The thousands of families who holiday each year at Cornwall’s Perran Sands resort probably don’t realise their caravans stand next to one of Britain’s earliest places of Christian worship.
Back in the sixth century, so the story goes, tribal kings in Ireland grew afraid of the power and influence of a holy man named Piran (or Perran), who was renowned for performing miraculous deeds.
They tied a millstone around Piran’s neck and threw him over a cliff into a tempestuous sea. However, the sea immediately calmed and the millstone floated – all the way to the north Cornish coast.
In thanks to God, Piran built a chapel in the large expanse of sand dunes next to where he was washed up and it is said that his first Christian converts were a fox, a badger and a boar.
People flocked to see Piran as news of his teachings spread. He reputedly lived to the grand old age of 206, his relics were venerated for over 1,000 years and he became Cornwall’s patron saint.
Piran also rediscovered an ancient method of smelting and his crest – a white cross on a black background, which was adopted as the Cornish flag – is said to signify the tin coming out of black ore.
On St Piran’s Day, every March 5, hundreds of people dressed in black and white march across the dunes to watch a reenactment of his life. Almost every Cornish community stages some kind of celebration.
Over time, his chapel became more and more susceptible to the surrounding sands and around the 12th century it was abandoned in favour of a new a church built further inland.
However, the sands kept encroaching and by 1795 this new place of worship was also left to the elements after parishioners had got fed up of digging their way in and out.
The beach St Piran was washed up on and the town that grew up near to his chapel were both named after him – Perran Sands and Perranporth respectively.
Perran Sands, where St Piran was washed ashore
Today, Perranporth is a family-friendly holiday resort, better known nationwide for its connections to the literary character Poldark than to St Piran. The second season of the BBC’s adaptation of the books, starring the brooding Aidan Turner, was recently drawing eight million viewers on Sunday nights.
Poldark author Winston Graham was in the Coastguard during the Second World War and was stationed overlooking Perranporth beach. He wrote the first of his 12-book series, Ross Poldark, during the depths of the war and his second book, Demelza, towards the end.
The first BBC series, screened in 2015, was based on these two books, in which Ross returns to Cornwall from the American Civil War to find the family fortune in tatters and the woman he loved engaged to his cousin.
Perranporth, with its steep cliffs, surfer-friendly waves and romantic, derelict tin mines, was Winston’s inspiration for Hendrawna in his stories.
Separated from Perranporth by a golf course is Haven’s cliff-top Perran Sands resort.
The resort boasts a sports court, crazy golf, a climbing wall, bungee trampolines, roller blading, kart hire, sand art, amusements, bowling and an abundance of playgrounds.
There’s heated indoor (with waterslide) and outdoor pools where you can ride Aqua Gliders – a mix between a dodgem car and a jetski – or grab hold of an Aquajet and be propelled underwater.
Sea paddle boarding and surfing lessons take place on the beach.
There’s also an all-inclusive and extensive leisure and entertainment schedule organised by the yellow-jacketed Funstars, including crafts, dance, music and sporting activities.
They are ably assisted by the Seaside Squad – Rory the tiger, Bradley the bear, Greedy the gorilla and Anxious the elephant, who, as the name suggests, is of a nervous disposition.
Come the evenings, the Funstars take to the stage to reveal their hidden talents, such as dancing and singing, in interactive shows for all ages.
Haven’s beach (where Piran was washed up) is nice and wide but walking back up the the zig-zag ramp can be tiring, especially with a pushchair, so we preffered to take the five-minute drive to Perranporth.
The easily accessible beach there is a dream for children (big and small!) with stepping stones, rock pooling and a natural tidal pool, plus caves and stunning rock formations formed through mining.
For our midweek break we stayed in a ‘‘Prestige’’ caravan, which came with two bedrooms, central heating, double glazing, a surprisingly large shower and decking with views over the sand dunes to the sea.
The decking was the perfect spot for a Cornish cream tea, I thought, so off I went to the Spar shop not more an 100m from our caravan for some calorific supplies.
While tucking into my scones I foolishly turned my back on my plate for two seconds and, whoosh, a thieving sweet-toothed seagull had swooped.
After that, word must have got round of my foolish behaviour and there was a permanent gathering of seagulls on the our caravan roof.
I wasn’t at war with all the local wildlife, though, and I caught my first ever glimpse of a stoat. Apparently, a large tribe of them hang out in the dunes.
The giant dunes were just a stone’s throw from our caravan and our children, aged five and two, had a great time charging down them, despite sometimes going splat on their faces.
But, like any good father, I put a stop to their fun to give them a lesson in local history then led the family in search of the remains of St Piran’s chapel.
After scaling the highest sand dune, we spotted a giant stone cross atop another dune, which seemed like it might be a clue to the chapel’s whereabouts.
Sure enough, from beneath the cross (erected in the 1940s to act as a waymarker for pilgrims) we could see the remains of the chapel, although from a distance it looked more like a building site.
The remains of St Piran’s chapel, Perranporth
The chapel – probably built of wittle and daab originally and replaced in stone later – was engulfed by sand in the Middle Ages but became visible again in 1835.
It started to attract visitors from far and wide but in 1910, following damage by treasure hunters and the encroaching sands, it was encased in a protective concrete structure.
During these works, a large number of burials from as early as 900AD were uncovered, including the skeleton of a woman with a child in her arms near the doorway, plus a skull placed in a stone cist.
In 1980, after further problems with vandalism, the chapel and its concrete shell was reburied for its own protection.
But two years ago it was uncovered again and the casing removed and work is ongoing to conserve and interpret the building, and eventually to open it to the public.
Since our visit, a fun app called Dune Detectives has been launched to help holidaymakers explore the area. It’s available on iOS and Android.
Travel file (updated information in comments)
We were guests of Haven, which has 36 holiday parks, most little more than a stone’s throw from the coast. Its 2017 brochure prices for a week at Perran Sands start from £215 in spring and autumn and from £559 in school holidays. Prices for short breaks start from £129 in spring and autumn and £329 in school holidays. There are caravans, chalets, beach houses, extensive glamping options and a large touring area. Book by February 6 to save up to 25 per cent on the prices. For the latest offers and to book go to www.haven.com/offers or call 0333 202 1460.
It is possible to own a holiday home at Perran Sands from £22,995. Owners have exclusive benefits including free parties, clubs and events. They also receive a privilege card which entitles them to a 15 per cent discount on purchases across the park. For more information visit www.havenholidayhomes.com or call 0333 202 1460.