Lost Church and Perranporth dunes

A circular walk on the highest dune system in Britain to the chapel dating from Celtic times which was lost in the dunes for nearly 1000 years.

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The walk begins across a flat grassy area to reach St Piran's Cross and Church. The route then enters the undulating dunes to reach St Piran's Oratory. The walk continues towards the sea to pick up the coast path and follows this along the dunes to the ramp onto Perran Sands beach. The route continues over the cliff to reach the steps onto Perranporth beach. Here, the walk turns inland across the golf course on the dunes. A short stretch of small lane completes the circular walk.

Considerations

  • Route includes paths close to unfenced cliff edges.

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Vital statistics

  • OS Explorer: 104
  • Distance: 3.6 miles/5.8 km
  • Steepness grade: Easy-moderate
  • Recommended footwear: walking shoes

OS maps for this walk

Click or tap on map for more info (blue=laminated)

Highlights

  • St Piran's Oratory - thought to date from the early mediaeval period
  • St Piran's Cross - thought to be over 1000 years old
  • Remains of St Piran's Church, itself nearly as old
  • Penhale Sands - the tallest dunes in Britain and largest in Cornwall

Pubs on or near the route

  • The Watering Hole

Directions

  1. Go through the kissing gate opposite the junction and walk a couple of paces to a fork in the path. Turn left here and follow the path to reach a junction of paths at a gap in a bank.

    Orange tip butterflies are one of the most noticeable and memorable due to their brilliant orange wing tips, but it's only the males that have orange-tipped wings. The striking orange is a warning to predators that they taste highly unpleasant. Intelligent birds such as crows will avoid repeating culinary disasters by remembering the colour pattern associated with it.

    The females are mainly white with a bit of black at the wing tips. There will be an evolutionary reason for why it's not worth the females bothering with the orange warning pigment. This could be because the males spend much more time in flight (looking for females), and the resources needed to produce the bitter chemicals and orange pigment are better spent instead on making more eggs.

    As additional protection from predators (especially for the females), they have also evolved a green camouflage pattern on the underside of their wings that makes them quite hard to spot when they land and close their wings.

    Orange tips overwinter as pupae so they are able to emerge in April, making them one of the first butterflies to be around in the spring. They can be seen until mid-summer then their caterpillars spend the remainder of the summer feeding ready for the winter.

  2. Bear right through the gap in the bank. Continue a few paces to a crossing of paths and take the middle path leading ahead. Follow this a few paces further to a fork in the path beside a large gorse bush on the right.

    Gorse is a legume, related to peas and like other members of the pea family it's able to get its nitrogen from the air. It's also tolerant to heavy metals in the soil and to salt. This makes it able to grow in Cornwall's harshest environments: moorland, coast and mine waste tips.

  3. Take the left-hand path at the fork and follow this a short distance to a junction of paths near some bushes.

    If a rabbit is placed on its back and its legs are stroked, it appears to go into a relaxed trance and many owners of pet rabbits thought this was a cute thing to do that was enjoyable for the rabbit. It's now understood that this reaction, known as "tonic immobility", occurs when the rabbit is extremely stressed because it thinks it is about to be eaten by a predator! It is effectively a "playing dead" reaction to lull a predator into a false sense of security so the rabbit can make a sudden escape when the predator isn't paying attention.

  4. Continue ahead on the well-worn path to where the path forks around a large bush.

    During late April, St Mark's flies occur in quite large numbers. They are recognisable by their shiny black colour, slow flight and dangly legs and have a habit of landing of anything in their path, walkers included. The larvae live in the soil feeding on roots and rotting vegetation and hatch around St Mark's Day (25th April). The adults only live for about a week but they do feed on nectar, making them important pollinators. Each of the males eyes are divided into two parts by a groove and each part has a separate connection to their brains. This allows them to use one half to fly whilst using the other half to look for females.

    The sandy soil along the coast is able to support plants more commonly seen on chalk downs such as cowslips, due to the sand being comprised of small fragments of shell (calcium carbonate). The majority of the soil in North Cornwall is acidic, particularly towards Bodmin Moor, so sand from the beaches was used extensively to improve the soil fertility for farming.

  5. Pass to the left of the big bush then pass to the right of the small bush in the middle of the clearing and follow the path over a bank. Continue to reach a crossing with a path marked with white marker stones.

    Lizards are cold-blooded so they need to bask in the sun to warm up to their "operating temperature" which is around 30 Celcius. They usually do so with an area of cover nearby which forms an escape route from predators. You're therefore likely to encounter them in sunny spots on footpaths and footbridges. Once they spot you, they will usually make a hasty escape - they can move pretty quickly once they are warmed-up. During winter they hibernate as in cold temperatures they are too slow to catch any food (insects, spiders etc. which are also less numerous over the winter).

