It's easy to miss the sign for Altarnun as you hoof back up out of Cornwall on the A30, just another colourfully named village that you know you'll never visit. In my case, however, I've been trying to get to Altarnun for years. Once I made the detour only to find that the way was blocked with roadworks. More often I've been in too much of a hurry to get home. Well, last week, and in spite of some less-than-helpful road signs, I finally got there. It was well worth the wait.

I wanted to look inside the church for in bagpiping circles it has totemic significance.

Why? Because on one of the bench ends there is a stunning, late-medieval carving of a bagpiper.

It was rather difficult to photograph on my crummy phone but you can perhaps get an idea of the detail. The pipes even have fingerholes. What has excited organologists is that these bagpipes have two chanters, so our Altarnun piper was probably playing rudimentary harmonies. That he is in Cornwall has led many to suppose that these were Cornish bagpipes, and consequently there's been a Cornish bagpipe revival with various attempts to reconstruct the Altarnun pipes.  

In fact – and with all due respect to the land of my forefathers – there's nothing especially Cornish about two-chantered pipes (event though there are several other examples in the Duchy). As representations of them are found across England (and in Wales too, I believe), they must have been a reasonably common occurrence before bagpipes started to disappear from the Southern soundscape. Not that this matters, as in my book a bagpipe revival is always a good thing.

Nor does it take away from the skill of the wood-carver, one Robert Daye (if wikipedia is to be believed) working between 1510-30. What I hadn't realised is that the church is simply brimming with his beautifully carved bench-ends - 79 in total.

My favourites included a fiddler (holding the fiddle just as they do in Eastern Europe today)…

…and a fool, so vivid you can almost hear his bells…

…and some kind of sea monster, like a modern tattoo…

They reminded me of a set of tarot cards, and like the tarot these carvings are little windows onto a forgotten world, one that's been quietly preserved in an enchanting Cornish church on the edge of Bodmin Moor. 

I should definitely make more time for detours.


  1. Enchanting. (Sorry.) Thomas was also one for detours to pew ends, bosses and even kneeler covers. The hours of fun you could have had together... :o).



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