Helston Flora Day

My in-laws live in the gritty Cornish town of Helston and so I visit fairly frequently, but up until now I've never made it down for Flora Day to see the Furry Dance (on or around May 8th).

Locals and shopkeepers festoon the place with flowers (it is, apparently, the only place in Britain where it's legal to pick bluebells, so no letters please).

This is the famous Blue Anchor pub, home of the notoriously strong Spingo Ale. Here, I'm told, you can take the Spingo Challenge. If you can down, and keep down, ten pints of the stuff, and exit without touching the wall, then the pub is yours. Needless to say, no one has ever succeeded.

Flora Day actually consists of two events. The Hal-an-Tow starts at 8.30am. It's a curious mix. It's part 1930s pageant (which is when it was revived, having been discouraged by those humourless Victorians)...

It's part Cornish Nationalist rally, with a declaration in Cornish, some (good-humoured) jibes directed at the English, and plenty of Oggy Oggy Oggying...

It's part Mystery or Mummer's play, with tableau quickly enacted to illustrate the words of the famous Hal-an-Tow song, belted out with gusto...

And it's part neo-pagan ritual celebrating the return of the spring...

Despite the Cornish mizzle, I found it uplifting and moving. The enthusiasm of the participants and the delight with which they enacted their parts were infectious.

Then there is the Furry Dance itself. According to Ronald Hutton, the first mention of any Mayish activities in Helston is in 1600, but the dance is the last surviving Cornish Processional Dance (of which there were once many). It became popular, and formalised, in the nineteenth century, a legacy that remains, giving it the feel of something out of Trumpton

There are four dances throughout the day, each processing right round the town and in and out of select shops and houses. They're driven along by the Helston Town Band playing that tune.

If it's a contender for the most irritating tune ever written then that's only because some of us are old enough to remember Terry Wogan's ghastly 1978 chart-topping rendition of the song (which is a later addition). In fact the tune is full of pomp and brilliantly infectious. It echoes round the streets and does the job of spurring the dancers on.

All the local school kids appear in the Children's Dance, the teenagers with rather less enthusiasm than the youngsters.

But the main event is the Furry Dance itself. It's as if Ascot Ladies Day was suddenly and inexplicably possessed by the spirit of Pan.

In some ways I preferred Helston to Padstow. The boundary between insider and outsider was less rigorously defended and consequently I felt more able to partake in that feeling of festival effervescence. Yes, it's quirky and at times distinctly odd... 


But as ever, my heart lifts when, no matter the occasion, the bunting comes out and people take to the streets.


  1. "It's as if Ascot Ladies Day was suddenly and inexplicably possessed by the spirit of Pan"!!!

    I wish I'd written that!

  2. Yes, I wish I'd written that too. Soo...... evidence of Maying as far back as 1600 eh? Sounds like tradition to me! ;)



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