The sands of printless foot

Copyright Maxwell Adams 2003, 2005

Version: 23 December 2005

It's one of Lelant's most exciting stories. Human and building remains, lost in the sand, discovered, and then lost again, waiting to be rediscovered yet again. There's mystery too because we aren't sure what they are or mean.

Between April and June 1875 the men making the railway line from St Erth to St Ives discovered in the sandhills near Lelant ferry some skeletons, then some more in rough stone graves, and shortly afterward a stone structure. Several reports appeared in the local newspapers at the time describing the finds and speculating on their origins. There were also published accounts made in 1884 and 1889 of these finds, but the contemporary evidence is tantalisingly scanty.

There were three separate sets of finds in 1875, with more finds in 1903 and 2005:

1 skeletons (April 1875)

2 skeletons in stone-walled graves (May 1875)

3 remnants of a stone structure (May or June 1875)

4 skeletons under a stone (December 1903)

5 Human bones found near the eight fairway (December 2005)

The first, second, fourth, and fifth finds, human remains, could be in a previous Lelant churchyard or be the corpses of people, perhaps shipwrecked, buried outside the churchyard for some reason, or, in the first and second instances, most probably be much earlier burials in cists. The third find could be a previous church or vicarage or not. Modern archeologists could perhaps settle all this if the remains could be rediscovered and examined. The sites of 1875 are not identified precisely but appear to be along the railway fence between the ferry bridge and the Morreps bridge and, for the building remains, on the western, that is landward, side of the railway line. These finds were made before the construction of the golf course which happened, with later changes, in 1890.

The first report was on 7 April 1875 in the Cornish Telegraph and an identical report, except for the omission of the last sentence, appeared in the Royal Cornwall Gazette:

" Discovery of human remains. In sinking pits to fix the palings which fence the railway across the Towans, on the sandhill above the ferry several skeletons have been found at a very shallow depth, being mostly about a foot under the turf, and interred in rather a promiscuous fashion - some on their faces and others doubled up. The remains seem to have belonged to men in their prime, the jawbones being full of teeth, which still preserve their whiteness, and have been sought by the navvies as an antidote against the toothache. One of the skeletons was that of a man of no mean stature, measuring six feet four inches."

After this largely factual opening, though I wonder whether the skeletons were accurately identified as male, I am afraid the newspapers fell into a jumble of fact and speculation.

"Of course, the discovery has opened up a wide field for conjecture as to how they got there. From the shallow depth at which the remains were found, and the irregular manner of sepulture, it is thought a wreck on the shores near might have furnished the subjects for the ghastly assembly; but some of the old people of this place say that a church is buried in the sand here. This is borne out by Norden, who, writing of Cornwall, states that 'Lelant was sometyme a haven towne, but then of late decayed, owing to the drifting in of the sands, which has buried much of the lands and houses, and many devices were used to preserve the church.' Gilbert, in his History of Cornwall, says that since the time of Norden's writing the church has been totally destroyed and the present edifice was erected in 1727. Some of the old folk remember the finding of bodies near the spot, enclosed in rude graves, built and covered with flat stones. It would be interesting to learn, through some correspondent of the Cornish Telegraph, who may be versed in the ancient lore of the county, more particulars respecting these relics of bygone times" (Cornish Telegraph 7 April 1875).

No one appears to have come forward with "more particulars." The reference to a new church being erected in 1727 is incorrect; there were some renovations. Norden, writing in about 1538, while mentioning the destruction by the sand, does not say there is a lost church in the sands but his words rather suggest that the church was with difficulty saved from the sands. William Worcester writing about the village in 1478 does not mention a lost church.

Six weeks later on 26 May 1875 the discovery of more skeletons in what sound like cists was reported with tantalising brevity in the Cornish Telegraph (and substantially the same in the Royal Cornwall Gazette for 29 May) :

"In prosecuting the railway works near the ferry, more skeletons have been found enclosed in rude graves built with stone, but at such a shallow depth - from two to three feet - as would shock the more modern idea of decent burial."