  6. Cross over the path and follow the path on the other side to cross a ditch then continue to reach a junction of paths with some bushes ahead.

    Even up to the 16th Century, magpies were simply known as "pies" from the Old French word pie (related to the Latin word for magpie - pica). The term "pied" meaning "black-and-white" (as in pied wagtail) is from the magpie's colouration. It's also possible that the pastry thing we now know as a pie (which can be traced back to Mediaeval Latin) was named after the magpie. It has been speculated that the assortment of ingredients in the pastry crust was likened to objects collected in a magpie nest. The "mag" in the modern name is a (somewhat sexist) mediaeval slang word for someone who chatters, based on the name Margaret.

  7. Walk ahead through one of the gaps between bushes to reach a fork. Keep left at the fork then follow the path through an area of marram grass to reach a fork in the path with a wooden post with a black waymark arrow.

    Since water drains away quickly through the sand, marram grass has evolved a number of strategies to capture and retain water including its waxy, curled leaves which contain hairs inside to minimise evaporation caused by moving air. Its roots form a fibrous mat which trap water but also play a vital role in stabilising the dunes by stopping the sand blowing away. During the 17th Century, large amounts of marram grass were harvested for thatch and this destabilised the dunes so much that farms, estates and even entire villages were buried.

  8. Bear left onto the path indicated by the waymark and follow this until you reach a standing stone (Celtic cross side-on), then bear left from this to an information board.

    St Piran's cross stands close to the remains of St Piran's church, on the dunes near Perranporth. This is one of two three-holed crosses in Cornwall (the other is near Wadebridge), but it may simply be the 4th hole just wasn't finished in both cases. The cross is certainly likely to be as old as the church and probably older. It may well be the one referred to in a charter of AD 960 as "cristelmael".

  9. From the information board, turn left to almost double back on yourself and join the path with a wooden post leading downhill. Follow this down to a footbridge in a hollow.

    After St Piran's Oratory, in the dunes near Perranporth, was abandoned in the 10th century due to the encroaching sand, another church was built a little further inland beside the Celtic cross. Known as St Piran's Church, this was built around 1150 and then enlarged in the 15th century. It was abandoned in 1804 and much of the stone and fittings were moved to a new site, further inland at Perranzabuloe, leaving just the foundations that you see today.

  10. Cross the bridge and follow the path up the hill to reach a white marker stone at the top.

    There was once a churchyard in the dunes surrounding St Piran's Oratory and Church, just north of Perranporth. As the sands shift, or during excavations, human bones have occasionally been exposed. Near the Oratory doorway, the skeleton of a woman was uncovered with a child in her arms. Other skeletons discovered in the early 20th Century were all laid out East-West with their legs crossed.

  11. Descend to the building (St Piran's Oratory). If flooded, pass around the back of it to reach the path on the far side.

    St Piran's oratory lay buried under the sand dunes near Perranporth for nearly a millennium, until 1835 when some stones were noticed, sticking out from the dunes. It was excavated and found to be in remarkably good condition. The building is thought to be from around the 11th Century although burials on the site suggest a previous building might have existed in the 9th Century. Within the oratory, one of the walls contains a stone inscribed with upside-down Roman capitals which is thought to date back to the 6th or possibly even the 5th century but where this came from originally is unknown.

    After it was excavated in Victorian times, quite a number of the stones were stolen as "souvenirs" and it suffered constant erosion by wind, sand and rain; eventually two of the walls collapsed. In 1910, an ugly concrete bunker was built over the oratory to protect it. In the 1980s, the bunker was removed and the remains of the oratory were reburied beneath the sand to protect it from both the elements and vandals. The oratory once again lay beneath the sand with a small mound marking it. Steps led to the top, on which a small granite stone sat, inscribed with the words St Piran.

    In 2000 a trust was set up to re-excavate the Oratory. Work began in October 2013, and the Oratory is now uncovered.

  12. Once past the Oratory, the walk continues on the wide path to the right alongside the fence with the red-and-white poles beyond it. If you want to visit the large cross to the left, return here afterwards. Follow the wide path uphill, over a crest (initially on the skyline) to a level area with a clearing with a tiny bush at the far end.

    In 2014, the skeletons of 2 adults and 10 children were excavated which have been dated to the 8th or 9th Century. These predate the St Piran's Oratory building and it is thought that they may relate to an earlier building on the site.

  13. Pass to the left of the bush to reach the far end of the clearing and join the path leading from the left corner. Follow this to a junction with another path.

    Penhale Sands, located between Holywell Bay and Perranporth, is the largest dune system in Cornwall and the highest in Britain, rising to 90 metres. In places, the sand is nearly 50 metres deep. The area has been designated an Important Plant Area by Plantlife due to the rare plant species and lichens. The soil here is, unusually for Cornwall, alkaline which is why rare plants can thrive here. This is due to the high density of shell fragments in the sand, which are composed of calcium carbonate (limestone). The area has also been designated a Special Area of Conservation due to the range of butterfly and moth species which live on the plants here.

