Hellfire Kernow

Hellfire Kernow is a project proposal with three Cornish cultural starting points; the Plen an Gwari, medieval liturgical drama and the sport of Hurling to Goal.

We staged the first Hellfire event in May 2022,  reviving our ancient sport of ‘Hurling to Goal’ with a tournament at Redruth Rugby Club. You can read more about what we got up to on our news page.

Redruth residents will be familiar with the street name ‘Plain-an-Gwarry’ but did you know that it's named after the Plen an Gwari, ancient Cornish amphitheatre, that once stood there?

Plen an Gwari

Thousands of spectators will have thronged through a wide circular arena but not to watch anything that resembled our 21st century notions of ‘theatre’. The Cornish plen an gwari form was an epic, immersive outdoor experience complete with special effects, aerobatics, elaborate costumes, performers on horseback, guns and pyrotechnics.

Hurling to Goal

Besides the staging of theatre, each plen an gwari was also used as a ‘playing place’ for sports such as Cornish wrestling and ‘hurling’. Thorough accounts of the popular Cornish sport of ‘hurling to goal’ by Richard Carew in 1602 suggest that this sport, played with a heavy, metal ‘silver ball’ is the earliest known example from anywhere in the world where the ball must be passed backwards.

Hellfire Corner

Many people fondly recall the ‘Golden Era’ of Cornish rugby when, before and after each match, the streets, shops and pubs of Redruth would be full to bursting with black-and-gold clad supporters from every far-flung corner of Cornwall. The rowdiest and most vocal section of the rugby supporters always headed straight for the infamous ‘Hellfire Corner’. Some say that this corner of the Redruth pitch first got its name because it was right where the medieval “Hell’s Mouth” of the plen an gwari was sited! 

Although rooted in three Cornish cultural cornerstones the project also has international sources of inspiration.

Once every ten years more than 500,000 visitors descend on the small town of Oberammergau, Bavaria, for their globally renowned Passion Play. As well as Bavarian inspiration, Hellfire Kernow draws inspiration from Italian revivals of medieval heritage, Sienna’s famous horse race, Arezzo jousting and the brutal ‘football’ of Florence’s Calcio Storico.  Meanwhile, just across the sea, the annual Breton pilgrimages of the Pardons remain a huge part of the cultural calendar for our Celtic cousins. With traditional costumes, processional music and imagery, these events engender huge local pride as well as pulling in vast crowds of spectators which boost the local economy.

Setting the Spark in 2022

Golden Tree Productions (commissioned by the Redruth Town Vitality Fund) will be exploring the notion of Redruth having a plen an gwari, once again. This would be the first new medieval Cornish Amphitheatre to have been built for 500 years. It will become a community hub, a green space and a performance venue, with a rolling programme of cultural events exploiting this outdoor gathering space. Find out more about the plen an gwari R&D here.

We are ‘Setting the Spark’ for our plans in 2022 with a series of Hellfire Kernow events, funded by Arts Council England and Redruth Unlimited – a new cultural adventure for Redruth. The programme is funded by Historic England and FEAST is commissioning cultural projects on behalf of the Redruth High Street Heritage Action Zone with the help of a local cultural consortium.

Hurling to Goal: 

Working with staff and students at Redruth school and with members of Redruth Rugby Club we will ‘reconstruct’ Hurling to Goal, based on surviving accounts and evidence of the sport, through a series of experimental workshops. 

Hellfire Crews:

After exploring imagery and ideas from medieval manuscripts, four distinct Redruth ‘Hellfire Crews’ will be created: i) ‘Demons’, ii) ‘Angels’, iii) ‘Saints’ and iv) ‘Tormentors’.

Each Crew will co-create colourful costumes, props and processional imagery for themselves and become the cheerleader fan club for one of the four hurling teams. Each crew will adopt a Crew Base in the run up to the event in which they’ll work on preparing costumes and the garm vresel / battle cry. Thanks to the venues providing bases for our Crews – Redruth Rugby Club, The Buttermarket, Redruth Community Centre and The Art Room.

Hellfire Event: 

We staged the first trial “Hellfire” event on Saturday 28th May 2022. Over the course of a day, the four distinct ‘Hellfire Crews’ gathered at their Crew Bases in the four corners of the town.  

The inaugural ‘Redruth Hurling Championships’ were held at Redruth Rugby Club, with the costumed, colourful Crews each supporting their team with chants and garm vresel / battle cry encouragements. Afterwards, the glorious champions were paraded along the ‘Plain an Gwarry Trail’, visiting each of their Crew ‘spiritual homes’ along the way  – The Buttermarket, St Rumon’s Chapel and Kresen Kernow before returning to ‘Hellfire Corner’ at Redruth Rugby Club. The parade finished with a fire sculpture finale, inspired by fragments from the medieval scripts.