May Day has a special place in the hearts of most Cornish people but for me, it’s especially important as it’s the anniversary of the day that my husband and I moved from Australia to Cornwall. This year it’s ten years since we moved to the UK and we are celebrating by going back to the farm in Cornwall where we first lived and spending time with dear friends.
May is undoubtedly the busiest time for traditional events in Cornwall with the two biggest events – Padstow May Day and Helston Flora Day – being internationally renowned. Both events have their roots in ancient rites of Spring but are celebrated in quite different ways. In Padstow, it starts at midnight the night before and involves singing, dancing, and processing through the streets with grotesque warring creatures known as “’Osses”; in Helston it involves elegantly dressed couples dancing through the streets, shops and houses and a pageant known as the Hal-an-Tow. In both towns the shops and houses are dressed with greenery and spring flowers and can see up to 30,000 visitors. These events bind communities together and call back their own from across the world for one special day every year. We wanted to get under the skin of these events and find out what they mean to people who know them inside out.
Colin Main was born in Padstow and has loved the ‘Obby ‘Oss May Day ever since he was a child. His mum, Sheila Clark, grew up only a couple of miles out of Padstow and moved there when she got married in 1956.
Sheila: “I first came to Padstow May Day when I was nine years old. I was dragged under the ‘Oss and it frightened me to death. I didn’t come again until I was married and lived in the town. I got used to it eventually but I was still wary for a long time. My children and grandchildren have grown up with it – it’s all they know. My husband was in with the Blue ‘Oss so I joined in with the Blue. When my eldest son was a teenager, he went out with a girl who was with the Red ‘Oss, so he went Red and never came back! The rest of the family is still Blue but nobody worries. The Old ‘Oss is the Red ‘Oss – the Blue ‘Oss only came in at the end of the War, that’s why it’s called the ‘Peace Oss’. The Red ‘Oss has been going since the 14th century.
Colin: It’s changed a lot over the years, it used to be just the locals getting involved. But it’s always started the night before at midnight when we go right round the town singing the Night Song. Over the years I’ve been involved with all the aspects of the day – going under the ‘Oss, carrying the ‘Oss, teasing the ‘Oss, all sorts. Every year the town is decorated with flowers and the greenery; on the day everybody in the town goes out to the woods from 4:00am ‘til 6:00am to bring in the branches and flowers and put them up on the shops, houses and lamp posts.
Years ago the Red and Blue teams used to fight a lot, cutting each others skirts and having a go at each other. Now they don’t fight as much but it’s still very busy. There’s five ‘Osses in total, starting at 7:30am with three small ‘Osses, including the Children’s Oss, then the Blue ‘Oss comes out of the Institute at 10:00am, and the Red comes out of the Golden Lion at 11:00am.
Sheila: Everyone can join in on the day. The best thing is to go in front of the ‘Oss so you can see what’s going on. The ‘Osses get back down into town by 12 noon with everyone following on and singing the Day Song. We stop for an hour at lunch and another hour at teatime but we’re going the rest of the day.
Colin: We have two fantastic organizing committees and there are so many people who want to get involved. It means so much to me – much more than Christmas – I’ve only missed one in 57 years. All Padstonians come home for May Day.
Padstow May Day will be held on Monday 2 May, 2016. More details at www.padstowlive.com.
As part of the BBC Spotlight team, journalist and television presenter Rebecca Wills is a well-known face in the South West. She’s also a born-and-bred Helston girl who’s never missed a Flora Day and has danced on the day many times.
“It’s important to get the name right: the day itself is called Flora Day, the dance is called the Furry Dance: technically the Furry Dance is the ancient midday dance. The tune is known as ‘the Faddy’, but the worst thing you can call it the ‘Floral Dance’.
I’m the fifth generation of my family to be born in one street in Helston; I always describe Flora Day as a golden thread that binds generations together. Sadly I never knew my Granny but she used to dance the same steps in the same streets, and eventually my daughters will do it too. We’re all literally following in each other’s footsteps. The very first time I danced in the Morning Dance, I wore a ring that my Granny used to wear when she danced and a little bit of her came with me. It’s little sentimental things like that that are so meaningful and join us together.
The best moment of the day is the first dance of the day when the clock strikes 7am and the drum beats out… it’s really charged because you’re so excited but it seems for a moment that time stands still, you stop and think of what’s happened in the past year and who might no longer be with you, it’s very emotional. The first dance goes through my Mum’s house; my eldest daughter can’t believe that all these people and half the band and the Mayor all come through Granny’s house!
I’ve experienced all those lovely Flora Days with all my family and I now get to share it with my little girls and pass the magic on to them. My eldest can’t wait to dance, she can do the steps already, she’s a proper Helstonian girl! I first danced when I was seven with my dance partner, Wayne, and we’ve danced together ever since. You have to apply in writing to dance then if you’re lucky you get an invitation in time to sort out your dress, hat, gloves and shoes. There’s a rehearsal before the day but the expectation is that if you’ve accepted the invitation, you know the steps and if you’re Helstonian that shouldn’t be a problem! You do need stamina though – it’s about a three-mile route around the town, and you’re in an out of old shops and houses too, you do need to take care!
Lots of people gather at the Guild Hall at 6:30pm for the end of the 5 o’clock dance when proceedings formally come to a close. Now it’s a sea of people holding up mobile phones to film it for Helstonians who haven’t been able to make it home. I’ve managed to make it home for every Flora Day; the worst time was when I was University and I had to hand in my final dissertation at midday the day before Flora Day. It was touch and go as to whether I would make my train but I did, and got back to Helston at about 10pm and burst into tears with the sheer relief that I wasn’t going to miss it. I would have crawled over hot coals to make sure I got home in time.
It means everything to me – it’s better than Christmas and birthdays all rolled into one and it really is. This year I won’t be dancing, I’ll be listening to the first drum beat on BBC Radio Cornwall and then enjoying the day with my children. Because Mum’s house is right on the route the day comes to us, but I always go down to watch the end of the final dance. You really feel part of something that’s bigger than you. There’s such a passion for it and that’s what will ensure it’s preserved. I feel so lucky to have been born in a place that’s given me this wonderful heritage and tradition.
Helston Flora Day will be held on Saturday 7 May, 2016. More details at www.helstonfloraday.org.uk
© Sally Bell 2016
Originally published in Cornwall Today