St Just Plain-an-Gwarry
NGR: SW 3702 3143
Situated in the centre of St Just to the west of the present parish
church, the mediæval amphitheatre, playing place or plain-an-gwarry
is a large circular enclosure retained by a 2 metre high dry stone
wall, with two entrances cut into the north and south-east sides.
Despite the fact that it almost disappeared in the 19th century, St
Just’s plain-an-gwarry survives today as a good example of a rare
and distinctively Cornish monument type.
When first recorded by William Borlase in the mid 18th century, the
encircling bank stood 7ft high and 10ft high above the external
ditch. His plan shows six tiers of stone steps or seats around the
edge; although he admitted that the place ‘had been disfigured by
injudicious repairs of late years’, and by the time John Swete
visited in 1780, the seats were ‘lost to the eye’. In 1836, the Town
Council was considering building a market house in the centre of the
arena. Due to strong local opposition this did not happen (instead,
it was built opposite the church and is now the Wellington Hotel),
but dumping of household waste on the site and other misuse remained
a notable problem. Eventually in the late 1870s a restoration was
undertaken, overseen by local antiquarian WC Borlase. This appears
to have involved re-arranging the rubbish to heighten and restore
the degraded banks, spreading layers of china clay waste to level
and help drain the interior, and re-turfing throughout. As well as a
philanthropic venture, it also appears to have been a scheme
intended to help the needy, for a newspaper report of the time noted
that 'restoring the old amphitheatre…had taken off those who had
been hanging about the corners of the town seeking for employment’.
Only two plain-an-gwarries, or playing places, survive in
near-complete form today, the other being Piran Round at
Perranzabuloe; however historical documentary evidence suggests the
existence of many more, their distribution being very much linked to
areas where the Cornish language survived in late mediæval times.
The circular enclosure would have been used for many purposes
including sport and as a local meeting place. It is most commonly
known, however, for the performance of local miracle plays in the
Cornish language. One documented cycle of three Cornish mystery
plays known as the Ordinalia has been revived and performed at St
Just in recent years. A 15th century manuscript of the plays
survives and is written in Middle Cornish; the three plays, the
Origo Mundi, the Passio Domini Nostri and Resurrexio
Domini Nostri, would possibly have been performed on consecutive
days during local parish festivals by local people and may have been
part of an annual Corpus Christi festival associated with Glasney
College at Penryn, one of the major centres for Christianity in the
County. Designed as a means of teaching the Scriptures to ordinary
people they were often noisy, bawdy and entertaining.
Various reports on the St Just plain-an-gwarry in the 19th century
indicate that, as an open space at the centre of a busy industrial
town, it was by then used for a wide range of activities. It is said
that from time immemorial it had been used for cock-fighting, as a
hurling-goal, and as a ring for wrestling, but it also provided a
venue for travelling theatres, not to mention brush-salesmen! Before
restoration, its dilapidated fence also allowed pigs in to root over
the surface. Blocks of granite with holes still surviving on one
side of the arena are from miners’ drilling competitions. In the
20th century, shrub-planting (another unemployment scheme) and a
band-stand were proposed but vetoed and the arena was occasionally
used for step-dancing competitions.
Buck, C and Berry, E, 1996. St Just Town Survey and Historic Audit.
Environment Service, Cornwall County Council.
Buller, J, 1842. A Statistical Account of the Parish of St Just in Penwith.
Tangye, M, 1999. ‘The Plain-an-Gwarry at St Just: its conservation
and restoration’, Old Cornwall XII, No. 4, 32-35.
Ground & Aerial photographs