I have a vision. A long procession of small, furry creatures skipping
gaily up the street. Elegantly groomed mice, hamsters, rabbits,
whisking their partners in circles, jiggling and squeaking in time to
the music. It's all a bit of a Disney moment but at least it would
be in keeping with the occasion. And life really needs to be tidier.
Unfortunately I could find nothing in any of the relevant literature
that alluded to either this image or to why Furry Dance, better known
as Flora Day, is so named. No doubt they tried the rodent dance
thing and were foiled by the big wheel in the fairground - once hamsters
and co reached it they were compelled to spend the rest of their short
lives monotonously and pointlessly going round and round and...
Well anyway, as a Cornish person I have always just assumed that Flora
Dance is just another excuse to get drunk and wear strange floral arrangements
in my hair. Plus some great opportunities to have nausea induced
by some hideous fair ride that seemed like a good idea at the time.
If pressed I could mutter something about Pagan rituals and fertility
rites or something. The interesting thing is that this is about
as much as anyone seems to know about it. It is believed to predate
Christianity, be of Pagan origin, and to be mainly concerned with welcoming
the coming of summer and relief that the winter has finally passed.
Despite the confusion everyone seems sure that it is one of the oldest
customs to persist in the country.
helpfully explains that May the 8th (on which the festival is held annually)
is the 'Christian feast day of the apparition of St Michael, Helston's
patron saint'. Flora Day then, like Christmas, is an example of the
church's tendency to adopt and manipulate ancient rituals to voice its
The hotchpotch of influences which inform the celebration can clearly
be observed in the Hal-an-Tow. This is the second dance of the morning
(the first having taken place at the Stupid O'clock time of 7.00am thereby
incurring the title of 'event my friends and I are most likely to miss
and not give a damn) and is perhaps the most renown. It is better described
as a play or a pageant; its revellers rowdily re-enact St George's battle
with the dragon. Rather obscurely the play's verses also allude to the
Spanish Armanda and Robin Hood, amongst other references - as noted
by netcomuk.co.uk who are obviously more motivated researchers than
And of course the Roman inspiration is ubiquitous. Florists of
Cornwall rub their hands in glee as thousands compete to smell the sweetest,
dress the brightest and, most importantly, attract the most bees. Flora,
Roman goddess of flowers, spring and youth clearly reigns over the proceedings.
The town is beautifully decorated with hazel, bluebells and other locally-found
greenery. Do they grow it specially or does the surrounding countryside
suddenly become bereft of flora and foliage I wonder? Probably
many bewildered sheep, cows and horses can be seen standing
around in their fields on Flora Day going, ' doesn't it look rather
bare here today? Is this minimalism? Oi Bob the Sheep, have you been
watching those garden makeover programmes again?'
The children look uncommonly sweet and innocent attired in their white
splendour and adorned with floral garlands (the girls anyway) and Lilies
of the Valley - the variety of flower associated with the festivities.
Not a skateboard or a pair of unfeasibly large and technologically advanced-looking
trainers insight. But don't get too close. And don't snigger
if anyone is out of step.
The main dance of the day begins at noon and is very formal. The performers
dance in morning dress and ball gowns. And flowers. Recognise
the reoccurring theme yet? And no cross-dressing is allowed! This is
a strictly traditional occasion and anyway it is early. The leaders
of this dance are always a Helston-born couple.
At 5.00pm there is an evening dance; a more laid-back and informal affair
- but not necessarily in terms of serenity. After all most people
are in the pub, on their way there, or coming out of the pub and possibly
on the way to another. The whole town is likely to be massively crowded
- so if you have some sort of social phobia go to Camborne instead as
nobody goes there by choice. Of course neither will you,
so employ someone to drag you there screaming. Anywhere I'm meandering
insult-land now so...
Best place to see the processions: according to cornishlight.freeserve.co.uk,
views are particularly fine from Penhellis Gardens. So follow
their advice if you are as short as I am and don't want to spendall
day jumping up and down.
Other attractions: to be found at the bottom of Coinagehall Street are
a huge variety of stalls whose owners would love nothing better than
for you to stop spending all your cash at the pub, and instead purchase
their delightful range of souvenirs, crafts and food. In Coronation
Park you'll find the fairground which you will largely ignore because
they're for kids aren't they? Once you have decided this, bought
your Flora Dance '01 pencil/eraser/tea towel/jumping spider and eaten
your pastie it will be time for...
The pubs: Not an expert on this - only been in two with names I can
remember. Nevertheless they are probably the most interesting.
The first is The Blue Anchor, an ancient place, and one which brews
its own ale. It's called Spingo, is lethally strong, and personally
I think it's horrible but it's well respected and loved by many.
Apparently. If you like old pubs with lots of atmosphere than this is
The other is The Angel Hotel- notable for its 40 foot well set into
the floor of the main bar. And its ghost Nellie (not an elephant).
Also it was once a jail and yeah it can be as gloomy as it sounds on
say, a Thursday evening, but on Flora Day it's as lively and friendly
as anywhere. Its rich and unusual history means its a great place
to enjoy the 'drunken revelry' for which the festival was once banned
by the Victorians. Plus it is in a good location if you need accommodation
and has a restaurant. Everything sorted then
And finally, time to return to the fairground and face those rides that
previously terrified you, with a new spirit of adventure!
Flora Day is certainly an experience. Helston has a rich history
and looks beautiful decked out in its festival finery. And even if you're
not impressed with the dancers in their fancy clothes, Flora Day at
least offers the chance to meet up with friends and
indulge in a little Pagan revelry in an atmospheric setting. Just
don't take it to far and get involved in a fight with a Camborner.
And just maybe it will be sunny. (But remember to pack an umbrella anyway
and leave behind any members of your family who may be harbouring foot
©Jess Wynne 2001