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The Story of St Piran pt1: essay

David Paton


St Piran sculpture
I got involved with La Vallée des Saints in Brittany by pure chance, when someone happened to mention the project to me at a stone carving event in 2016. Having looked it up online, I mentioned it to a Breton co-worker at Trenoweth Quarry (Penryn, Cornwall) - where  we both worked. Stephane Rouget, a resident of the UK of 15 years, knew of it and so we decided to contact them and see what was happening there. Once in touch, we were informed of the Giants’ Crossing programme, that was just in the process of being set up - a project which aimed to commission UK sculptors to start making huge granite saints that would join the growing collection at La Vallée. Very quickly, we found ourselves designing our sculpture, making the model and searching for a block of suitable Cornish granite from which we could carve our St Piran.

The design process was surprisingly swift, and although I did most of the model making for St Piran, Stephane and I shared our ideas about how the sculpture should feel, and it was great to have his sense of design and understanding of Breton culture. Through our shared interest in the story of St Piran and our understanding of granite, we were able to design in three different granites that reflected the story of St Piran. So, the main figure would be Cornish granite, the ‘millstone’ about his body would come from Ireland, and the base would be Breton granite. We also wanted the sculpture to have a strong profile, with a suggestion of the traditional Breton cross in profile, so our design had a strong overall cruciform shape, with fine detailed elements that would compliment our skills and the traditional Cornish masoning methods.

Stephane and I decided very early on that we would encourage the public to get involved as much as possible, and that we would host a series of monthly open days at​ the quarry. I felt that not only was it important for people to understand how one goes about sculpting granite from a huge rough block, but also for people to see the quarry and the work that is done there.

Trenoweth Quarry, owned and run by Tim Marsh (T. Marsh Ltd), is the last traditional granite quarry in Cornwall. We still finish all our masonry by hand, having been trained under the guidance of Tim Marsh and head mason Ernie Hillson. The quarry is the future of granite masonry in Cornwall, and there is a great deal of enthusiasm from public and professionals alike to maintain and support the future of the quarry.

Stephane set up a Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/The-Giants-Crossing-686319364862802) where we could generate a following during the making of the sculpture. Stephane used his extensive experience in design and media to generate all the publicity for our project, working tirelessly to generate a strong aesthetic profile for our work.


The making of St Piran
In May 2017 we began work on the sculpture. We split a 25 tonne block of Cornish Carnsew granite in two, then brought our 11 tonne block down into the bottom of Trenoweth Quarry, where we would spend the next year working on it. We used our maquette as a guide to begin removing the waste, stitch-splitting further sections off the huge boulder with plugs and feathers. We then moved onto using large cut-off saws to roughly shape the block, before standing it up to begin the finer shaping and carving.

The making of St Piran was a wonderful experience, and having the opportunity to work on such a huge scale allowed me to really explore the full range of skills that I had developed over several decades. It was also great fun working with Stephane; we had never worked together before, and it was great to share our knowledge and understanding of working with granite. It was really important that we used traditional tooling methods, with the entire surface worked with a hammer and point or pneumatic fine chisel. Stephane worked on the shaping of the back and sides of the hood and robe, creating wonderful flowing forms that complimented his fine detailing of the rope and ‘altar’ stone. I mainly worked on the front, the hands and then the final part of the sculpture was the head. I spent much of the winter months of 2018 carving St Piran’s face. It was a particularly harsh winter in Cornwall, with the heaviest snowfall for many years, and on one occasion my hammer froze to the sculpture! Despite the cold and wet, the carving of the face was a magical experience, as St Piran’s character emerged from the granite and his serene and stoic presence came into being. The final sculpture weighed in at just under 5 tonnes. I finished work on the head in April 2018. We then also travelled to Brittany to complete the Breton granite base.


The journey
Once the carving was complete, we began arranging the big send off, and to finalise details of St Piran’s sailing over to Brittany on the beautiful La Nebuleuse fishing boat. We held a send off from the quarry on 5th May 2018, with the village community of Mabe Burnthouse joining in, and with many local specialists volunteering their help.

We transported St Piran from the quarry to Falmouth’s famous harbour by traction engine - the aptly named Clinker owned by Rob Wing. We wanted to make St Piran’s journey special, and by using a traction engine, we were reenacting the traditional means by which granite was transported from the quarries to the old Freemans masonry yard of Penryn. We wanted the transportation of St Piran to be a journey to remember, both for us and the public, and it was quite a sight as the engine chugged through the narrow cobbled high street of Falmouth. Stephane set up and arranged a two day market to take place on the harbour during the celebratory weekend, and this included a ferry ride out to deep water to see the sculpture.​



St Piran was craned onto the deck of La Nebuleuse on the 6th of May at Falmouth’s North Quay. The boat, and St Piran, remained in Falmouth Harbour until the 9th May, after which it sailed to Mevagissey for a night, then round to Salcomb on the 10th May.

We finally set sail for Brittany on the morning of the 11th May, out into the rough swell of the English Channel and I admit to feeling a mixture of excitement and apprehension. What an adventure though, with the visceral materiality of the granite and the boat pounding my senses, the sea crashing against the bow, and the unnerving resonances of creaking wood and clanking rigging, the smell of cooking from the galley, and the effortless skill of the Breton sailing crew guiding us through the waves. It felt dreamlike, all that work and time spent down in the bottom of the quarry carving this image of a pilgrim, a refugee even, his story echoing through centuries of the Cornish psyche. This was indeed a narrative still being written.

My most memorable time on the boat was when I was asked to be a look out during the night watch on deck. I was awoken at two o’clock in the morning, and as I emerged on deck to take my post, the sea had calmed to a smooth and gently undulating swell, a thick black oil stretching to the horizon. The stars shone, phosphorescent algae danced in the disturbed water around the hull, and I even saw a shooting star. We were under sail for a while, with no engine, and it was truly magical. This was what making St Piran was about, so much more than making a sculpture, it was a story and I was in the middle of it. This was indeed a project where things were being done a bit differently.

We arrived in the Brehat Archipelago near Paimpol on the morning of the 12th May where we moored up for a while until finally sailing into Paimpol harbour itself, to a crowd of hundreds.


St Piran was finally installed at La Vallée des Saints on Saturday 28th July. The base, made of Breton granite, was first placed in the ground, then the main body of St Piran placed on top. Finally, the granite ‘millstone’ was lowered carefully over his head and fixed perfectly in place.

What had been an incredible adventure lasting over two years, suddenly became a reality, with the five metre granite sculpture of the stoic St Piran standing at the top of a Breton hill.



Photos by Ben Perry and Stephane Rouget

Dr David A Paton is an artist-researcher and craftsperson with a specialism in Cornish granite, and works as an associate lecturer in fine art at Falmouth University. He carried out his PhD in Cultural Geography at the University of Exeter in 2009, from where his practice developed through a synthesis of sculpture and quarrying, performance, film, auto-ethnographic and collaborative field-work. He continues to examine the relationship between place, making, material and body through practice-based research. David has recently been awarded a research fellowships with the South West Creative Technology Network.


click here for The Story of St Piran pt2: photodiary