With Tin and Copper no longer the mainstay of Cornwall’s most westerly outpost, St Just has had to move with the times. Making the most of its distinctive local history, spectacular coastline and environs, as well as the creative talents of its many artists (Kurt Jackson, Graham Jobbins, Maggie Matthews, Richard Guy) St Just has struck a rich tourist vein. Quirky cafes, excellent galleries, friendly independent shops and traditional pubs, all welcome locals and visitors alike.
This granite built, windswept town, surrounded by an abundance of standing stones and ancient sites, is also home to what is believed to be the oldest working theatre in Britain. Although the original structure probably dates back to the Iron Age, and is potentially thousands of years old, the Plen-an-Gwari or ‘place of the play’ was later used to stage the Ordinalia, a unique cycle of miracle plays written in Middle Cornish in the late 14th century: The Creation of the World (Origo Mundi), The Passion (Passio Domini) & The Resurrection (Resurrexio Domini). As one of only two surviving Cornish medieval amphitheatres in use (the other is Perran Round, near Perranporth) St Just’s Plen even has scheduled ancient monument status.
These days the Plen continues to host outdoor theatre shows, music events, dancing, Cornish wrestling and other sports, and like a village green, is an important meeting place for townsfolk. It also comes alive for two weeks in July, when the fabulous Lafrowda Festival uses it as a hub. So when a shed, previously used as a backstage area for performances and storage, was put up for sale, a campaign was launched to buy it, to secure the Plen’s future as a viable venue. Nine years and much fundraising later, and The Knut officially opened in May 2014.
This stunning eco building made from granite and local timbers, not only provides proper facilities for events taking place in the adjacent Plen, but also houses a unique archive resource, run by volunteers from Easter to October, highlighting the historical and community importance of the Plen. While throughout the year, they hold film screenings, talks, workshops, quiz nights, exhibitions, play readings, performances and creative happenings, to help raise money for its upkeep.
The Knut is named after Dominic Knutton, who directed the revived and re-vamped modern day re-enactments of the Ordinalia, performed in the Plen between 2000 and 2004. Writer Pauline Sheppard extensively researched the remaining historical texts, to produce a new English language script. A magical, moving series of productions, showcasing the very best in grassroots community participation, more than 250 local people were involved as actors, band members, choristers, builders and makers. The end result was truly inspirational. And there are plans afoot to do it all again in 2016, subject to funding, which will see the Plen revert to its original purpose: bringing people together and celebrating Cornwall’s finest playing place.
But St Just and Perran aren’t the only places to have been blessed with a Plen. More than 30 other sites in Cornwall have been identified as having previously staged spectacular outdoor performances, where religious stories were acted out, and the lives of Cornish saints venerated. Golden Tree Productions, a collaborative team of cultural creative practitioners and self-confessed Kernow-philes, have been championing Plenys (plural for Plen!) for some time now.
Never missing a trick, their own innovative productions have always capitalised on the existence of these outdoor spaces, while a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund helped them to research and uncover the treasure trove of ‘lost’ Plenys-an-Gwaris. As well as working with schools, universities and community groups, the project culminated in the publication of a beautiful book. Packed with illustrations by leading Cornish artists, and written by Will Coleman, it’s a fascinating insight into Cornwall’s theatrical and cultural heritage. You can buy it from their website. They’ve even produced a Plen-an-Gwari field guide to help you find one of these little hidden gems near you.
Golden Tree: goldentree.org.uk
The Knut: theknutstjust.com
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