Today is Flora Day in Helston. It is, for me, a beautiful day. I give you this in the hope that one day, you shall go along and share the enjoyment that, for one day in May, fills the entire town.
Helston’s Flora Day is one of my favourite days of the year. It may not be particularly important to the general public, but for me, growing up near Helston, it’s got a mindboggling number of good memories associated with it.
I admit now, hands in the air, that I am not Cornish. I’m from Lancashire, at the other end of the country. But I’ve lived in Cornwall since the age of three so my Flora Day memories are fully fledged and going strong.
Helston, for those who don’t know, is a small market town in south west Cornwall. Flora Day – sometimes shortened simply to Flora – is a spring festival that’s been going for hundreds of years. And when I say hundreds, I really mean hundreds. The first recorded mention is in 1790, but I doubt anyone could give you the official start date.
The official start time, though, is very specific. At 7am, the clock at the top of Helston Guildhall rings out. As it does, the bass drum rings out and the first dance of the Day begins.
Music, dancing, and dancers
The dancing. There’s the Early Morning Dance, the Childrens’ Dance, the Midday Dance, and the Evening Dance. As well as that, there’s the Hal-an-Tow.
The steps are all identical. Dancing in groups of four, two pairs of dancers switch partners hop by hop. Honestly, it’s easier to learn via watching rather than explaining. Step, step, step (repeat x3), step hop, step, step, step, hop (repeat x2), change partner, step, step, step, hop (repeat x2) change back to original partner. Repeat until at end point. As I said, easier to watch it online and learn it.
Onto each dance.
In the Early Morning Dance, the women wear light summer dresses and the men wear a white shirt, black trousers, and a striped tie. All have a sprig of Helston’s flower, lily of the valley, pinned to the top of their outfit in a specific way: women have theirs on the right with the flowers facing downwards, men with theirs on the right with the flowers facing upwards. These are the dancers, too, who dance in the Evening Dance, setting off at 5pm.
At around 9:30am, over 1200 children from Helston’s four schools congregate at the top of Wendron Street. Starting at 9:50am, the children of Parc Eglos School, Nansloe Academy, St Michael’s Church of England Primary School, and Helston Community College dance through the streets. Every child is dressed in pure white. The girls, a dress, shoes, and a headdress made from the flowers of their school; the boys, a shirt, trousers, shoes, and then, a tie in their school colours. The dancers wear lily of the valley in the same way as those in the Early Morning Dance.
The Midday Dance leaves the Guildhall at – strangely enough – midday. Despite having the same steps and music as the other dances, there is one thing that sets the Midday Dance apart: the outfits. All are beautifully dressed in afternoon dress – the women in long and fantastical dresses, the gentlemen in suit, tails, and a top hat. Set out in their best attire, they dance in and out of houses, businesses, and gardens before returning to the Guildhall. There is just one thing that joins them to the other dancers: they, too, wear their lily of the valley.
You may be wondering about all of these “who leads?” Who is it that leads these apparently sacred dances, that have been happening for longer than anyone can remember? That, I tell you, changes year on year, and profusely depends on the dance.
At the very beginning of each dance, there is a segment of Helston Town Band. The leaders of the Early Morning/Evening Dances are chosen by the Helston Flora Day Association. The leaders of the Childrens’ Dance are on a rotation, with a different school leading each year. But the leading of the Midday Dance, that is a different thing altogether.
There is just one requirement to lead the Midday Dance: the four leaders must be Helston born and bred.
If you’ve spent any amount of time in Cornwall, you will probably have heard the words “Cornish born and bred”, meaning the person was not just born in Cornwall but has Cornish heritage. It means a lot in Cornwall. Being Cornish means a lot. But being a homegrown Helstoner is no more important than on Flora Day. It’s significant. It’s important. As is leading the Midday Dance.
It’s the type of thing that very few people can say that they have done. When taking applications for the Midday Dance, they don’t just take your full name, date of birth, and email. The minimum information is full name, address, date of birth, and address at date of birth. Applications for the Midday Dance is open until the end of January of that year and applicants must supply “as much relevant information as possible”.
You may be thinking by now “is that not a bit much?” The children all in white. The leaders of the Midday Dance having to be born in Helston. No, it isn’t. Not for Flora Day. Now, onto the music.
The music for the Flora Dance has been closely guarded by Helston Town Band for decades. Helston Town Band – also known as Helston Brass Band – plays the song by memory, for every Dance, walking with the dancers. No sheet music exists outside their band room nor has it ever been released by the Band. The majority of the Senior Band, the Junior Band, and the Beginner Band take part, possibly with guests from other local bands if necessary. To help ensure all the dancers can hear it at the same time, speakers are carried by walkers next to the dancers.
(Those of you old enough may recall the beloved Terry Wogan getting to Number 21 on Top of the Pops in 1978 with a cover of The Floral Dance.)
Hal an Tow
The Hal an Tow may not be everybody’s cup of tea. It will, however, be easy to explain.
Flora Day is a spring festival to drive out winter and welcome spring. The Hal an Tow is a pageant that travels through Helston on foot, singing about and celebrating events in the town and in Cornwall. Also, making as much noise as humanly possible. These events include the arrival of Cornwall’s patron saint, St. Piran and St. Michael slaying the Dragon.
It’s nuts and a lot of fun. I feel sorry for the people who choose to dress up as Hedges, though.
Flora Day is held on 8th May every year… unless it falls on a Sunday or a Monday (the Sabbath and Market Day). Then, it falls on the previous Saturday.
That’s more or less everything about Flora Day. There are stalls on the sides of the roads, special drinks put on by some of the cafés, and a lot of flower crowns on sale. The weather can be iffy, but the locals still come out. You generally need the ability to shout “can you move please?” because the person in front of you has decided to stop mid-walk. There are the kennels to watch out for, and small children. But I love it.
It’s a lot of fun. I’ve done the Childrens’ Dance once and the Hal an Tow I’d say about five times. I’d love to do the Early Morning and Evening Dance at some point in my life; I wish I could do the Midday, but I doubt that will happen.
Despite the insane parking, the sometimes-iffy weather, and every restaurant and café being overrun with customers, I love it. It’s the best way I can think of to welcome in spring and wave goodbye to winter.
Morning Dance 2012: Helston Flora Day 2012 – First Dance – YouTube
Hal an Tow 2016: Helston Flora Day 2016 Hal-an-Tow – YouTube
Childrens’ Dance 2016: Helston Flora day 2016, The Children’s Dance – YouTube
Midday Dance 2016: Helston Flora Day 2016 Midday dance – YouTube
Terry Wogan – The Floral Dance: terry wogan – the floral dance – YouTube