The first newspaper report of 7 April mentioned locals' talk of "rude graves, built and covered with flat stones" before the cists are mentioned in May. This perhaps suggests that such graves had been unsurprisingly found in earlier years within memory, though a close reading of the newspaper report of 7 April does not exclude the possibility of the first skeletons having been found in cists - indeed, I think the phrasing of the 26 May report points to this.

The Royal Cornwall Gazette reported on 6 June:

"From this point several human skeletons have been dug up by the navvies in the course of their operations. It was at one time thought that the old burial ground attached to the church must have been situated at this spot, but the general opinion now is that the remains are those of shipwrecked sailors buried there."

The phrase "from this point" is not altogether clear but presumably refers to a sandhill by the former ferry. I do not know whose views are meant by "the general opinion." I do not know why the speculation has shifted from lost graveyard to shipwreck.

A few days later the two newspapers reported the discovery of the remains of a building:

"In sloping the western side of the railway cutting through the sandhill, near Lelant ferry, traces of some ancient structure - presumably a church - have been met with in the shape of roof-slate of a very primitive type, the remains of a stone wall, and what would seem to be part of a side pillar. According to the traditions of the locality a church lies buried in the sand, and they point to this as an interesting field for archeological research" (Cornish Telegraph 9 June 1875 and Royal Cornwall Gazette 12 June 1875).

Nothing more appears to have been discovered or reported and, alas, no research or examination of the remains, human or building, appears to have been made. It would be especially interesting to know what led them to identify one of the remnants as a possible part of a pillar.

There were brief references to these discoveries years later but these tell nothing additional. On 12 April 1889 the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society visited Lelant and there is an account of the visit in their magazine. The members visited the sites of the discovery of bones and building, but do not identify the sites precisely, and "a letter from Mr JC Lang, the contractor, was read which stated that many complete skeletons were found, laid in rough walled graves" (Transactions of the Penzance Natural History and Antiquarian Society 1889-1890, 108-111).

Two years later an article about the railway included the story of the finds with some more details, beginning by talking about the bridge by the house Morreps:

"About a quarter of a mile from Lelant Station we enter another cutting through the shillet, and, as this work disturbed a road from Lelant town to Praed's Wharves, the thoroughfare is maintained by a bridge of seventeen foot span. Shillet soon merges into the sands...and it was in this cutting that a few feet from the surface and in a place eight or nine foot square many a ton of human bones was found...Mr Lang caused all the remains to be carefully collected and they were replaced in a space dug as close to their original resting place as possible and walled in. While this work was going on a commercial traveller, 'on his rounds,' passed by, and expressed his surprise at all this care and expense when bone-dust was of value in the artificial manure market and Englishmen were glad to purchase the antiquated skulls, femurs, and tibias of Egyptian mummies! Had Mr Lang adopted this commercial view of the remains of former Lelanters there would have been a loud hue and cry. To say nothing of the feelings of all who have loved ones buried near by; decency revolts at the suggestion.

"We are told there was no order of burial - feet to the east, etc - but that the bones seemed to lie in every and in any direction. The bones were very nearly all white but crumbling. One skeleton was in what looked like a little walled grave, and this was 'sodded in' with very little disturbance" (Cornish Telegraph 29 May 1877).

Brief notices in Cornish Archeology magazine categorise the 1875 graves as a cist cemetery.

Pausing to admire Lang's civilised sensitivity, from these reports I think that the most likely site of the finds appears to be the landward stretch between the bridge of the road to the wharf and the rail bridge over the path to the ferry beach. The reference to walls and stones for the graves does strongly suggest that they were cists, much predating any Christian settlement here or any church or any medieval works. The disorderly orientation of the burials additionally suggests they are not Christian as generally Christian interment was on one's back with feet to the east and head to the west so that one faced east and Jerusalem when one was resurrected. This does not look like a lost Christian graveyard.

