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St Ia: a tale of two chapels

The contrast between the two chapels that are known to have been dedicated to St Ia could not be greater: one is the pretty, 15th Century chapel in the busy centre of St Ives - the name of the Saint is commemorated in the old place-name, Porth-Ia - and the other is a barely-discernible remnant in a dark and shaded woodland near to the village of Troon, 14km to the east of St Ives. The chapel in the bustling town centre is seen by hundreds of people every day: the latter retains a sense of centuries past.

Reen Rocks, near the chapel site

The common land on which the remnants of St Ia's chapel are located are now luxuriously wooded with broadleaf trees, though it was not always so. Once, the chapel would have been a prominent building in the landscape, positioned close to the road south towards the ancient pilgrimage destination of St Micheal's Mount, so as to benefit from alms of passing travellers, in addition to those of the local faithful. The site was rediscovered in the 1960s by the archaeologist Charles Thomas, who located the site from a description made by William Borlase, Rector of Ludgvan and a chronicler of antiquities in the south-west, in his 1754 publication. Borlase refers to a hermit cell being near the site of the chapel, which is itself located close to the blocky granite outcrop of Reen Rocks, but there is no evidence of that today; the sediments of the river have covered any trace of that structure, and only fragmentary walls of the chapel itself can be discerned below the tangle of brambles, ferns and saplings taking root in the soil washing down the bank from farmland above.

The Life of St Meriask, with stage diagrams, dating from around 1400 AD.

Interestingly, St Ia is not the only saint associated with this location: in the The Life of St Meriask - written by 1400 for performance in the community – it is conjectured that it is Reen Rocks where the Saint goes to hide, as he is pursued (and successfully evades) the pagan soldiers sent to capture him for performing miracles in the name of God. Given this link, it seems appropriate that the beautiful granite cross that was once here (and was drawn by Borlase) and the intricately-carved altar frontal – known as the Leluit Stone – are both now in the safe environs of Camborne Parish church, dedicated to both St Martin and St Meriask (anglicised to Meriadoc).

Partial view of the Leluit stone - likely the frontal panel of the altar at St Ia's chapel, Troon.

Charles Thomas led extensive archaeological work in the 1960s to explore the site here; his work showed that the chapel was established around 950 AD, and enlarged on at least two occasions in the following centuries. The excavation revealed walls of up to 1.6m high, though much of these are now re-buried in accumulated sediment. The chapel was licensed for worship by the church authorities in 1429, after which it would have served as a 'chapel of ease' (a local alternative to the parish church in Camborne) at least up until the Reformation, around 1530. As Nicholas Orme explains in his very accessible book 'Cornwall and the Cross', a Guild of people from the local area would have been responsible for raising money for its upkeep, and making a donation from the chapel to the funds of the parish church in Camborne.

The cross of St Ia that stood here – and which was probably carved around the middle of the 10th century –was sketched in the margin of notes made by William Borlase when it was still set adjacent to the chapel near Troon in 1750. By 1896, the St Ia cross had found its way to Crane Farm in Camborne, where it was used as a support for the winding mechanism in a water-well, and upon its discovery – by a local blacksmith doing some repairs - locals transferred it to the current site at the end of the 19th century, where it stands sentinel near to the south porch.

The seclusion of the site of St Ia – buried in woodland and accessible along tiny paths near a pretty, noisy stream – makes it worthy of a modern-day pilgrimage. Though there is little to actually see, the setting holds a sense of peace and completeness and – appropriately for its heritage – takes us away from the rush of modern life in the built environment that pervades much of our waking hours. At the time when St Ia’s chapel was in use, transport was predominately on foot, so the boundaries of local lives were much more constrained than today; recent restrictions in our society have perhaps limited our own movements, bringing us closer to the past than we would usually be.

References include:

Christian Antiquities of Camborne – Charles Thomas (1967)

Cornwall and the Cross: Christianity 500 - 1560. Nicholas Orme (2007)

Antiquities of Cornwall – William Borlase (1754)

Plen an Gwari: the playing places of Cornwall – Will Coleman (2015)

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