Every visit to St David’s should also involve an excursion to the Cadw stewarded site of the ruined medieval pilgrim’s chapel of St Non’s. It is situated a short walk or drive to the south of St David’s (1.1 km), with views southwards over cliffs to the sea of St Non’s Bay.
The truly awesome Sian Rees never over-states issues, so is to be believed when she described it as ‘one of the most idyllically situated monuments in Dyfed’.
St Non was regarded as the mother of St David and this was believed to have been the place where St David was born. The holy well sprung forth at this moment, so the story goes.
The site was therefore key to the sacred landscape of pilgrimage and faith in Dewisland.
The chapel dates back to at least the 11th century when it is mentioned in Rhygyfarch’s Life. There is another documentary reference in 1335. What survives today are the footings of a rectangular structure with a striking N-S orientation. This alignment is perhaps simply in response to the topography but this in itself is not a sufficient explanation. Certainly this orientation limited the amount of the chapel that needed to be positioned downslope and thus supported, as it is, by massive masonry. This pilgrim’s chapel was used through the Middle Ages but fell into disrepair and abandonment after the Reformation.
Professor Dai Morgan Evans suggested that the folklore that ‘St Non’s finger’ left a mark on a rock at the site might be explicable by a prehistoric cup-mark upon one of the stones visible amidst the chapel ruins.
Early digs sometime before 1810 found ‘stone coffins’ associated with the chapel. These might be early Christian cist graves and comparable to those recently excavated elsewhere in coastal Pembrokeshire, including at St Patrick’s Chapel in Whitesands Bay.
There is a ‘Class II’ Early Christian stone, roughly dated to the 7th-8th centuries, found at the site and on display within the chapel ruin. The stone was first recorded in 1856, at which point it had been incorporated into a drystone wall on the east side of the chapel. It is made of dolerite, possibly from Penclegyr, c. 7 km away. It comprises a tapering quadrangular pillar with a incised linear Latin ring-cross. It might have been a grave-marker for one of the graves. Few early medieval stones stand as isolated sentinels to such a complex long-running religious site.
Modern pilgrimage is in evidence here. The early medieval monument provides a focus for votive pebbles at its base. These have prayers and dedications to the dead written upon them. Some imbecile has also crayoned the cross so it is easier to see.
While the chapel was abandoned soon after the Reformation, the well persisted as a focus of devotion and healing. The spring-head and well to the east were capped in the 18th century, and traditionally attracted votive deposits of pebbles and pins on St Non’s Day – 2nd March. Today, coins, flowers and prayer ribbons are offered and there is a dedicatory sign. The modern chapel and Catholic retreat have been built uphill from the well.
Edwards, N. 2007. A Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales, Volume II. South-West Wales, Cardiff: University of Wales Press.
Rees, S. 1992. Dyfed. A Guide to Ancient and Historic Wales