Gunwalloe, St Winwaloe

Church Cove, Gunwalloe, Helston, TR12 7RF


Dedicated to the popular Breton saint Winwaloe, the first abbot of Landevennec, Gunwalloe was a chapelry of Breage when first recorded in 1332.  A holy well was once sited near the porch.  Probably the church began as the manor chapel of Winnianton which lay close by.  It is the only Cornish church actually sited on a beach.

The church, which probably started as a chancel and nave (part of the 13th century church perhaps surviving at the west end), has two fonts.  One Norman of Pentewan stone with a round bowl with stylized tree of life carving was found in the churchyard, the other with a granite octagonal bowl appears to be its 15th century replacement.  The tower may be the oldest feature, perhaps dating to pre 1400.  Other detached Cornish towers can be seen at Feock and Gwennap.

Gunwalloe church is a perfect example of a three hall church of 15th to early 16th century date and there is no evidence that it went through a cruciform stage first like most Cornish churches.  Built on a miniature scale behind a cliff, Gunwalloe is only 54 feet in length or about a third the length of Bodmin, Cornwall’s largest parish church today.  Both aisles are of similar width to the nave and chancel and may recycle earlier windows.  The early 16th century porch has octagonal panelled jambs like Mylor.  Clearly the church was intended to have a two or three stage-tower at the west end but this was never built although a flat platform was made for the projected tower by cutting away rock at the west end of the nave.

A rood screen, bearing an image of the crucifixion, once divided the church in two with the chancel and north and south chapels lying to the east.  Two complete bays of this screen which once depicted the twelve apostles were recycled as north and south doors to the church.  The style of the eight surviving apostles painted at the base is entirely consistent with Cornish screen painting at Budock, Lanreath and Mawnan with moustache-less beards being shown in all cases.  There is no evidence at all that these panels came from the wreck of The St Anthony, the King of Portugal’s treasure ship, though wreck money could have helped pay for them as the ship was wrecked at Gunwalloe on 19th January 1527.

The most probable reason why the church was not completed as planned was that the Reformation intervened.  On 18th April 1548 an inventory of church goods was made by order of the government.  This showed that the church had a cross, two chalices, a blue velvet cope, two sets of vestments of silk and satin, a silk streamer and a silk banner, two candlesticks and three bells.  All the medieval bells survive.

18th century churchwardens’ accounts show that sand had to regularly removed from the churchyard and the church had acquired a west gallery by 1775.  This probably survived until 1869 but the only instrument noted was a bassoon.  The church was re-roofed, some windows replaced and the chancel extended east by two feet in 1870-1 when the church was restored by Sedding.  Parclose screens, stalls, benches and oak pulpit are by Messrs. Read of Exeter.

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