The Oratory – believed to be the oldest four-walled Christian edifice on mainland Britain – is a scheduled ancient monument and listed building, and was built by the Cornish saint, St Piran, in the fifth or sixth centuries, according to tradition.
Now – after a 10-year campaign – the St Piran Trust has awarded a contract to Cornwall Council’s Historic Environment Service to start exploratory works, hopefully leading to the full excavation, preservation and interpretation of this historic site.
The Trust launched the campaign to excavate the Oratory after it was buried under sand dunes for its own protection in 1980, on Department of the Environment advice.
Since then, expert opinion has shifted and it is now believed its burial has endangered the edifice, resulting in English Heritage’s decision to place it “at risk” in 2011.
Trust founder Eileen Carter said, “I established the St Piran Trust in 2000 as I wanted people to be able to see and learn about the Oratory. It has taken over 10 years of careful, and at times frustrating, negotiation with a range of statutory bodies to reach the point where uncovering the Oratory might be possible. I am delighted that we are now making such significant progress”.
In 2010, the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) awarded a grant to the St Piran Trust and the site owners, Perranzabuloe Parish Council, to conduct a feasibility study for uncovering the Oratory. This revealed it was necessary to excavate the building, in order to gauge accurate conservation costs.
After securing further financial support from English Heritage and generous private donations, the Trust is now able to start work.
Trustee Ian Saltern said, “Following a competitive tendering process, the St Piran Trust selected Cornwall Council’s Historic Environment Service to begin the process of excavation and conservation of the Oratory. More negotiation and planning must take place before a spade can be put in the ground, but with luck, we hope to commence excavation in October or November of this year”
Cornwall Council archaeologist James Gossip said, “Historic Environment (Projects) is delighted to have been commissioned by St Piran Trust to undertake this exciting project. The first stage of the excavation will focus on revealing the medieval structure of the Oratory and establishing its condition. We will then be able to make informed decisions on how the site should be best preserved.
“I look forward to working alongside the Trust and hope soon to be able to secure the necessary permissions for working on the site, which as well as being an iconic historic monument is situated in a highly ecologically sensitive area of the dunes.”
Once excavation has been completed, remedial conservation will be carried out. The Oratory will then be covered and fenced off whilst the St Piran Trust submits a ‘second stage’ application to the HLF, in November , with a decision expected in March 2014.
Conservation work should be completed by 2015, followed by careful consideration of how to protect the Oratory in future years.
The trust will also create a number of initiatives to encourage local people to get involved – including a community excavation of the wider cemetery site; exhibitions; and activities with local schools.
For more information about the St Piran Trust – and the saint himself – visit www.st-piran.com