Prayer pits, preaching pits, playing places & amphitheatres
The interpretation board besides our rapidly evolving new amphitheatre describes it as being "inspired by Cornish prayer pits". I had to confess my ignorance to two visitors who questioned me about this yesterday, which prompted some rapid research on the above subject. Prayer pits, or strictly speaking, preaching pits, such as nearby Gwennap Pit, were places of outdoor worship in common use from the 18th century and throughout the Victorian period.
How they came about is a fascinating tale. In the early 18th century a rift developed between the Cornish people and their Anglican clergy; the social revolution swept across Cornwall as miners, fishermen, farmers and others defied the established church to follow the teachings of Methodism.
Methodist preachers, most famously John Wesley, but also numerous mine captains and charismatic lay preachers communicated to communities the powerful messages of respectability and self-improvement to ensure Methodism became the most relevant religious institution for labourers and the working class. Cornwall took to Methodism like no other county in England and huge crowds were drawn to open-air meetings.
At Gwennap, a large circular depression (probably created by mining activities) was fitted out with tiered seating and with remarkable acoustic qualities. It was here that John Wesley preached on 18 occasions in the latter quarter of the 18th century to crowds estimated at some 20,000.
In Indian Queens an open cast mine was converted into a Wesleyan Sunday School amphitheatre in 1850, in St Newlyn East a pit was created from a former quarry in 1846 and in Whitemoor a pit was formed as a quarter rather than the full circle.
Cornwall is probably better known for its world famous amphitheatre - the spectacular Minack Theatre, created by Rowena Cade on the cliffs near Porthcurno, but in most medieval communities in Cornwall, a Plain-an-Gwarry (translates from Cornish to mean 'playing place') was to be found.
In the centre of St Just in Penwith is a medieval amphitheatre, which had 6 tiers of stone steps or seats around the edge and at Perranzabuloe the Piran Round is other survivor. These playing places were used for sport, as a local meeting place, for cock fighting, wrestling, fairgrounds and for the performance of Cornish miracle plays (dating back to the 15th century) which were written in the Cornish language and focussed on biblical stories. To capture the attention of the audience the plays were "often noisy, bawdy and entertaining".
This brings me nearly to a full circle - Cornwall's Miracle Theatre has performed regularly at Trebah over the past few years and we look forward to hosting them and other open air productions in our amphitheatre.