A few years after the finds there was a very speculative report which I think is romantic not factual (Hunt 1884, 234-235). About an original church and village now under the sand assertions and speculations are plentiful, hard and definite evidence is not. Writing well before the discoveries, Davies Gilbert says that the original village was near the church and that "foundations of houses have undoubtedly been discovered here under the sand" (Gilbert 1838, 6). He gives no evidence for either claim and without evidence that "undoubtedly" is worthless assertion. Cyril Noall says that he had collected "a reliable tradition" about the former vicarage being near Brewery Quay (Noall 1960, 14) Again, no evidence, and not even an indication why he thought that tradition was reliable, a brave word to use of traditional accounts. As far as I can see this story of the vicarage site first appears without evidence in the article in the Cornish Telegraph 29 May 1877 where the artisan buildings erected during the building of the branch line were "said to stand where the old vicarage formerly was found." This assertion is repeated by Noall (Noall 1965). I am unclear whether the ambiguous "was found" in the newspaper means that remains of the vicarage building were actually once discovered. I think the account given in a 1679 terrier rules out this location, as I explain later.

Penaluna also refers to remains under the encroaching sand:

"The voice of tradition also reports that the driving of these sands began so suddenly, increased so rapidly, and continued so incessantly, as in the short compass of two nights to bury many of the houses. Some of the habitations have since been found, by men digging in the sand, and in a few instances with furniture in them" (Penaluna 1819, 151).

That is a remarkable story. The first sentence is supported by an entry in the parish register :

"In 1607 in the Reign of James, the First, a dreadful hurricane happened. Perhaps a great influx of sand might have happened at Hayle."

This is a handwritten note on the front cover page of the baptism register for 1813-1846 of St Uny's Church and the page also contains an analysis of the 1831 census for Lelant which suggests that the note was written around that time. This page is not on the fiche of the register.

As for the rest, is there anything behind that reference to furniture or is it a tavern tale for the gullible? Again and alas, we have only unsourced and unweighable tradition.

In 1903 there were more discoveries:

"Skeletons at Lelant. A few days ago, whilst excavating near the Ferry for the purpose of making a new 'tee' in connection with the West Cornwall Golf Links, some labourers found under a large stone, three complete skeletons and the remains of an old fire place - about four feet from the surface. The Parish Church is only a short distance from the spot where the interesting discovery was made. It will be remembered that when the branch line was being constructed, sundry human remains and the portions of houses were unearthed near the same place" (St Ives Weekly Summary 12 December 1903, page 8. A similar report is in the Cornish Telegraph 9 December 1903, page 4, column 6).

After a quarter of a century the discoveries of roof slate, part of a stone wall, and a possible part of a pillar were "remembered" as "houses" in both newspapers. The reference to a fire place is intriguing. Taken at face value, it points to a house, perhaps the lost vicarage, perhaps not. Of course it might not have been the remains of a fireplace at all. Furniture, a fireplace - we just don't know, but I think we might be looking at wayward imaginations here.

The Cornish Telegraph report ends by saying that tradition recalls a village between the church and sea being "finally overwhelmed by a terrific sand storm."

On Thursday 8 December 2005 some human bones were found near the eighth fairway of the golf course. The bones were distributed over about thirty metres. A home office pathologist said they were several hundred years old and probably from an old burial site (Cornishman 15 December 2005). The eighth fairway is by the western side of the railway line and cutting - see above and the location of the discoveries of 1875.

It is not possible from the information that we presently have to say surely what all these finds represent. The present lie of the church and village raises questions about the past. The blown sand and the creation of the golf course have hidden former natural surface evidence, though the remnants of a supposed prehistoric track are clear from the church to Pedna Cruk (Thomas 1947, 76-77). The church is on the edge of the present village and we might expect it to be in the middle of the village or to overlook it. The church is built on the highest point, about twenty-eight metres above sea level, the land sloping down to the sea and down to the land from it. This is a usual position for a church or castle, on the highest point, overlooking the community beneath, physically and perhaps metaphorically. We cannot be sure of the age of the church, whose earliest feature is Norman, or whether this is its original site. The present church is architecturally largely datable from the fifteenth century. The most likely explanation is that the original Norman church was rebuilt and expanded, a very few Norman features being retained, and on this present site.

