A crab for St Piran’s Day

Today is the feast day of the patron saint of Cornwall, Piran (Peran in Cornish). I’ve posted HERE about the remains of his oratory on Penhale Sands near Perranporth (named after him – it’s also a popular boy’s name in the county).

He’s said in his legend to have arrived on the Cornish coast strapped to a mill wheel, having been consigned to the sea by the king of Leinster, whom he’d angered with his Christian piety. He’s not the only legendary saint to have arrived in Britain by this unconventional means. Piran lived here in Cornwall as a holy hermit in the fifth or sixth centuries; he later became an abbot.

Piran 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 a black background – which accounts for the design of the Cornish flag. Mining – principally at first for tin – was for centuries the dominant industry in this county. Remnants of this industrial activity are found everywhere here – even on the rugged coastal promontories.

Picture: Stemonitis, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In March 2016 a small species of hermit crab was rediscovered on the Cornish coast during a survey by Shoresearch Cornwall – a volunteer programme of the Cornwall Wildlife Trust. The species (clibanarius erythropus) had not been seen here for fifty years. After a viewers’ survey on the BBC ‘Springwatch’ programme, this apt name was chosen for it – both the saint and the crab are hermits, and survive the perils of the sea.

I’m indebted to a post on Facebook for knowledge of the existence of this handsome little red-pincered crab. There’s an even better photo of it in that FB post, if you care to search for the Cornish Wildlife Trust page, and today’s entry there.

 

Nunez, daffodils, holy wells again

Sigrid Nunez, Salvation City. Virago paperback, 2020. First published 2010

I thought Sigrid Nunez’ 2018 novel The Friend (link to my post HERE) was an intelligent, well-written and highly engaging read. I was disappointed by Salvation City.

Nunez, Salvation City coverMaybe it’s because it’s set in an imagined near-future flu pandemic in which many die – including some of the central characters in the narrative. Given our current dire situation here in the UK, where we’ve just entered our third lockdown in response to a scary surge in Covid cases, it wasn’t perhaps the best choice to cheer me up.

I don’t think that fully accounts for my dissatisfaction with the novel. The long central section has the 13-year-old protagonist, a sensitive lad named Cole, being more or less indoctrinated by a group of well-meaning religious zealots who live in the city of the novel’s title. They are convinced that the pandemic is God’s way of initiating the rapture, and only the chosen (ie those same fundamentalists) will achieve ‘salvation’.

I very nearly gave up on the novel after too many pages of their fanatical self-righteousness. Towards the end Cole shows signs of asserting himself and going his own way, but by then I’d almost ceased caring.

I’m afraid I can’t recommend this one – but do try The Friend. Don’t worry about the dog in it.

DaffodilsInstead here’s an image from yesterday’s local walk. In the grounds of Epiphany House (I recently wrote during first lockdown in April about this former convent and school, now a retreat and conference centre – though not much retreating or conferring is happening there at the moment – HERE). These are the first daffodils I’ve seen this winter. They lifted our spirits. Spring is on the way

It’s weird to be walking our local lanes and paths in a January lockdown, almost a year since we started doing this pretty much every day as our only permitted exercise during the first pandemic restrictions. We’ve seen spring flowers come and go, summer hedgerows burst into life, autumn and now midwinter. Soon the cycle will be back where we started. I guess the message is that life goes on (despite the efforts of our hapless leaders, who seem always to be tardily reactive, rather than proactive and firmly decisive).

Holywell Finally a picture taken the previous day at a north Cornwall beach we haven’t been to in ages: Holywell Bay. There are two holy wells in the area: one, a sea cave in the cliffs over the beach (the tide was too high for us to enter it), the other in what’s now a holiday park in the nearby village of Cubert. Their holy, healing qualities are said to derive from association with the northern English St Cuthbert, or a Welsh St Cubert.

The figure just visible in my picture top left is my brother-in-law, peering into the abyss. No, he was investigating a curious concrete structure in the clifftop – possibly some sort of bunker: this area adjoins Penhale, a stretch of sand dunes on which there’s a military establishment which the public can’t access. This is where Cornwall’s patron saint, Piran, is said to have landed on his miraculous stone from Ireland. I wrote about him and his oratory in the dunes HERE back in 2016.

You can read more about the wells and this area HERE. Link to my two posts on Bede’s Life of Cuthbert HERE.

 

Happy New Year to you all. As we’re all saying at the moment, surely this will be an improvement on last year.

 

 

St Feock: the saint, the church, the parish

St Feock

St Feock: window inserted in 1930

Church seen from beside tower

Church seen from beside tower

On Sunday the rain finally stopped and the sun shone. Mrs TD and I went for a walk starting at Feock church. I knew nothing about this obscure saint and this, I think the only church dedicated in his name in England (correct me if I’m wrong). There are some parishes in Britanny with similar names, like Lanveoc, whose patron is St Maeoc. The earliest written lives of saints venerated in Cornwall were written in Britanny, the oldest being that of St Sampson.

