Copper mining in the area around Gwennap attracted thousands of people in search of work and wealth but had a devastating effect on the landscape. The tiny parish grew to have a population of around 8500 people in the 1830s. In comparison Truro around the same time had a mere 3000 inhabitants. In the 18th and 19th century the mines here produced hundreds of thousands of tons of the precious ore. It became known as ‘the richest square mile to be found anywhere on the earth’.
The mines left deep scars however. A strange depression close to Gwennap village, said to have been formed by the collapse of old mine workings, now stands as a picturesque memorial to the Methodist movement so favoured by the mining communities in Cornwall. Known as Gwennap Pit this tiered, amphitheatre like structure makes a fun, if odd, place to visit.
Gwennap Pit is used as a preaching pit, most famously in the past by John Wesley, who called it ‘the most magnificent spectacle this side of heaven’. One of the founders of Methodism, Wesley preached there eighteen times between 1762 and 1789. It is said that the structure can seat about 1500 people comfortably but apparently on one occasion Wesley attracted a congregation of some 32,000.
Despite what you would expect the preacher or minister doesn’t actually stand at the base of the pit. There is a place, described by Wesley in his diaries, about half way up one side which served as the pulpit. The first use of Gwennap Pit for was in September 1762 and John Wesley himself recorded the occasion:
‘The wind was so high that I could not stand at the usual place at [the village of] Gwennap; but a small distance was a hollow capable of containing many thousands of people. I stood on one side of this amphitheatre towards the top and with people beneath on all sides. I enlarged on those words in the gospel for the day Blessed are the eyes which see the things that ye see….hear the things that ye hear.’
The 12 concentric terraces were cut into the sides of the natural depression to create seats in about 1806. Apparently a group of four local mine captains and a mining engineer decided to preserve the pit as a memorial to Wesley and his message.
They created the Gwennap Pit as we see it today. The site is now part of the Cornish Mining World Heritage area. It continues to be used for services during the summer months and there is also an annual gathering at Whitsun.
Visiting Gwennap Pit:
The pit is open all year round and is FREE to visit.
There is also a visitor centre which is open from the Spring Bank Holiday until September and run by knowledgeable volunteers. It is open every day but Sunday, 10am-4.30pm.
There is a small parking area onsite.