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In step with rich tradition in Cornish town

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: May 04, 2013

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Next Wednesday sees Helston's most famous annual event – the Flora Dance. Or Furry Dance. Call it what you like, if you weren't born in Helston, you'll never have the honour of donning top hat and tails (men) and ballgowns and hats (ladies) and sweeping through the town leading the spectacular invitation-only Mid-day Dance.

It's an honour that goes strictly to Helston locals only and the rule is that you can only lead the dance once in your lifetime.

But for all the exclusivity of the Mid-day Flora Dance, Helston today is a sought-after place to live, with many people drawn to relocate here by the town's mild climate, pretty buildings and close-knit community.

Some say the traditional day of dancing and celebration on May 8 dates back to medieval times.

It is certainly almost impossibly charming. Four dances take place on Flora Day, including all the town's schoolchildren dancing in white with lily of the valley buttonholes at 10am. Then comes a fashion parade worthy of Royal Ascot for the Mid-day Dance.

Spare a thought for the Helston Town Band musicians, though, who not only play the song from memory – the music has never been written down – but also walk the four-mile route four times in one day.

And that includes weaving their way right through various properties and homes.

The Flora Day celebrations also include a colourful street pageant, known as Hal an Tow (which possibly means "spring garland" in Cornish – or perhaps not).

This lively performance re-enacts the history of Helston with reference to St George, St Michael and the devil. Various unfriendly remarks about the Spanish in the Hal an Tow could date back to the raid on nearby Newlyn by the Spanish Armada in the 1500s. Helston has a population of around 10,000 but its location is hardly convenient, tucked away as it is on the far end of Cornwall.

Nearby Royal Naval Air Station Culdrose, home to the Royal Navy's Merlins and Sea Kings, is the largest helicopter base in Europe with 75 aircraft and 3,000 personnel. It is the biggest single-site employer in Cornwall, pumping £100m into the local economy every year.

The prominent hilltop helicopter station, with its vast hangars and miles of runways, is not the prettiest of places, however. So if you're house hunting here, it's as well to choose one without a Culdrose view.

However, the town itself has some charming properties, such as the thatched home of former three-time world champion boxer Bob Fitzsimmons (born 1863), now on the market for £163,950.

Out of the town and into the countryside, you can get lovely properties with outbuildings and land for around the £500,000-£600,000 mark.

The Lizard, nearby, has beautiful beaches and pretty villages, and the Helford River not only has wonderful sheltered sailing but some seriously top-end properties, often rural hideaways for big stars such as Roger Taylor of Queen and lyricist Sir Tim Rice.

In January 1978 a vocal version of the Flora Dance by Terry Wogan reached number 21 on the UK singles chart.

The song's syrupy lyrics were written by an "upcountry" visitor to the dance in 1911 and are not, locals say, to be confused with the real thing – an authentic, instrument-only, performance.

Nonetheless, we feel honour-bound to agree with Sir Terry that Helston is, indeed, a "quaint old Cornish town".

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