In the quiet tumbling dunes of Gear Sands on the north coast of Cornwall there stands a crumbling ruin. In the main it is smothered in sand. People pass by and if they give it a second glance they assume it to be an old barn. Its crumbling walls gradually erode with weathering helped by children and dogs. It lies alone in the starkly beautiful dunes as it has for centuries, but not for much longer, thanks to St Piran Trust, for what you see before you as you walk this peaceful place is St Piran’s old church. This must not be confused with the ancient oratory of St Piran which was engulfed with sand. The old church was created as a likeness of the oratory in the first instance sometime around the 10th century when the people had to abandon their life at the oratory to the invading sand. They built on the far side of a nearby stream and began again safe in the knowledge that sand does not cross water thus ensuring the continuity of worship first put into effect by St Piran five hundred years earlier.
For eight hundred years from doomsday up to 1804 the church was to prove to be of great importance it grew from a modest structure to a collegiate church in the 12th century and by 14th century was receiving hundreds of pilgrims passing through on their way to Compostella in Spain. This was partly due to the St Piran cult, his head being kept in a silver casket in the church and his relics being paraded on a feretory about the countryside. The church became considerably rich at this time, with many offerings made to St Piran. In Tudor times the church suffered deeply and its importance and riches declined but it continued to be the centre of the community.
From this time however sand began to become a nuisance due to mining operations draining the stream. By the 17th century applications were made to the canons of Exeter Cathedral to remove the church to a secure site. After much opposition this was agreed and in 1795 the last wedding was held there. During this year also the gable end of the lost oratory was sighted.
The people dismantled the tower, windows, columns etc, to a site inland although much was left in situ. Burials continued in the surrounding graveyard until 1835 It was in this year also that the oratory was first excavated thus creating another inexplicable link through the two old churches. They were then abandoned to the sand.
Dr Dexter conducted a limited excavation of the chancel end in 1922. He discovered two beautiful slate tablets dedicated to two of the most important families of the parish showing perhaps reluctance on their part to the removal of their church.
From this time the church was abandoned to its fate. The walls up to eaves height, and one third of the tower returned to the enveloping sand and were left in peace. Visitors were sparse at this time until the growth of tourism in post war years. Tourists searching for the oratory also scrambled around the old church walls and the erosion became severe. In the mid 1990’s English Heritage led a group of volunteers to repoint and turf the wall tops but serious consolidation work is necessary if the fragile church is to survive. The floor levels also need extensive excavation internally. We need to give back dignity and recognition to what once was of so much importance.
St Piran Trust are committed to the care and recognition of this once proud church which is not just a relic of our past it represents the hope and the pride of the Cornish people when they gather round it in massive numbers to celebrate March 5th Saint Piran and the little oratory in the sand.
We now turn to the future. English Heritage has completed a geophysical survey of the area which reveals small ploughed fields up to the graveyard. Within the graveyard, several structures are shown. St Piran Trust is at last able to move forward with plans to excavate this historic monument to St Piran and in partnership with the Historic Environment Service we begin. The dig will take place during the entire month of September and we shall be looking for volunteers to assist. The work involves moving around 250 tons of sand from the interior of the church, and related works to the outside. The cost of the complete project will be £63,000 which includes much research, assessment and preservation. The bulk of money will be from Heritage Lottery Fund and English Heritage combined with allocated funding from Cornwall County Council. The trust has to find funding of £7,500 and half of this total has been met by grants, however we need you to help, either by a donation however small or by becoming one of Piran’s people to help at the events we plan through the summer months. This excavation is an historic moment in the long history of the churches of St Piran and you could become part of tomorrow’s history now.
We appeal particularly to our Cornish friends round the world to join with us in this venture, making St Piran truly global.