street of the town and is one of the largest castles in Wales, it was never a royal castle. It was instead the centre of government of a prominent lordship and the seat of succession of important barons who played leading roles in shaping Britain’s history.

Visiting the castle today and exploring its passageways and tunnels opens a window into medieval life.

Following the visit, you can wander around the medieval town walls and the millpond and view the castle from the opposite side of the river.

If you visit during the summer, the castle hosts living history events and works of Shakespeare, played out within the stage of the Outer Ward.

If you go:

• Pembrokeshire is located in South West Wales in the United Kingdom, approximately 120 km west of the capital city of Cardiff. The easiest way to get to Pembroke from Canada is to fly into London and catch a train from London to Pembroke. The train journey from London to Pembroke will take approximately five-and-a-half hours and requires a train change in Swansea, the second city of Wales. Once in Pembroke, you can rent a car and explore the area. Traffic is not heavy in this part of Wales.

• Some of the best rates for flights to London can be found through Thomas Cook Airlines at www.canadianaffair.ca. Direct flights from Calgary to London are available for $99 plus taxes for a return flight during the months of May and June (taxes are approximately $495).

• If you are not interested in driving yourself, consider contacting Pegassus Coach Tours (www.travelpegasus.co.uk) to make your travel arrangements in Wales. A guided coach tour is particularly convenient for small groups. If you’re looking to hire a private guide, I recommend Stephen Griffin of Griffin Guiding (www.griffinguiding-wales.co.uk). Stephen was the excellent tour guide who introduced me to this part of Wales.

A note about last week’s column:

The photo that appeared on page C1 on Saturday, May 15, was intended to be a picture of Waterton Lakes National Park. Unfortunately, the wrong photo was submitted and a picture of Banff National Park ran instead. Many thanks to astute readers who emailed or called to point out the mistake. The picture that actually ran was a picture of Banff taken from the Penthouse suite of the Banff Springs Hotel. Below is the picture I had intended to submit. This photo was taken from the Bell Tower of the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Lakes National Park.

Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, Alta., T4R 1M9.