Sanctuaries by the Sea

All around the coast of Cornwall you will come across churches with maritime connections. Many of them have towers used as daymarks by sailors and fishermen to guide them safely back to harbour, others will be the resting place of those taken by the sea. They have all been and continue to be a place of sanctuary, somewhere to shelter from the storm, be it the westerly winds or the troubles in your life.

Here's a selection of religious sites going around the coast from the far north to the south eastern corner.

Morwenstow Church:

A painted figurehead of Caledonia stands in the graveyard here, marking the final resting place of the eight crew of the brig ‘Caledonia of Arbroath' that floundered on this dangerous inacessible north Cornish coastline in 1842. Over 40 drowned seamen from this and other vessels are buried in unmarked graves here, all given Christian burials by the Rev Hawker who was here from 1834 to 1875. Not only was he a man of the cloth, he was also a poet, and allegedly an opium smoker, spending much of his time in a small shed perched on the side of the cliff overlooking the stormy sea writing. A path leads from the church out to the South West Coast Path where 'Hawkers Hut' can be visited.

The small community at Mornwanstow is north of Bude on the Cornwall Devon border. There's a NT Carpark and a seasonal cafe.

St Piran's Oratory:

If you have been to Cornwall on holiday, you could not have failed to miss the black flags with a white cross upon them. This is the flag of St Piran, patron saint of Cornish miners and now adopted as an emblem by the Cornish people worldwide. St Piran was originally from Ireland, but was banished and thrown into the sea on a millstone, washing up on the north Cornish coast near Perranporth (hence the name). Here, he set up a small hermitage in the sand dunes, where later in the 7th century a small chapel or Oratory was built. Over the years it went out of use and the dunes encroached on it, eventually burying it. In the late 1800's the building was uncovered and by 1910 a protective shell had been built around it to keep the sand at bay. However, in 1980 it was decided to rebury the remains to protect them, and they stayed buried until 2016 when once again the site was cleared of sand, and the ugly 1910 shell.

On the sunday closest to St Piran's Day (March 5th) a procession and theatrical renactment of the life of the saint takes place on the dunes.

Zennor Church:

Anyone who has walked the South West Coast Path from St Ives to Zennor will know how welcoming the sight of the tower of Zennor Church is, it's a long walk and the tower marks the fact that you have reached a village with a pub! Dedicated to St Senara, who like St Piran is thought to have come to Cornwall from Ireland (but may have done a detour to Brittany first), the church is best known for the story of the mermaid who lured young Matthew Trewhella from the safety of the village out into the wild Atlantic. Inside you will find the Mermaids chair, thought to date from the 15th century, although the origins of the story only go back to the 1870s. Nearby a model of a West Country Schooner hangs from the ceiling in memory of W.A. Proctor, the son of the artist Dod Proctor, who died on a single-handed voyage around the world. It is also a memorial to all unnamed sailors in the churchyard who were shipwrecked on this coast.

The village of Zennor can be found just off the B3066 from St Ives to St Just.

Gunwalloe Church:

The Church of St Wynwallow, with its detached tower set into the solid rock of the headland, sits on the edge of the beach, appropriatly named Church Cove. Behind the church, the headland was once home to an Iron Age fort, so there may have been a relegious site here many years before the current church was originally built in the 1200s. The exposed position of the church makes it a target for fierce south-westerly storms and because of this some people call it The Church of the Storms. It also means the coast was in the past a common place for shipwrecks, and a 15th-century screen in the church, painted with a depiction of the Crucifixion, is said to have come from a Portuguese ship that was wrecked here in 1527. In recent times, nightime wrecking scenes were filmed here for the Poldark TV series.

There's a NT carpark, toilets and a seasonal cafe at Winnianton Farm, just to the north of the cove.

Lansallos Church:

The path that snakes down the valley from this church to the sea, is famed for its connections to Cornwall's 18th century smuggling industry. However, it was probably created to allow farmers to bring sand and seaweed off of the beach to use on their fields as fertilizer and to access a mill that once operated there. But a quick walk through the churchyard will see you passing the gravestone of 'John Perry, Mariner' who was 'unfortunatly kill'd by a cannon ball by a person unknown'. John was almost certainly involved in the business of free trade, as were many in the parish of Lansallos and the nearby village of Polperro. Continuing along the path towards the entrance to the church you will pass the tomb of Zephania Job, known locally as the 'Smugglers Banker' because he looked after the financial side of the illicit dealings that went on in the area.

There's a NT carpark but no services.

Rame Head:

Protecting Plymouth Sound from the south westerly winds, this natural headland sticks out into the English Channel and can be seen from many miles when you are walking the South West Coast Path. It's conicle shape is crowned by the chapel of St Michael, first used in the 14th century, although it is believed there was possibly a hermitage here before that. The hermitage would also act as a lighthouse, with a beacon warning shipping of the headland, a job the chapel continued, It was also painted white so it could be used as a daymark during the day. Religious sites on high points are often associated to St Michael, the most famous being probably St Michael's Mount and its sister site in France.

There is a carpark beside the National Coastwatch Station at Rame, from where you can walk out to the headland.

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