The nave

The nave

The oldest saint’s Life written in Cornwall is St Petroc’s. Some scholars have suggested that the –oc(k) element in these names is from the Celtic for ‘oak’, and that ‘Lanfeoc’ may be a composite word signifying ‘holy man living on top of an oak-covered hill’, but this is disputed.

There is no surviving ‘Vita’ or Life of this saint. The first reliable written record of St ‘Fioc’ is from c. 1160,

Sts Kea, Feock and Piran

Local saints Kea, Feock and Piran (from L to R)

where he is cited as a male saint living at Lanfioc – but there is some speculation that Feock might have been female. Later historians settle on ‘he’. Where he came from is therefore unknown, although there is a legend that (like Piran, Cornwall’s patron saint) he arrived by sea, floating on a millstone. The origins of this common hagiographical motif may possibly be that early missionary saints from Ireland, Wales and elsewhere often brought with them a large stone to be used as the altar or foundation for the church they intended establishing in these pagan regions.

The tower seen from the church porch

The tower seen from the church porch

Another suggestion is that he emigrated, as others did, from Cornwall as a missionary to Celtic Britanny – St Sampson, for example, became Bishop of Dol; his disciples, saints Austell and Mewan (now place names in mid-Cornwall), migrated there with Kea – now the name of a part of modern Feock parish; there’s a tasty local variety of plum named after it.

Celtic cross

The Celtic cross

The earliest record of a church at Feock is 12C, although it’s probable there was some sort of important religious site there before then. The font is dated 1130, the oldest artefact in the church. A Celtic cross stands in the churchyard near the south porch. This has been dated 13C, but again this is uncertain.

At the south entrance to the churchyard is a traditional lych-gate. It has a room above it, locally known as the Smuggler’s Vestry or the Schoolroom. The original raised slab on which coffins would have been rested before entering the church grounds has gone, but a part of it, or its foundation, was discovered during maintenance work.

Lychgate

Lychgate

An unusual feature of the church’s design is the separate tower (although there are several examples of similar detached towers in Cornwall), located at the top end of the sloping grounds outside, beside the road that runs through the village. This too has been dated 13C. It may have been an early church in its own right, but the writer of the guide admits this is speculative. It doesn’t have regular windows, just window-shaped openings covered by louvred slate. It’s now a bell-tower.

The present church building was entirely rebuilt in 1875-76.

The parish of St Feock spreads across a fairly wide district, and according to Wikipedia had a population of over 4000 in the 2011 census. The village of Feock itself is much smaller.

The tower with church roof below

The tower with church roof below

We walked from the church down a lane to the end of the promontory. The sumptuous houses on either side of the lane command magnificent views over the Carrick Roads (and the sea beyond) on the SE side, and over Restronguet Creek on the other.

There’s a bench at the furthest tip of the promontory – a very pleasant spot to sit and admire the tranquil scene. The only sounds are the curlews’ liquid calls and the slapping of the mast-ropes (I know that’s not the mariner’s term) on the moored boats.

View across Restronguet Creek towards Pandora Inn jetty

View across Restronguet Creek towards Pandora Inn jetty. Clouds already gathering

Across the creek is the jetty projecting from the yard in front of one of the most attractive pubs in Cornwall: the Pandora Inn. Parts of the building date back to the 13C. It was named after the HMS Pandora, the ship sent to Tahiti to capture the mutineers of Capt. Bligh’s Bounty. It struck the Great Barrier Reef in 1791 and sank with the loss of crew and mutineers. Its captain, who survived, was arrested on his return to Cornwall where he is reputed to have bought the inn.

A fire in 2011 destroyed much of the first floor, but it has been sympathetically restored and re-thatched. It’s a lovely place on a summer’s day to sit and have lunch outside on the jetty, watching the yachty folk coming and going. Mrs TD’s sister’s friend held her wedding reception there.

Yew tree

This impressive yew tree in the churchyard is said to be 500 years old

I am indebted for much of the information in this post to the 92-page printed guide by C.D. North, available from the church. There’s no place or date of publication, but it seems to be from 2003.

 

 

 

 

St Piran’s Oratory and Church, Penhale Sands

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.

Penhale Sands dunesThe 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 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).

 

St Piran's OratoryHis 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 St Piran's Oratorybeen 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 St Piran's Oratorycross 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, St Piran's Oratorygatherings 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

St Piran's Oratory

Oratory doorway

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.

St Piran's Oratory

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

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 St Piran's Churchsuch 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

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].