Excavation begins to uncover St Piran’s Oratory
Followers of Cornwall’s favourite saint will be donning their boots and raising their shovels next week as the operation to unearth St Piran’s Oratory from the dunes gets under way.
The week-long project, to be carried out by a team of volunteers led by archaeologists, is the culmination of a 15-year campaign by St Piran Trust. Buried “for its own protection ” in 1980, the 5th century stone structure [probably later, although a stone bearing a fragmentary inscription (PERNP/1) of probable 5th or 6th century date is featured upside down in the wall of the oratory] set in sand dunes above Perranporth is claimed by some historians to be the oldest Christian building in Britain.
Truro and Falmouth MP Sarah Newton will be joined by diggers and archaeologists at the site on Monday to officially launch the excavation. Trust founder, Eileen Carter, has been invited to cut the first turf in recognition of her huge contribution to the campaign.
“I’ve waited 15 years for this and there were times I thought I wouldn’t live to see it,” she said. “I think if I’d known it would take this long I might never have started. But I’m glad we kept on going and I am confident we will find the oratory in good condition. It is heartwarming how Cornwall, despite the many delays and setbacks, has continued to keep the faith, pulled together and given so generously.”
Being located in one of the most ecologically sensitive sites in Europe meant it took the trust longer than expected to obtain the various legal permissions to excavate the building, which is encased in a concrete shell. The project is supported by Cornwall Council [link includes short film], Perranzabuloe Parish Council, English Heritage, Heritage Lottery, Cornwall Heritage Trust [p.5], the Duke of Cornwall and private donors.
The dig itself has been made possible thanks to the generosity of businessman David Barrie. Mr Barrie – who is also an artist, painting under the pseudonym Piran Strange – said that as a child he had become fascinated by the legend of the Irish holy man who came to Cornwall and discovered tin. He explained that he first came across the story at the age of nine, when he started at St Piran’s School in Berkshire.
“St Piran has provided me with the happiest times of my life and I owe him a lot,” he said. “You have to be on the dunes at Perranporth to know that he is there. His presence is all around you. It is mystical, magical and, above all, holy. By uncovering the oratory we are creating a place of pilgrimage to the patron saint of Cornish tin miners at a place that represents one of the earliest places of Christian worship in the UK.”
It was some years after leaving school and pursuing a successful career that Mr Barrie came across St Piran’s Trust and contacted Eileen Carter.
“Eileen gave me the background to the organisation and its ambitions and it just struck a chord,” he said. “I loved St Piran’s School and had enjoyed huge success through the name Piran Strange. So I decided it was time to give something back. The trust’s aim to raise the oratory from its burial place became my passion and I was happy to contribute.”
A decision on the next stage of the operation will be made when archaeologists and structural engineers have submitted their report. Trust company secretary Ian Saltern said: “After 15 long years of campaigning, the oratory will finally be uncovered. This is a momentous development and one to be savoured.
“Once uncovered, we will assess its conservation needs and potential and then prepare an application for funding for the second stage. Depending on what we find, it will see the oratory conserved and an exploration of the wider area of Lanpiran, the medieval monastic site which grew up around the oratory. The second stage will also see the production of resources for schools and community activities.”
An annual pilgrimage to the oratory and cross takes place each year on the Sunday closest to St Piran’s Day [5th March]. Several hundred people are expected to attend on March 2, when they will be able to view the excavations.