The Flora Dance
Helston is a quaint old Cornish market town which sits nestled into a hillside, with its many narrow streets intermingled with higgledy-piggledy houses, walled gardens and interconnecting alleyways and, once a year, for hundreds of years, the townsfolk of this quiet little town have celebrated and enjoyed an ancient and wonderful tradition that is known as Flora Day.
Celebrating the end of winter, this festival is a bountiful ode to Spring. With all the houses and shops decorated and garlanded with luscious greenery and flamboyant floral arrangements to express the spirit of renewal, waving goodbye to cold and hard winter. This colourful pageant known as ‘Hal an Tow’, tells the history and story of the Cornish town of Helston, with the participating characters singing about the challenge of the Spanish Armada, the English patron Saint, St George and the fight between St Michael the protector of Cornwall and the Devil. There is no definitive meaning for the term Hal-an-tow with much confliction having been given over the years; it has been suggested that meanings to the wording “halan” is the term for ‘calends’, a Cornish term for the first day of the calendar month and, “tow” being the colloquial term for garland, or some have even suggested that the term tow could also mean, ‘Hoist the Roof’.
The annual Flora Day starts with the gentlemen dancing the streets, with a nice and early rise at 7am; they parade the streets wearing shirts and ties, joined by the ladies in their light floral dresses and dance the morning in. It’s not until the children of the town dance at 10am, with the boys in white with a tie to match their school colours and the girls adding colour to their white dress with a floral head-dress, decked with lily of the valley does the real action begin. And then at Noon, the day really gets into full swing, offering visitors and locals the spectacle of the Principal dance. It is official, Flora Day has begun.
This dance is an exclusive affair and participation is by invitation only. Ladies are adorned in full-length dresses, hats and gloves and their partners are expected to be in their best bib and tucker, dressed in black mourning dress with ties and top hats. The Mayor who leads the procession is decked in impressive gold as he wears his chain of office, for the special occasion.
To round off the day of dancing and gaieties, the evening dance starts from the Guildhall at 5pm. Visitors are more than welcome to join this dance, many of which accept the invitation and put their Flora dancing skills to the test all under the critical eye of the local town and their dancing elite (no pressure). The dance (when done properly…) is a sight not to be missed!
The day unravels with the hubbub of action around the main street and all around the boating lake, there is a fever of activity and everyone is alive and buzzing with fun and frolics. Many a market stall sells everything from local souvenirs and crafts to food and flowers. An ideal place to wander around and hopefully find a few bargains along the way - all whilst soaking up the wonderful Carnival spirit which runs through every street and corner of town, with festivities running well into the night.
There’s more to Helston than just the Flora Dance. The town also has a Folk museum where you will find a wealth of information about Helston, past and present. With the cannon that stands directly outside the museum being a relic from HMS Anson, it’s not hard to miss it! If history and dancing doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, then you could alternatively visit Penrose, a National Trust stunning natural site, offering wooded wonders, fantastic walks and lashings of fresh air, all around Cornwall’s largest lake. Open all year round, you can explore the parkland, lakeside, woods, beach and cliff-top fields along 17 miles of footpaths, cycle trails and bridleways.