If you are brave enough to tackle the “uncountable” steps carved into the Pembrokeshire cliffside, you'll find a tiny chapel.

The locals know it as St Govan's Chapel, near the village of Bosherton.

The chapel itself is believed to have been built in the 13th or 14th Century, though the legend of St Govan is almost a millennia older.

It is an area steeped in myth and folklore, making it a fitting backdrop for the screen adaptation of Phillip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’.

Dating from the 5th or 6th Century, St Govan was reputed to be a hermit monk who guarded St Govan Head from Irish pirates.

Once, while being chased by the bandits, a cleft is said to have opened in the cliff, only just wide enough for him to hide in and evade capture.

The natural fault in the rock bears striations which - legend has it - are the marks from St Govan’s ribs as he squeezed in.

Though, perhaps unsurprisingly, there is no firm evidence for any of this.

Dr Juliette Wood, Cardiff University’s Welsh folklore expert, said that rather than being a single individual, St Govan represents events and ideas from multiple sources.

She makes a distinction between historical saints, for whom there is some documentary evidence of having at least been a real person, and mythic saints who embody fears and aspirations.

“During the 5th and 6th Centuries that area would certainly have been under attack from Irish raiders, and at the same time the ancient British tribes who’d been pushed back into what we now call Wales saw their Christianity under threat," she said.

The legend goes that St Govan guarded the cliffs and rang a magic golden bell to warn of invaders.

Furious, the bandits stole his bell, only to be sunk by angels on their return voyage to Ireland.

According to the story, the bell was encased in stone by the angels meaning it could never be stolen again.

“There is a teardrop-shaped boulder which is said to contain the bell, and as with the striations in the cleft, you can see how this was a powerful means of using the natural world to reinforce beliefs and provide hope,” Dr Wood said.

More recently, newer traditions have sprung up around St Govan - something Dr Wood called "tourist legends".

“I don’t use that term disparagingly, throughout history legends have always subtly changed over time, and if they don’t, they die out," she said.

“But as efforts grew in the 19th and 20th Centuries to get people to visit the area, new stories emerged, such as the tale of the steps which are supposed to be ‘uncountable’, and the bell rock, which has now become a wishing bell which will grant you any desire as long as you don’t change your mind before you turn away from it.”

Having already survived 1,400 years or so, Dr Wood believes there’s every chance that people will still be recanting the legend of St Govan in another millennia-and-a-half.

“Legends like these seep into the fantasy books and films young people are consuming, and especially into video games," she said.

“So - presuming we’re not wiped out in an Armageddon – these things will change and adapt, but they’ll be with us for many more thousands of years.”

2024-02-11T15:39:14Z dg43tfdfdgfd