Walk - Perran Sands - St Pirans
Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2021. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.
- From Perran Sands take the footpath northwards across the dunes, in the opposite direction from Perranporth, and turn right on the footpath ahead. The modern cross is visible in the dunes to the right of the path ahead, and just beyond it, on the left-hand side of the path, are the remains of St Piran's Oratory. Currently a short flight of steps and a stone tablet are all that remain visible of the currently-buried Oratory, although plans are in place to excavate it in the near future.
St Piran, Cornwall's national saint, is said to have built his first small chapel on a rocky outcrop on Perranporth Beach which still bears the name Chapel Rock.
He built the Oratory in its present position some time later, and began to preach from here. His sermons were very popular, and at 29ft by 12ft the chapel was too small to accommodate them all. Over the years the chapel was enlarged and improved, with stone walls added, and a rounded doorway decorated with three small heads. A priest's door was put in by the altar, as well as a wide ledge, and a tiny window was made to let in some light.
There were other structures around the Oratory, and a sizeable graveyard, as well as a small lake nearby which prevented the building from being buried in sand. However, this drained away in time, and the Oratory duly disappeared in wind-blown sand, although it kept a place in local legend. Nineteenth century archaeologist William Mitchell carried out excavations and found three skeletons under the floor, including a very large one minus its head. According to the legends, St Piran was a very large man, and after his death, at the age of 200, his head was kept in a sacred box, bound with iron and locked, and carried around the county, along with various other holy relics.
In the past, occasionally human bones were found in the dunes around the Oratory, revealed by shifting sand, and when a mechanical digger was used to bury it again, to protect it following repeated problems with flooding and vandalism, about twelve cist graves were exposed.
In June 2011 the volunteer-led charity, the St Piran Trust, announced that it had raised sufficient funds to begin to realise its dream of excavating the Oratory once more, thanks to some generous private donations, as well as grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Cornwall Heritage Trust, Cornwall County Council and HRH the Prince of Wales and Duke of Cornwall.
- From the Oratory, continue ahead along the path heading towards a stone medieval cross just visible on the horizon (not to be confused with the large cross visible to the right). Walk to the cross, which is next to St Piran’s Church. There is an information board here.
Around the ninth or tenth century, after the Oratory first disappeared beneath the sand, its congregation crossed the stream and built a new church a little further inland, thinking the water would protect it from being similarly swamped.
The oldest part of the church, (the old Perranzabuloe Parish Church), is thought to date back to the eleventh century and was recorded in the 1086 Domesday Book as Lanpiran (Cornish for 'St Piran's holy site'). At that time it consisted of a nave and chancel, south aisle, south transept and tower. A chancel aisle is thought to have been added in the late thirteenth or early fourteenth century, with the south nave aisle, tower and possibly porch added in the fifteenth.
In the twelfth century it was a collegiate church and by the fourteenth century it had become a major centre for pilgrims travelling on the Way of St James, a major medieval pilgrimage route to the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in northwestern Spain, where the apostle St James was said to be buried. Perranzabuloe's popularity is thought to have been partly due to St Piran's head being kept here in a sacred casket and his relics paraded.
Shifting sand continued to be a problem, exacerbated by mining operations which drained the stream, and by the eighteenth century parishioners frequently had to dig out the porch to gain entry to the church. Early in the nineteenth century it was decided to build yet another church, this time inland on its present site in Perranzabuloe, and the old church was abandoned to its fate.
A century later, when archaeologists came to excavate, it had become completely buried again, and something like a thousand cartloads of sand were removed from the chancel alone. Further excavations in 2005 revealed significantly older remains, including fragments of pottery from the Bronze Age, at least a thousand years before St Piran's arrival. Numerous sites of archaeological importance have been found throughout the area, showing that there were communities living and working here from Neolithic (Late Stone Age) times onwards.
The early medieval cross in the dunes beside the ruined church was first mentioned in the tenth century, when it was referred to as the 'Cristel Mael'. It is thought to have marked ancient territorial boundaries, and it is one of only two three-holed crosses in Cornwall.
Elsewhere around Perranporth ('Piran's cove') are St Piran's Well, to the north of Perranzabuloe, and Perran Round, at Rose – a medieval 'plain an gwarry' or amphitheatre, unique to Cornwall, where miracle plays were staged. This is one of only two remaining in the county, and it is well worth a visit.
- From the three-holed cross retrace your steps towards the path from Perran Sands, but carry on past it to the South West Coast Path, in the dunes.
- Turn left to walk through the dunes to the path inland near the end of the beach. Alternatively, instead of walking through the dunes to here, carry on down to the beach from the three-holed cross and turn left to walk along the sand to here.
Penhale Dunes are Britain's highest sand dunes, 90m above sea level, and at 650 hectares, Cornwall's largest dune system. They are thought to have been formed over 5000 years ago, when changing sea levels changed caused sand to build up on a rocky plateau.
The dunes here are a what is known as a 'hindshore system': a dune system which develops above a beach with a good supply of sediment, exposed to strong onshore winds strong enough to drive large quantities of sand onto the land in huge arcs or ridges until they become stabilised, often some distance from the sea. At Penhale these winds are strong enough to blow sand onto the higher ground behind the dune system, leading to unusual communities of plants and insects.
The passage of these waves of sand can leave behind areas that have been eroded to the water table, leading to the development of extensive dune slacks which are seasonally flooded and low in nutrients.
The whole area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its wildlife, and is a candidate Special Conservation Area (it has been submitted to the European Commission, but has yet to be formally adopted).
To the north of the dunes there are well-protected humid dune slacks with interesting plant communities growing in these marshy areas and pools: scented meadowsweet and water mint, as well as greater willowherb and water horsetail.
The drier slacks have short turf kept well-grazed by rabbits, as well as ponies, and plants supported by the thin soil and of especial note here are shore dock, petalwort and early gentian. Pyramidal orchids also thrive, as do silverweed and common centuary. Elsewhere there are sedge and fern-dominated communities, and scrambled egg lichen.
Sparrowhawks and peregrine falcons hunt overhead, and skylarks hover, singing their chirruping song high above. Wheatears and stonechats sing from the gorse and thorn bushes, while sanderlings and golden plovers thrive on the abundant supplies of insects.
Butterflies also flourish: look out for the silver-studded blue, the small copper and the brown argus. Of especial note is the grizzled skipper, a rare butterfly found in only two colonies in Cornwall.
The rock formation ahead, below the cliff as you approach Perranporth, is Chapel Rock. Although some of the building was still visible in the seventeenth century, most of it has been eroded by the sea.
- Before reaching the Perranporth end of the beach, turn left onto the footpath and follow it to the main road at Tollgate.
- From here turn left onto the path back into Perran Sands.