|St. Piran of Cornwall|
|St. Piran's Cross|
|The Tristan Stone in Foway, Cornwall|
The Welsh loom large in the Christian hagiography of Cornwall. Both Cornish and Welshmen were Celtic peoples, somewhat holed-up in the west of the island by those worrisome Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. It was mainly Welsh missionaries (though some from Ireland, as well) who finally, completely Christianized Dumnonia. Many of these were children of the near mythic King Brychan of Wales. He was the first cousin of the man most likely to be King Arthur (but more on that in a later post). Brychan had a great number of children who became missionaries. The varying numbers sometimes defy credulity, and it seems it became popular to ascribe saints as children of Brychan. But no matter, I believe the basic story line holds (and why should we not trust it?) And so, any number of sites are associated with his progeny: St. Kew, St. Clether, St. Cleer, St. Nectans, Morwenstow, St. Keyne, to name just a few.
The particular expression of Christianity in this extremity of Britain expressed itself in a profusion of stone crosses (usually round in the Cornish style) and holy wells. Cornwall also has the greatest number of villages and towns starting with "Saint". No one denies that some of these crosses and wells pre-dated the Christian era. Pagan, even neolithic menhirs were converted into stone crosses ("Old Tom") below, being an excellent example. Sometimes the stones marked graves, other times they marked events, and still others designated boundaries. The wells, whether they existed prior to the arrival of the saint, or sprung forth miraculously, were always associated in a particular way with an individual saint, and each had their own healing properties.
A recent poll confirms that the decades-long slow decline of professed Christianity in England has turned into a precipitous drop. Cornwall appears to be no exception to the overall figures. From my admittedly superficial understanding of the particulars here, I believe that the region went strongly in the Nonconformist direction after the revolutions of the 1540s and the 1640s. Methodist chapels became the preference, if there was one at all. So, at least some of the old churches look a bit down at the heals these days. And the Protestant chapels that once were are thin on the ground these days. I used to say (and did in fact say in the prospectus for this series) that England was full of churches. It is not, really. Yes, every village and town will have the old church, and maybe, just maybe, a chapel. But that is it. The old village church is probably just hanging-on, with maintenance and upkeep being the overarching concern of its increasingly elderly parishioners. Pleas to the visiting tourists become ever more strident. A similarly-sized town in the U.S. would have any number of competing Protestant sects (not that that is necessarily a good thing), and perhaps even a Catholic church. England is, for better or worse, stuck with their drafty and stark old Gothic churches, and fewer and fewer seem committed to staying that course.
|What's left of Celtic Cross, St. Neot's Church|
And so, my intention of finding some of those "thin places" in Cornwall did not meet with great success. Hopefully, I will be proven more wrong than right. One of my first stops was the 1,500 year old "Tristan Stone," which originally marked the grave of the hero of the epic "Tristan and Isolde." The stone's inscription refers to "Trystan" and "Marcus Cunomorus" (King Mark). The stone has been moved several times in its history, so poor lovelorn Tristan's actual burial place is lost to history. The stone current sets close to the road (as does everything in England), next to a Texaco station. a local builder has requested permission to develop the site, and in the process, move the stone once more. This has some in the village a bit riled. "Such desecration is the equivalent of Napoleon shooting at the Sphinx for target practice...it's an infringement of the cultural integrity of Cornway; it is cultural violence." There might be a bit of hyperbole here, but I am in whole-hearted sympathy.
|Frs. Niketas and Raphael, St. Piran's Orthodox Church|
Another similar stone is known as "Old Tom", marking the high point in the region. This menhir is ancient, and the cross carved into it is hardly legible today. Nearby, King Doniert's stone marks the burial place of the last king of Cornwall before being absorbed by Wessex (England.) I visited the church of St. Neot, who was strangely not a child of King Brychan. According to his hagiography, Neot was a close kinsman of King Alfred the Great, who visited him at this site. The 15th-century church contains a noted stain glass window depicting the life of St. Neot, but the building was locked-up tight when I arrived. I admired a few old Cornish crosses int the graveyard, though. With literally no place to park a car in the village, I gave up on trying to find St. Neot's well. I did however, visit St. Cleer's well, right in the village of the same name.
|On the path to St. Nectan's Glen|
I had made an appointment to meet Fr. Raphael and Fr. Nicetas of the Orthodox Church of the Archangel Michael and St. Piran. The two priests opened the church for me and we were able to visit briefly. We talked of our differing situations, but each of us in our own way in areas not particularly given to Orthodoxy. They currently use what was once a tiny Methodist chapel, wedged between a barn and the very edge of the road. They have land, and hope to build where they have more room. They said they have little traction among the English. Most of their parishioners are Greeks and Romanians and Ukrainians and Russians and other Orthodox scattered around this tip of England. Our situation is just the opposite. They asked for prayers for their church, and I intend to do that very thing.
|Church of St. Morwenna, Morwenstow|
St. Piran is the patron saint of Cornwall, an early missionary from Ireland. The site I wanted to visit most of all in Cornwall was St. Piran's Cross and the nearby ruins of St. Piran's Church. The cross is thought to be the oldest in Cornwall. Through the years, the church became buried under shifting sand dunes. When the church was moved a bit further inland, it too suffered the same fate. I had the spot pinpointed on the map, but the best access to the site was blocked by a caravan park. I would have walked in from the road, had it not been raining pretty heavily. And so, I had to cross this one off my list. I did however, visit a much newer St. Piran's Church, as well as a St. Piran's Well.
I walked most of the way up to St. Nectan's Glen, where St. Nectan lived as a hermit where a waterfall fell into the glen. He has a large church dedicated to him just outside of western Cornwall in Devon. Due to time constraints, and the ever-present rain, I also eliminated St. Clether's Well in the village of St. Clether. I really regret not being able to make the walk back to this well. St. Keyne's well is located right next to the road, so I was able to visit the well, even in the rain. All three--Nectan, Clether and Keyne--were children of King Brychan of Glamorgan. St. Keyne's well has an interesting tradition: For married couples, it is believed that the one who drinks from the well first will wear the pants in the family. I could make a joke about this, but I've always done pretty much what I wanted to do, and everybody knows it.
|Site of St. Morwenna's Well|
My most moving experience in Cornwall was visiting Morwenstow, and the Church of St. Morwenna, along the northwest coast. Inside the church, they have recently uncovered some "wall paintings" (otherwise known as "iconography") under 300 years of whitewash. The female figure is thought to represent St. Morwenna. But this tired old church, at the end of long trail masquerading as an actual road, was locked tight. I walked on across a field to the bluff overlooking the Atlantic. The wind was blowing pretty fierce and the waves were crashing--it seemed right out of one of those 1940s adaptations of a Daphne du Maurier novel. I walked down the cliff a ways to the site of St. Morwenna's Well, now overgrown with gorse. The fog was really rolling-in, so I started back, the church tower just barely visible in the mist. Back in the churchyard, I noticed a strange monument. I discovered it was a copy of the masthead of the ship "Caledonia," which busted-up and sank on the rocks below the bluff. The reverend of the St. Morwenna's saw that the drowned sailors were taken up the bluff and given a Christian burial in his churchyard. For many years, the actual masthead of the ship served as their monument, but in recent years it has been placed inside the church and this copy put in its place. Morwenstow was probably the most atmospheric and moving place I visited in Cornwall. I wouldn't mind going back one day.
|Monument to drowned sailors, Morwenstow|