  14. Keep left to merge onto another path and follow this a few paces to where it meets another path with a gate to the right.

    St Piran was born in Ireland in the 6th century. According to legend, he had miraculous powers and a group of kings grew afraid of his powers. They, somewhat unsportingly, tied a millstone round his neck and threw him into the sea. However due to his powers, the millstone floated and he was washed ashore at Perranporth.

    Saint Piran is the patron saint of tin-miners and is generally regarded as the national saint of Cornwall. St Piran's flag - the white cross on a black background - is said to represent the black tin ore and white molten metal. Celebrations on St Piran's Day (5th March) involve lots of alcohol and gave rise to the expression "drunk as a Perraner".

  15. Turn right and follow the path to the gate.

    Some time in the 6th Century, St Piran was thought to have landed near Perranporth, where he built a tiny chapel (also known as an Oratory). This is thought to be the oldest Christian site in Cornwall. The original chapel was probably built of wattle and daub. A little later, this was replaced by a stone building. This small chapel was finally abandoned in the 10th century, due to the encroaching sand.

  16. Go through the gate and keep left at the fork. Keep following the well-worn sandy path to reach a junction of paths with a post (with a red-and-white marker on the far side).

    In mediaeval times, blackthorn was associated with evil and a bad winter is sometimes known as a Blackthorn Winter. This may also tie in with the English word "strife" which has Celtic origins. Straif was the name of a letter used in Celtic Ogham script and was originally the word for "sulphur". Some of the other letters in the script corresponded to tree names. In late mediaeval times, a retrospective assignment of trees to the letters in the alphabet used for Ogham that weren't already tree names became popular (sometimes known as the "tree alphabet") and blackthorn was chosen for Straif.

  17. Continue ahead from the junction towards the sea to reach a crossing of paths, just before the path ahead starts to climb a dune.

    Most of the major dunes on the North Cornish coastline are thought to have formed from around 5,000 years ago when sea levels finally stopped rising after the glacial ice from the last Ice Age had finished melting.

  18. Turn left and follow the path to a crossing with another wooden post.
  19. Cross over the path to continue ahead on the path leading up a dune with patches of thicket. Follow the path up to the crest and keep following the path parallel to the beach to emerge in an area of short grass with the remains of a bench to the left.

    On warm days from late April, you may be lucky enough to witness the "dance of the adders" (a pair of adders wrestling). This was once thought to be a mating display, but is actually a larger male attempting to drive away a smaller one.

  20. Follow the path leading from the other side to reach another clear area (this time with a wooden post) and follow the sandy path from the far side. Continue until the path bends with a line of round wooden posts along the right side.

    From the clearing, there's a good view of the coast to the right. The headland at the end of the bay is Ligger Point. Carter's Rocks at Holywell Bay stick out just beyond this.

  21. Bear right between the posts to leave the path and follow the area of short grass downhill to a waymark post. Continue downhill to the very bottom of the short grass to reach a path running along the edge. Turn left onto this and follow it past a waymark post. Continue to where the path emerges onto a concrete track.

    As you descend, there's a good view along the coast to the left. The headland immediately on the far side of the beach with a building on top is Droskyn Point. The headland after this has a blowhole from which plumes of spray can sometimes be seen. Beyond this, the headland where the top has been excavated is Cligga Head. The next headland is St Agnes head with the 2 offshore rocks (Bawden Rocks). On a clear day, the island with the lighthouse off Godrevy Head can just be made out past St Agnes Head. The furthest area of land sticking out is Penwith with Pendeen probably forming the tip from this angle.

  22. Bear right onto the concrete and follow the wide concrete track to reach a path to the beach. If the tide it fully out, you can walk along the beach and pick up the route at the waymark to Gear Sands. If the tide is in, continue ahead towards a barrier with a Keep Clear sign where a path departs into the dunes.

    To walk along the beach, keep the cliffs on your left, turning left around the corner when the dunes come into view. Continue to reach some railings just before the cliffs end. Climb the steps and continue a few paces on the path to reach the Penhale Sands information board with the Gear Sands waymark above it.

    At high tide, there are two distinct beaches within Perran Bay: the long, thin Perran Beach (also known as Perran Sands) to the north, between Carn Clew and Ligger Point, and small Perranporth beach to the south between Cotty's Point and the river beside Chapel Rock. At low tide, the beaches combine into a 2.2 mile stretch of sand between Droksyn Point and Ligger Point, up to a quarter of a mile wide. There is a tidal swimming pool on the seaward side of Chapel Rock (the one with the flag on). The northern end of the beach is generally much quieter due to the town of Perranporth and associated holiday parks being at the southern end of the beach, and much of the dunes to the north (known as Penhale Sands) being military land with no public access. Even when the tide is too far in to walk along the beach, most of the time it's still possible to reach the other half via the coast path.

