Gumfreston is a little twelfth-century church dedicated to St Lawrence, though the western porch may be all that remains of an even earlier building. It has three holy wells in the churchyard. These come from three separate springs with totally different water sources. Two are chalybeate (iron and sulphur-bearing), the third is not. The three springs are probably a pre-Christian holy site (three being one of the mystical numbers of the Celts) and the early Christians tried to take these ancient holy places over rather than destroying them.
The interior arrangement of the church is strange and puzzling. The tower, originally detached, has been joined to the church and the ground floor made into a chapel. The medieval altar stone is now part of the paving of the floor, but can be recognised by its consecration crosses. There is a shallow alcove in the west wall and a passage squint towards the altar. Brother Gildas of Caldey Island speculates that this may at one time have been an anchorite’s cell.
On the north wall are some faded lines on the plaster, all that remains of a huge wall painting of Christ surrounded by the craft implements of the local tradespeople. You can just make out the two feet, a scissors and a fishing net. It is a medieval warning against working on Sunday: what the painting is saying is that breaking the Sabbath re-crucifies Christ.
While Gumfreston is peaceful and remote now, it was obviously at one time in the heart of a bustling community. In the wood to the south of the churchyard wall are the ruins of the village that stood beside the quay on the river estuary. This was a transfer point for goods from the road to little coasting vessels. It was also on the pilgrimage route across south Wales to St David’s and could have been a stopping point for pilgrims heading for Tenby to take ship for Europe and the Holy Land. All this came to an end in the nineteenth century when the Penally embankment was built and the Ritec valley silted up.
Local pilgrimages survived into the seventeenth century, when the Puritan authorities during the Commonwealth complained that local people were still going to the wells at Easter to ‘throw Lent away’. They threw pins in the water. According to one interpretation, the pins symbolised the nails which were used to nail Christ to the cross. A conscious attempt has been made to revive some of these customs in recent years, with story-telling, well-dressing and blessings of the waters.