St Govan's Chapel | Photography of Pembrokeshire
Nestled in the beautiful coastline of Pembrokeshire is St Govan’s chapel. A small building, no bigger than a small sitting room looking out onto the sea. There are many different versions of who St Govan was, with some being more fanciful than others.
Some legends go with the idea that Govan was a legendary knight from the court of King Arthur, previously called Gawain, who decided to retire as a hermit and live out his years in south west Wales, whilst others say he was slain by Sir Lancelot. The more popular one (I think), is that he was an Irish abbot who came to Wales to meet up with old friends. Or maybe he was Gwalchmai, a famous figure from Welsh folklore. Whoever he was, he was once attacked by pirates during his journey around Pembrokeshire. He ran to avoid capture, and in his bid to escape the pirates, the story has it that the cliff opened up, leaving a gap in the rocks big enough for him to sneak in and wait for danger to pass.
So thankful was Govan of this miraculous escape that he decided to stay there and set up his monastic life as a thanks to God. Centuries later, the place became known as St Govan’s Head and the chapel was built in the 13th century with Govan buried underneath it.
I visited Pembrokeshire during the summer months before the pandemic took over, to visit my brother. When I said I wanted to photograph some points of interest, rather than just the coastline, which are staggeringly beautiful, he took me to, amongst other places, St Govan’s head, a place famous for its chapel in the rocks.
After descending the stone steps down to the chapel, we made our way through a small archway and inside. Unsurprisingly, it was small and sparse, and I pretty much started straight away looking for the best shots.
What I should have done was just wandered around the chapel first and had a look for the best angles and what could have led to better compositions, instead of clicking the first things I saw – still, you live and learn.
Thence the same Day to St. Gobin’s Well, by the Sea Side, where, under the Cliff, stands a little Chapel, sacred to that Saint, and a little below it a Well, famous for the Cure of all Diseases. There is, from the Top of the Cliff to the Chapel, a Descent of 52 Steps.
John Ray, 1662
That said, one of the first photographs I took was through the window that looks out onto the sea. I took a few attempts and as it was a bright day, I pretty much knew that HDR was going to be invaluable back at Lightroom base. Using HDR is a bit like the Goldilocks of photo editing where you have three pictures of the one scene where one is under exposed, another is over exposed and one that is exposed somewhere in the middle. In post-editing, I’d just merge them together to get the best of all three in order to make a complete picture.
Once we’d explored St Govan’s chapel, (although in hindsight, I don’t think I explored it enough), we carried on down towards the shoreline. It was a fairly windy day, nothing to wild but it was enough to make a difference. I noticed on the way down that the rocks on the cliff face were too good not to capture.
I love the photo ‘Big Rock’, because if you look at it carefully it’s difficult to work out where the big rock ends and the background begins. Where there is clarity at the base of the rock as it sits proudly on the water, there is ambiguity at its top. The distinction between the rock in the foreground and the cliff face in the background is easier to see in the original colour version of this picture, which is why I opted to have this one as a black and white image. However, in my haste to finish the photo, I pretty much ignored the sky – an error on my part – which is why the sky itself doesn’t look so great. Maybe I’ll retouch this picture in the future.
There was also a gentleman standing precariously neat the edge of the cliff top, so the photograph that emphasizes the size of the cliff and the smallness of the man, was too good a picture not to take.
Lastly, I wanted to take an image of the sea. Not having a tripod wasn’t ideal as I wanted to get a shot using a slower shutter speed. Instead, I had to rely on a rock to find the ideal resting spot for the camera so that the shutter could be open for about half a second. It doesn’t seem long but even half a second makes long exposure shots blurry.
There were other photos that I took, but I very much doubt they will see the light of day. To have half a dozen pictures out of hundreds is fairly standard for a photographer, most of the photographs I have taken will remain nothing more than megabytes on the hard drive. We carried on walking along the coastline and cliff edge, which game me the opportunity to take some more pictures, which I won’t go into for this blog – maybe another time.
Thanks to the big brother for showing me to St Govan’s Head. If you ever visit Pembrokeshire, be sure to pay it a visit. The chapel itself faces south east, so if I decide to go there again to take some pictures, I’ll probably make it an early one to give me a sunrise – maybe that’ll work.