  23. From the gap beside the Keep Clear sign, join the path and follow the well-worn path across the headland to reach a bench dedicated to Winston Graham (Poldark author). Continue a few paces on the path from the bench to a fork. Take the right-hand path to reach a junction of paths with a Gear Sands waymark above a Penhale Sands information board.

    Winston Graham moved to Perranporth in 1925 at the age of 17 and lived there for 34 years. The first four Poldark books were written whilst he lived there together with over 20 other literary works. As well as the fictional Poldark books, Winston Graham also published "Poldark's Cornwall" about his life in Cornwall and some of the background for the Poldark books. Elements of the Poldark stories are based on locations in the Perranporth area including Holywell Bay and Porth Joke.

  24. The walk continues on the path waymarked for Gear Sands but first you may want to visit the beach, pub or Perranporth. Once on the Gear Sands path, follow this a couple of paces to a fork and take the left-hand (stony) path leading uphill. Follow the path into an area of short grass and follow this uphill to pass to the right of a gorse bush and head towards the mound at the top of the short grass. Bear right to pass around the mound and keep following the area of short grass to reach a sandy path crossing the far end.

    The rock in the middle of the beach is known as Chapel Rock. This was the site of a mediaeval chapel recorded as "Chapel-angarder" which was in ruins by 1702 and had disappeared by the 19th Century. The name is derived from -an- (meaning "of the") and kador meaning seat or chair but is sometimes used to describe sites perched on rocks. On the seaward side is a large rockpool which has been walled to create a tidal swimming pool.

  25. Turn left onto the sandy path and after a couple of paces bear right as it enters another area of short grass. Then head to the blue sign with white writing.

    Wagtails are easily recognised from the tail pumping behaviour that their name suggests. Despite being very conspicuous, the function of this curious behaviour is not well understood. It is possibly a signal to predators that the wagtail has seen them, so there's no point trying anything.

    Two of the wagtail species are easy to confuse as they are both grey and yellow.

    Grey wagtails nest close to fast-running streams as they feed on aquatic invertebrates. They have pink (skin-coloured) legs.

    Yellow wagtails are more often found in open fields and have black legs.

    The third kind of wagtail more often seen in urban environments - the pied wagtail - is easy to distinguish due to the lack of yellow: it's entirely black-and-white.

  26. From the sign, follow the white marker stones across the golf course to reach a wooden signpost with "public path" arrows.

    Skylarks are the most common member of the lark family in Britain and are often known simply as "larks".

    The phrase "up with the lark", used to describe early risers, dates back to at least the 16th century. Skylarks are the first birds to sing in the dawn chorus, often whilst it's still dark.

  27. Continue following the white marker stones to reach one at the junction of two white gravel tracks.

    The word "tee" is from the Scottish Gaelic word taigh meaning "house" and is related the coloured circles known as a house in the sport of curling. Teeing off was originally done within a circle of one gold club length from the hole. A mound of sand would be placed somewhere within this circle and the ball rested on top. In 1892, an Englishman patented a rubber-topped wooden peg which was sold as the "Perfectum". In 1899 an American dentist designed "an improved golf tee" consisting of a wooden cone containing a rubber sleeve to hold the ball but this didn't seem to catch on. Peg-based tees were adopted widely by the 1920s.

  28. Continue ahead to the metal gate and pass around this to reach the road.

    During winter, from November to March, winter heliotrope is visible along the edges of roads and paths as carpets of rounded heart-shaped leaves.

    The name of the plant is Greek for "sun direction" because the flowers turn to follow the winter sun.

  29. Turn left and follow the pedestrian path across the turning to Perran Sands and past the bus stop to where it emerges on the lane to Tollgate Farm.
  30. Bear left onto the lane and follow it past Tollgate Farm to return to your car.

    Cowslips grow on chalky soils. Chalk is not found in Cornwall but a close approximation is a sand dune made up of fragments of chalky seashell. Cowslips can therefore found in sandy soils along the coast, particularly on the inland edge of large dune systems such as Penhale Sands.

    The name of the plant is thought to be from the Old English for cowpat (cow slop). Other common names including "Key of Heaven" and "Bunch of Keys" are based on the small flowers on the end of long stems.

    The number of cows in Cornwall has been estimated at around 75,000 (a lot of moo is needed for the cheese and clotted cream produced in Cornwall) so there's a good chance of encountering some in grassy fields.

    Scientists have found that cows tend to lie down when the weather is cool but stand up when it's hot to improve air circulation and regulate their body temperature. The folklore about cows lying down being a sign of rain might well be due to the cold fronts causing precipitation being reflected in the "cow thermometer". Cows also lie down to sleep but they only sleep for about 4 hours a day.

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