About Us
Travel Writing
Sport Comment


Contact Us



Archive 2
January Edition
February Edition



Furry Dancing
Jess Wynne
Furry Dance: Helston's famous May Day celebrations - hamsters optional.

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.

Helston online.com 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 own values.

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 me.

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 into
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 perfect.

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 it’s 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 and mouth).

©Jess Wynne 2001

< Back to Index
< About the Author
< Reply to this Article