It might well be that there has been a shift in the position of the village houses. The original village might have lain between the present church and the sea, overlooked by the church, and then have been overwhelmed by the encroaching blown sand as the present church itself very nearly was. The encroaching sand has become the golf course. We know that in the early fourteenth century, somewhere by the river or Porthkidney beach, Lelant was still a port, though not at all of the size and scope of what nowadays we think of as a port (Campbell 1962, lvii, 124, 137ff: Pearse 1963, 109). In a charter of 1234/35 the village is called "Lananta et Tredrait" (Oliver 1846, 37) and the poll tax of 1377 distinguishes between the places of St Uny Lelant and Lelant (MacLean 1876, 39). These two medieval glimpses are the uncertain evidence that perhaps it was to Trendreath, the area around the football pitch and the defunct Wesleyan chapel, about a kilometre upstream from St Uny's Church, that the villagers moved as the sand destroyed their houses. Nineteenth-century maps show two settlements: one at Trendreath and one around the Badger crossroads, with the church isolated from the village down a largely unpopulated Church Road.

The story of a church buried in the sands seems to come from a church terrier, an inventory of church property, in 1679. The vicar and churchwardens say that the vicarage and its land have been covered with naturally blown sand "for several years past." Thomas Corey or Currey, who became vicar in 1630, had been driven from the house by the sand. I think that these events, the loss of the vicarage and its lands, the vicar driven out by sand which got into his bed, would have impressed upon villagers' memories. They would daily have seen where once these places were, daily have seen the sand piled upon them, the sand half-burying the church and creeping towards their own homes, perhaps covering them too. The terrier, written a few decades later, describes the vicarage and its land in such detail as to convince that they are giving an account from villagers' personal memory or perhaps from an unidentified and unknown document contemporary with the events. However, the terrier also says that there had been another church between the present one and the sea and that had been lost to the sands "some hundreds of years since." This strikes me as simple repetition of village speculation. No evidence is given for the loss of an earlier church, it is stated in general terms without any sense of detail or lively testimony that informs the terrier's account of the loss of the vicarage and glebe. The reasoning seems to be, Devastation happens now, it must have happened before. There is no other and earlier evidence for a previous church lost to the sands. But irritatingly absence of proof does not itself prove it never was.

The terrier's account of the loss of the vicarage would seem to rule out the location of that vicarage near Brewery Quay, which is about a hundred metres from the village railway station, where there is very much less encroachment of sand.

John Ray, passing through Lelant on 30 June 1662, writes of "a church almost quite covered with sand, blown up by the wind" (Lankester 1846, 187).

I think it very unlikely that there is a church buried in the sands. The dates that we have are against it.

The present church was, on the basis of its architectural style, rebuilt in the fifteenth century. Any loss has to be before then. Exactly when the sand started to come in is unclear but we have some clues. We have documentary evidence that in 1296 Lelant got a market and two annual fairs and presumably any problem at that time with sand was slight (Calendar of Charter Rolls, Volume 2 1257-1300 HMSO 1906, page 465). Lelant is last mentioned as a separate port in 1338 (Campbell 1962, 124). This suggests that a sandy decline set in thereabouts. We have documentary evidence that further up the coast near Perranporth sand had become a problem by the end of the fourteenth century (Hatcher 1970, 151). And by the end of that century St Ives had surpassed Lelant in population. By Leland's time (the mid-sixteenth century) encroaching sand was a serious problem. In 1581 they were planting rushes in the sand at Connerton (Freeth 1876, 287).

William Worcester did not visit Lelant in his tour of Cornwall in 1478. He got his information about the village secondhand. However, he says (that is, was told) that Uny himself is buried in the church (Worcester 1478, 98). Now, this might or might not be true, and there might or might not have been a Christian settler called Uny, but I think if the church had been buried by sand in the previous decades Worcester would have been told and would have mentioned it. So vast a recent loss would have been remembered. The mention of the interment of Uny would certainly have prompted the memory for presumably his remains would have been reinterred in any new church or their loss recalled.

