St Piran’s Oratory

Image courtesy of Colin Retallick

In Brief

Type: Once-buried historical religious chapel
Suitable for: History buffs and religious enthusiasts
Address: Behind Perranporth Beach to the north of Perranporth, next to Penhale Sands
Price: Free to view from the outside
Dog friendly?: Yes but keep dogs on a lead

Think of Perranporth‘s history and you probably think mining, particularly as Cornwall’s oldest mine is arguably situated on the face of the cliffs at the front of the seaside town. But mining isn’t the only history here. Perranporth is also home to some remarkable religious history as one of the country’s oldest Christian sites rests next to its beach: St Piran’s Oratory.

Behind the long Perranporth Beach, near the stretch of Penhale Sands, is St Piran’s Oratory, which lies half-buried in the dunes. Thought to date back to the sixth century, this is a site that’s worth visiting by anyone with even a passing interest in religious history. St Piran, the patron saint of Cornwall, is famously said to have washed up on Perranporth Beach after being exiled from his native Ireland. It’s believed he built the oratory, which literally means a small chapel, as he set up home in Perranporth, a seaside town that’s named after him.

Historians believe the chapel at St Piran’s Oratory was in use for up to 400 years before being engulfed by the dunes in the 12th century and then lying dormant for around 700 years before being rediscovered and excavated in the 1800s. In 1910, it was protected in an ugly concrete shell but again became buried in the sands before being finally excavated in 2015 so we can all see the roofless oratory today.

Every year, the oratory hosts hundreds of people dressed in white, gold and black who march upon it in celebration of St Piran’s Day. Plus, open days are held from time to time so that people can enter the structure, However, it’s normally preserved behind a locked gate but all visitors can get a decent view of it from the high banks surrounding the ancient structure. Even during regular flooding, you can still make out those old arched doorways and the altar. And you’re also standing on an ancient burial ground here. In fact, a dozen stone cists were unearthed in 1980. They contained an array of human remains.

Protip: if you head to the oratory, you won’t want to miss St Piran’s Old Church, which is a short distance inland. It too has been excavated and is next to one of the oldest Celtic crosses in the county. To get to the oratory, it’s recommended that you take the footpath which leads off the small road between Perranporth and the small hamlet of Mount. It should be fairly easy to spot. And then enjoy a real ancient Christian chapel that could have once been literally lost to the sands of time.