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St Piran 'pilgrims' to get first sight of oratory

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: February 28, 2014

By Simon Parker Living Cornwall Editor @simonparkerwmn

  • Project manager James Gossip and dig volunteer Tracie Haslam at the oratory site

  • Volunteers at the oratory site

  • The dune covering the oratory is decreasing

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Hundreds of flag-waving walkers will today get a glimpse of St Piran’s Oratory for the first time since it was buried under a sand dune 34 years ago.

A major excavation of the concrete-encased structure, claimed by some historians to be the oldest building of Christian worship in the UK, began two weeks ago. A small army of volunteers, led by archaeologist James Gossip, will continue shovelling sand and taking it away by wheelbarrow until the 5th century oratory is revealed.

Tomorrow Sunday , up to a thousand people will converge on the site as part of annual Pirantide celebrations. Starting at 2pm, “pilgrims” will make their way from Perran Sands Holiday Park and follow a community promenade play about the saint’s life to the oratory and cross.

Spearheading the campaign to uncover the ancient site has been St Piran Trust, whose leading light, Eileen Carter, symbolically cut the first turf. Fellow trust member Colin Retallick is among those involved in the painstaking task of clearing away the many tons of sand.

“It has been an awful long time coming – 14 years to be precise – and certain trustees thought they would be dead before the first shovel of sand was moved,” said Colin, who will again play the role of St Piran for the promenade play. “We have a great team of volunteers here, with some people turning up every day to dig. Others come when they have a day off from work or whenever they can get away.”

Believed to date from the 5th century, the oratory dedicated to St Piran – patron saint of tinners – was encased in a concrete shell in 1910 in an effort to protect it from encroaching sands. In 1980 contractors buried the structure under a sand dune. But in recent years, St Piran Trust and archaeologists have become increasingly concerned about its condition.

“The reason we were given permission to do this dig was because the oratory is on the ‘at risk’ register,” said Colin. “The only way to find out what state it is in is to uncover it.”

Lead archaeologist and project manager James Gossip said he was pleased with the pace of the excavation.

“It’s going really well and we’ve made much better progress than I was expecting, largely because of the number and quality of the volunteers,” he said. “There has been huge support. We’ve had between 20 and 30 every day. There’s a mixture of local people, Truro College students, retired people, members of archaeological societies, and all ages and abilities.”

The four-week “phase one” operation is due to be completed by March 15, after which experts will assess the viability of extending the project to the wider Lanpiran area, which is known to include a number of graves.

One of the youngest diggers is 10-year-old Samson Samuel, from Perranporth, who gave up his half-term week to wield a shovel and wheel a barrow.

“It’s been quite hard work but pretty good fun and interesting,” he said.

Anyone wanting to join the procession and see the play should gather at Perran Sands Holiday Park on Sunday March 2 for a 2pm start.

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