All we have, then, is the statement in the terrier, many years after the supposed event and an apparent rebuilding in the fifteenth century, a rebuilding that incorporates a few earlier architectural remnants. The rebuilding and renovating of churches was not unusual. Against these, we have writers and commentating visitors from earlier years than the terrier apparently unaware of any lost church though aware of the incoming sand and its destructiveness. We have the present church on the most appropriate and historically likely site of a church.

I think too we can see an explanation of the terrier claim. It says that the vicarage house and land has been recently lost to the sand. This is within the memory of villagers, during the last forty years, and the writers vividly describe the vicarage and its inundation. Immediately after the claim of a lost church they write that the present church is also threatened by the blown sand. Half the church is covered in it and the remaining church land threatened. The destructive power of the sand was a daily reality for them, they saw its covering work, and were unable to stop it effectively. It would be a small leap of human imagination to track the sand from the sea to the threatened church and envision a previous one overwhelmed, like the houses. It would be reassuring to them that others, mightier and nearer their god, had suffered similarly before and they were not singled out for a judgement in "a land of sand and ruin" (Swinburne, The triumph of time).

Thus, it is unlikely though possible that the 1875 found building was an original church. Unlikely, possible, not assured, and not asserted. The description of the graves suggest that they are older than any church around here.

What have we got then? Tales of footprints in the sands that we cannot see now or yet. We have a vicarage lost to the encroaching sand, its location wholly unknown; and some human bones, some graves which sound like cists, and some small stone remnants which might or might not be of an unidentified building, all their locations indicated with some details but not precisely enough to enable us to go and stand on the spots. Of these remains we can be reasonably sure. We also know there was a port but do not know where. We do not have a lost village, though it is likely that there was a settlement between the present church and the river or Porthkidney beach but no remains seem to have been discovered and recorded. We do not have a lost church, though there is possibly one, though probably not, beneath the sand.

Speculation on this is stimulating but futile; an examination of the remains which the workers found, when rediscovered, will one day enable us to work out likely answers. 


Cornish Archeology 1964 (Number iii) pages 34-36 1969 (Number viii) page 121 1984 (Number 23) page 175 No substantial details are given in the first two; the last is a shortened version of Cyril Noall's 1960 article in the Cornishman.

The surviving original terriers are at Devon Record Office. Some terriers are reproduced in part in several works. The most useful is Richard Potts's A calendar of Cornish glebe terriers 1673-1735, published in 1974 by Devon and Cornwall Record Society.

CAMPBELL Stella M (1962) 'The haveners of the medieval dukes of Cornwall and the organisation of the duchy ports' in Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall for 1962
FREETH George (1876) 'On some extracts from the Ministers Accounts, relating to the Arundell Estates in Cornwall' in the Journal of the Royal Institution of Cornwall for 1876
HATCHER John (1970) Rural economy and society in the duchy of Cornwall 1300-1500 Cambridge University Press
LANKESTER Edwin (ed) (1846) Memorials of John Ray Ray Society, London (Copy at Morrab Library, Penzance)
LELAND John (circa 1538) Itinerary. The Cornish section is printed in Supplementary Papers in volume 4 of Joseph POLSUE (1870) Parochial history of the county of Cornwall W Lake, Truro (Copy at Cornish Studies Library, Redruth)
NOALL Cyril (1960) 'Strange legends of old Lelant Town' in the Cornishman 8 December 1960, page 14).
NOALL Cyril (1965) 'Building the St Ives branch railway' in the St Ives Times and Echo 15 October 1965
OLIVER George (1846) Monasticon dioecesis Exoniensis PA Hannaford, Exeter and Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London (Copy at Morrab Library)
PEARSE Richard (1963, revised 1964) Ports and harbours of Cornwall HE Warne, St Austell
PENALUNA William (1819) The circle (Copy at RIC)
THOMAS Ivor (1947-8) Studies in Cornish geography Royal Cornwall Polytechnic Society
WORCESTER William (1478) Itinerary. The Cornish section is printed in Supplementary Papers in volume 4 of Joseph POLSUE (1870) Parochial history of the county of Cornwall W Lake, Truro (Copy at Cornish Studies Library, Redruth)

The title, "The sands of printless foot" is from Shakespeare, The Tempest, 5.1.34