Over the dunes of Perranporth and through the marram grass; the narrow pathways far above the populated beach seem to be in another land. The incoming tide provides a soundscape of peacefulness, but is almost extinguished with a sharp turn of the path to the right, inland.
We cannot know if our footsteps here are in the path of those that have gone before us, as the ever-shifting sand ensures that previous routes are eradicated. But, as the saying goes 'paths are made by walking', and the beauty of the area makes it a surety that this area had been considered special for many generations.
Then these assumptions are proved correct: in a small hollow in the sand, still wet from the deluges of the recent winter, we find the remains of St Piran’s oratory – walls made from an amazing assortment of local stones, and incorporating a graceful arched doorway on the south side of the rectangular structure. The oratory here is thought to have been built in the 7th century and is where St Piran – who bought Christianity to Cornwall – is believed to have landed on the peninsula, and established himself as a Christian hermit. Over time, others joined him here, and a small Christian community developed on this site, which persisted after the death of Piran: a Celtic monastery is noted here in the Doomsday Book (1066). Pilgrims have travelled to this site for centuries: when the sun shines bright, and the beauty of the stone walls and blue sky are reflected clear and muted in the water, a sense of fluidity between the heavens and earth is palpable. Certainly, worth the journey.
Passing on along the path, just a few hundred metres further we come to an imprint of the second St Piran’s church, built when the oratory was consumed by the shifting sands in the 11th or 12th century. The site of the Oratory would have continued to be visited, no doubt, even it was not accessible, and perhaps this second larger church was able to accommodate a larger number of worshippers, as the sanctity of the site became better known. There is little stone here – much of it was removed when the church was moved for a second time in the late 1700s – but the outline of the church is clearly preserved, along with some remnants of window edges and traces of plaster on the inside walls. An arched recess to hold a piscina is still visible in the south wall (photo), and the sense that this place has been important to so many generations of local people is very evident. It is possible that parishioners Phillip and Grace Mitchell, who both lived to be 100 years old and passed away in the middle of the 19th century, were married here in 1795, before the parish church was moved to its current location It is wonderful that this footprint of the church – which may have originally been built as part of the Celtic monastery, and later repurposed as a parish church - is exposed at the present day. A space to reflect.
When this second church of St Piran began to be engulfed by the moving sands of Perran, late in the seventeenth century, much of the stone from this building was removed, and used in the construction of the third (and current) church, at Perranzabuloe, the foundation stone of which was laid in 1804. We made the journey – two and half miles as the crow (or chough) flies - by car, as we had lingered so long over the older churches here, but on another day, I would like to follow the footpaths over the dunes and along the lanes to go by foot.
Local wisdom is that half of the burials from the Medieval church were moved to the new location, and half were left. Though there seem to be no records of this, it is true that some of the headstones in the current churchyard do predate the establishment of the church here. Transfer of architectural elements is less contentious – several aspects of the decoration both outside and inside here are inherited from the Medieval church and perhaps – in turn – from The Oratory: a powerful carved face above the door, and the enchanting, diminutive Cross of St Piran located near to it, are just two examples. On a larger scale, the tower of the church – in three sections – are the second, third and fourth sections of the tower from the Medieval church; it’s wonderful to think that this aspect of the landscape, known to people in the area over 800 years ago, persists to the present day.
Though the modern A3075 passes close to the new location of the church, and cars whizz by to and from Newquay, a sense of peace pervades the large and beautiful churchyard here. Fringed by a varied array of shrubs and trees, and on a site naturally higher than the passing road, something of the sanctity and ‘other’ of the much older sites in the dunes is recreated here. The churchyard is one of the largest in Cornwall, and the multitude of memorials crowd together in the enclave of the church, preserving a slice of the previous community to live in this beautiful part of the peninsula.