Our Cornish travels continued yesterday. We revisited Penhale Sands, a favourite walk of our much-missed dog, Bronte. It’s years since we’ve been there: seemed too sad without her ecstatic explorations and refusal to acknowledge the presence of rabbits. I’m glad we finally went.
The views are terrific. Superficially it’s rather bland – miles of irregularly undulating dunes, now grass-covered, but with sandy trails and rabbit-excavated pits a reminder of what lies beneath the surface – a lot of sand, blown inland for centuries from the long Atlantic-battered beaches nearby.
When we used to walk Bronte there, St Piran’s Oratory was just another dune-like bump. Now it’s been re-excavated and it’s exciting to see the 7C stone remains – not spoiled too much by the modern protective block walls.
St Piran’s Oratory
St Piran’s Cornish name is Peran, Latin Piranus, hence the name of nearby resort Perranporth, and many other places and church dedications in Cornwall, Celtic Britain and Britanny. It’s also a popular boys’ name in Cornwall.
Piran was a 5 or 6C Cornish abbot, one of many Celtic saints said to have travelled across the sea from Ireland, where he has been identified with St Ciarán of Saigir (apparently the P and K sounds often transpose in Celtic languages).
His legend is one of many hagiographical accounts of saints being preserved from drowning: in one version he was thrown into the sea strapped to a millstone, having angered the pagan king of Leinster (or a group of tribal kings) with his holy deeds. The sea calmed, and he floated safely across to north Cornwall, where he became a hermit, attracting numerous followers – the first of his converts were said to have been a fox, a badger and a boar. He soon established his Oratory on the sands near to where he landed.
Another legend claims he lived to the age of 206.
He is also said to have rediscovered tin-smelting, by lighting his fire on a black hearthstone which turned out to be rich in tin ore. The tin smelted to the surface to form a white-silver cross on the black background.
Piran is thus the patron saint of tin-miners, and popularly recognised as official saint of Cornwall. The flag of St Piran, a white cross on a black background, is generally recognised as Cornwall’s flag. The colours are said to represent the black ore and contrasting metal of tin – or the light of truth shining in the darkness.
It flies proudly at all kinds of Cornish sites, gatherings and functions, from the county council offices to the Gorsedh Kernow, or Cornish eisteddfod.
His feast-day on 5 March is marked by a procession and celebration of Cornish culture and heritage, across the dunes to the Oratory. Daffodils are placed there, and a play in the Cornish language has been
performed at the event.
The Oratory is possibly an early Christian chapel. It is a small building (approx. 9m x 5.5, according to the explanatory sign outside) with a ‘stone bench, which extends around the interior’, a nave and chancel, which may have been divided by a wooden rood screen. There are ‘doorways to the south and east’.
An early medieval inscribed stone is built into the wall of the building, and the southern doorway was, at some point, rebuilt with ‘three carved heads incorporated into the arch’.
The Oratory was first documented by Leland in 1540. It must became covered and hidden by sand in medieval times, and was first excavated in the 1830s, when some not particularly sympathetic ‘restoration’ took place.
Old photo of a skeleton on the noticeboard by the Oratory; better images on the St Piran’s Trust website
Sand encroached again, and the structure was in danger of collapse. In 1910 a protective concrete shell was built over it. During this work several skeletons were found, including one near the doorway of a woman with a small child in her arms.
Because of vandalism, regular flooding and damage caused by treasure-hunters, the Oratory was reburied in 1980. The St Piran Trust was formed in 2000 to raise funds for its re-excavation and preservation, and to promote and interpret the historic sites associated with the saint. The restored structure seen in my pictures was finally revealed again in 2014.
St Piran’s Church
St Piran’s Church remains are found near to the Oratory. It’s not known when it was built, but its oldest parts have been dated 12 or 13C – though it may have been built on the site of an earlier church. It’s located inside an ancient cemetery.
A south aisle and tower were added between 13-16C. In 1804 the encroachments of sand were such that a new church was built two miles inland at Lambourne, and the fabric of the old one was reused for its construction. The remains fell into ruin.
It was excavated 1917-20, and again, with the aid of St Piran’s Trust, this century. Again their website has masses of useful detail and great images and maps.
St Piran’s Cross
Nearby stands the cross of St Piran, probably coeval with the Oratory (pre-Norman Conquest) and the oldest in the county.
[I am indebted to the information on the St Piran’s Trust website for much of the content of this post. I’d strongly recommend you click on the link HERE to see its excellent gallery of pictures of these ancient sites dating back to the Victorian period and beyond, showing the various generations of excavation, and other fascinating documentation and information – such as an account of medieval relics of St Piran, and an entertaining blog. There’s a separate section on Perran Round nearby, site of a Plen an Gwari or ‘playing place’ – it’s been described as ‘Britain’s earliest theatre’ – about which see my recent post about St Just, site of another one.
See also the trailblazing site of Golden Tree Productions for more on plenis an gwari].