The story goes something like this:
He was an Irish monk, or a thief, or maybe Sir Gawain himself, one of King Arthur’s knights. Whatever the case, on this particular day he was running – maybe from pirates, or possibly from villagers he had robbed.
The fleeing rogue/hero/saint stumbled down a crevice in the Pembrokeshire coastline, emerging in a tiny, rocky cove. Grey rocks hunkered in on every side, offering no chance of escape. He heard shouts and footsteps above him and in his fear he pressed himself tight against the cliff.
And then – the cliff face opened, as easily as if it was made of clay. Govan squeezed himself into the cave that had opened behind him and as it stretched to accommodate him, his heaving ribs left their imprint in the cave wall. The marks can still be seen today, in the rear of the little chapel that was built in the place he made his home. Two freshwater springs sprang forth too, although they are dry these days.
The chapel, its walls mottled in shades of parchment and verdigris, its glassless windows slanting sunlight, feels still and safe, despite the crash of waves on rocks just yards away. I sat there while my friend Kelly painted and sketched outside, then walked into the cave and made a wish. One of the most charming pieces of folklore about this place is that if you can stand in the crevice where Govan hid and turn yourself around, your wish will be granted. It’s a narrow gap but I managed it.
There are other tales too – how the tumbling cascade of steps never numbers the same going up as down; how people came to the wells for healing – but what interests me most is the thought that this holy man chose to spend his days living in this liminal place on the very edge of the map, where the sea flings itself against the land with a boundless, rhythmic passion. Watching the waves spill over the rocks, they seem both gestural and vocal, singing a language of sign and sound we have long forgotten.
Man has always found God in the lonely places. I remember a Hindu man once telling me of the mountains in India where the gods are said to reside. “You go up there and you just know it’s true – you can feel them,” he said. I do not doubt it.
It’s the mystic’s lot to inhabit those borderlands, both in the physical world and in the mind – places where loneliness and the sheer vastness of creation threaten you with madness and beckon you with the promise of the view from the mountaintop. I salute St Govan and all his kind – the adventurers who did not travel.