St Just Plain-an-Gwarry
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 Cornwall 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. Historic 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.