Saturday, 11 October 2014

St Nonna of Altarnun - The Cathedral of the Moor

This quite stunning and tranquil church standing in Altarnun (a later corruption of Altarnon), is aptly called "the Cathedral of the Moors" - as with Cathedral splendour it holds forth, having a tower rising 109ft - and an achingly beautiful interior constructed partly of moor stone with wagon roofs above its aisles and porches.

Named for St Nonna - the 6th Century Celtic missionary - and the mother of St David; the church was founded in the 6th Century. It was rebuilt twice, firstly by the Normans in the 12th Century, and then again in the 15th Century. A lightening strike in the 18th Century required the tower and west wall to be restored.

Nothing remains of the first church except perhaps the Celtic cross sentinel at the entrance to the churchyard. Very little remains of the Norman building either, apart from some stonework incorporated in the base of a pillar, and the striking painted square Norman font, carved with faces at each of its corners, and serpents and a radial pattern along its sides. The wooden wagon roofs were installed during the 15th Century rebuild.

The church has only a single stained glass window, a depiction of St Nonna herself, which adorns the top section of the central window behind the alter. This window faces east, as would the priest when facing the altar.

This humble decoration is accompanied more showily by the intricately carved wooden bench ends - carved by Robart Daye between 1510 and 1530 - whose signature and perhaps self portrait(?) is carved into the bench end closest to the Norman font - regretfully I have lost this image! The carvings themselves contain images of both Christian, pagan, heraldic and local interest. A modern carving of the church dating from Ca. 1970's by Mr Doug Edwards - can be found carved on the back of a bench towards the altar.

Sadly, in complete contrast to the quiet beauty and sublime detail of the "Cathedral" itself, is the Holy Well of St Nonna - situated just to the north of the church and below the vicarage. A Holy Well once reputed to cure the ailments of those suffering from mental illness.

However, we were very disappointed to find this well suffering from its own ill state of health and condition. The part broken iron-wrought gate at its entrance ironically forewarning a Holy Hell(?). The steps leading down to the holy water vegetated and neglected, the water itself a mired puddle with an overgrown recess (perhaps to hold an icon? the source of its spring?) - badly in need of loving care and restoration.


"St Nonna of Alternon"; date unknown; author unknown: a contemporary church guide, based partly on a previous guide by Rev. William Arnold Kneebone (Parish Vicar 1936 - 1967.)

This guide is available at St Nonna of Altarnun.

"The Medieval Bench Ends at St Nonna's Altarnun - A Pictorial Guide"; date unknown; Brian Stalley and John Woods, Photographs by Mr A.P. Thompson. Alternun Parish Church; Published by Tre Pol Pen.

This guide is available at St Nonna of Altarnun

"Altarnun" [Online]; Cornwall Guide; 2014 available at

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