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Soggy but smiling, Piran’s pilgrims get a first glimpse of ancient oratory

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: March 04, 2014

By Simon Parker Living Cornwal Editor @simonparkerwmn

  • Colin Retallick, as St Piran, attempts to row his coracle

  • A family enjoy their day out - despite the weather

  • The narrator leads the promenade play

  • Soggy but smiling 'pilgrims'

  • Colin Retallick, as St Piran, at the cross

  • The audience at the great pool beside the partially uncovered oratory

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Pirantide got off to a soggy start at the weekend as an annual pilgrimage over the sands to the oratory, chapel and cross associated with Cornwall’s favourite saint became the latest casualty of this year’s severe weather.

Barely 200 hardy souls, and a handful of dogs, braved a stiff wind and driving rain to make the trek across the dunes. In previous years, up to a thousand people have attended the promenade play and procession, but on Sunday many opted instead for the comfort of a fireside and the telly.

However, those who did venture out on to Gear Sands were not only treated to the traditional camaraderie now associated with the event, but were also the first to catch a glimpse of St Piran’s Oratory as it emerges from beneath the sands. Claimed by some to be the oldest Christian building in Britain, archaeologists and volunteers have spent the past two weeks digging away a dune that has covered the structure since 1980.

Lead archaeologist and project leader James Gossip said that while progress had been good to date, the excavation might have to be put on hold.

“The cut-off point is March 15 because Perran Sands Holiday Park, who have been so helpful to us, will be opening for the season,” he said. “But it’s really very wet over there and we might decide to call it off temporarily and resume work in May.”

Overlooking the oratory on Sunday, the bedraggled crowd, battered by wind, rain and flapping black and white flags, had to strain their ears to hear much of the dialogue being spoken my community actors from Perranzabuloe. Written by Alan M Kent, the play relates the legend of Irishman, Kieran, who upsets the rulers of his home nation and is banished to the waves. Beaching up in Cornwall, he becomes Piran and proceeds to heal the sick, befriend wild animals and discover tin.

Taking to a coracle, Colin Retallick, in the guise of Kieran, set sail on a black expanse of water. Created by the heavy rainfall of recent weeks in a sandy hollow – where often at this time of year there is only dry sand – he manfully attempted to row the craft from “Ireland” to “Kernow”. After several minutes, accompanied by encouraging noises from the crowd and cries of “put your back into, man”, the white-bearded saint was forced to concede defeat, with a shout of: “I don’t think I’m going to make it!” It could have resulted in the course of Cornish history being altered forever – but the audience were simply too wet to care.

Without the ubiquitous flag-waving horseman of previous years or the thousands of Cornish Chuckle daffodils laid at the cross of St Piran, the 2014 event lacked much of the magic of earlier outings. But, as Colin Retallick said afterwards: “It’s good that there are people here at all in this weather. If I hadn’t been playing Piran, I might have stayed at home myself.”

The annual festivities to mark the feast of the patron saint of tinners continues for the rest of the week, with Wednesday – St Piran’s Day – seeing parades across Cornwall. Bodmin’s procession begins at the town’s library at 10.30am, while some 500 schoolchildren will parade through the streets of Penzance from 10am to 12 noon. Falmouth’s procession leave The Moor at 10am and Marazion’s sets off from the town hall at 6pm. There will be a St Piran Evensong at St Martin’s Church in Liskeard from 7pm. Later in the week sees the traditional welcome ceremony on Perranporth beach on Friday evening and an Evensong in Kernewek at 3pm on Sunday at Perranarworthal Church.

Mebyon Kernow will take the opportunity of St Piran’s Day to launch a much-anticipated policy document entitled Towards a National Assembly of Cornwall. The event, which is open to the public, is due to take place in the function room of the County Arms in Truro at 11am.

The consultation document will, according to the party, “set out how a national assembly, with powers broadly equivalent to the Scottish Parliament, would bring the majority of the public sector within Cornwall – including local government, educational institutions, health bodies and other public bodies – under proper democratic control”.

Elsewhere, individuals, families and communities will be holding their own occasions to celebrate Cornwall’s distinctiveness. Dydh Sen Peran da!

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