St Piran’s Oratory
The Oratory is possibly an early Christian chapel with cemetery, located on Penhale Sands about 2km to the east of Perranporth. It is a compact building with a small nave and chancel, which may have been separated by a wooden rood screen. A stone bench extends around much of interior and there are doorways to the south and east.
There are no specific pre-Reformation references to the Oratory. It was first mentioned in 1540 by Leland. Other early references include William Camden in 1586 and Dr William Borlase who visited the site in 1755.
Antiquarian interest grew and in 1835 the Oratory and a building to the south with an associated midden were thoroughly excavated by William Mitchell. A further excavation was undertaken in 1843 by William Haslam, the curate of Perranporth. He rebuilt the altar and inserted a slab inscribed ‘Sanctus Piranus’.
After this, the Oratory filled with blown sand and railings were erected around it in the 1890s. Pressure of sand on the walls was causing them to shift shape, and an appeal was launched in 1905 to raise money to protect the building. In 1910, the Oratory was excavated again and a concrete ‘preserving structure’ constructed over it. During these works, a large number of burials were uncovered, including the skeleton of a woman with a child in her arms near the Oratory doorway, and a skull placed in a stone cist.
“If the buried church could speak, she would complain bitterly of the writers who have misunderstood her, of the trippers who have robbed her, of the Church that sold her, and of the enthusiasts who have entombed her in that hideous concrete structure”.
Dr TG Dexter writing in 1922
The site was a popular shrine throughout the twentieth century and members of the local community ensured that the altar was regularly supplied with fresh flowers. Unfortunately, increasing vandalism, the problems associated with regular flooding and other costs prompted the local parish council to take the decision to rebury the site with sand in 1980.
In 2000, the St Piran Trust was formed to raise funds for the re-excavation and preservation of the Oratory. After many years of negotiation with the statutory authorities, excavation began in February 2014 and was completed the following November.
There remains much work to do to fully conserve and understand the Oratory and its wider landscape. The St Piran Trust is committed to ensuring the long-term future of the Oratory and explaining its national significance.
See the fabric of St Piran’s Oratory as it stands today, digitally separated from the concrete walls surrounding it, in the video below.