8 May: Helston Flora Day

‘And soon I heard such a bustling and prancing,
And then I saw the whole village were dancing,
In and out of the houses they came,
Old folk, young folk, all the same,
In that quaint old Cornish town’

‘The Floral Dance’ by Katie Moss (1881-1947)
Like the Padstow ‘obby ‘oss procession earlier this month, Flora Day remains one of the most traditional of Cornish Festivals with an unbroken tradition going back many hundreds of years.

Flora Day was probably originally a May Day celebration but at some point was appropriated by the church to the 8th May which is the Feast of St Michael the Archangel, the Patron Saint of Helston who miraculously appeared over St Michael’s Mount in A.D 495. The popular derivation of the name Helston is from the legend that St Michael fought Satan in the sky and Satan dropped a fiery boulder – Hell’s Stone where the town was established. Angel Yard in Helston marks the spot and the dance celebrates the town’s survival – well – maybe.

Helston is ‘en fete’ today; the streets are decorated with greenery, bluebells and branches. Bunches of lily of the valley are placed in windows and everyone dresses in their best. Needless the place thrums with people and with music, bands play and dances take place through the streets and in an out of the yards to the familiar tune of the Furry Dance.

The word ‘furry’ is usually reckoned to come from an old Celtic word ‘feur’ meaning festivity, but actually it might have more to do with the Cornish word ‘gwyr’ meaning grass, and by association ‘green’. There were once other dances and days of this type elsewhere in Cornwall and no doubt in the rest of the British Isles, but only the Helston Flora survives, its beginnings now completely obscure.

One of the major features of the day is the Hal-an-tow pageant, which was banned as too raucous by the Victorians but revived in the 1930s. This involves the cutting of sycamore branches to celebrate the spring and the singing of the Hal-an-tow song ‘For Summer is a come O, and the Winter is a Gone O’. People dress in the clothes of the greenwood and process through the streets singing. The tradition of dressing as Robin Hood and his followers used to be well established throughout England and harks by to the earliest records relating to ‘Robin Hoode’ in the thirteenth century.

I love Flora Day despite the crowds and all the pushing and pressing to get a good view. The main dance of the day with the ladies in their evening gowns and the men all smartened up is just lovely, and it’s real, ‘really real’ if you see what I mean. It’s done for tradition and community and fun, and not for tourists, although tourists there are in plenty. It’s not self consciously reinvented, it just is. Go if you get the chance,

And there’s food a‘plenty in Helston today. The Horse and Jockey bakery will sell hundreds of their delicious pasties; people will munch on saffron cakes, drink pints of stingo from The Blue Anchor and no doubt consume lots of less traditional fare too.

So what to cook? Heava or Heavy Cake is a traditional Cornish treat (sometimes it’s also called ‘Fuggan’). Heava is derived from the cry of the ‘huers’ who waiting on cliff tops and watched for the pilchard shoals off shore. The cry of ‘hevva! hevva!’ signified it was time to rush down to the boats and put to sea. The net pattern on the top of the cake is very traditional. There are lots of variations; this one is derived from the recipes in ‘Cornish Recipes: Ancient and Modern’ published by The Cornwall Women’s’ Institute in 1929, and from the recollections of a number of Newlyn ladies.

Cornish Heava Cake
12 oz flour
4 oz mixed butter and lard
I dessertspoon of sugar
½ tsp salt
½ grated lemon rind
6oz currants
Beaten egg and sugar for the top.

Mix the dry ingredients by hand and add enough milk to make a soft but not sticky dough. Roll out into an oval shape about half an inch thick then roll it up like a swiss roll and set aside for an hour or two. Now roll it out again into an oval and mark the top with a knife in a diamond pattern. Brush with lightly beaten egg and sprinkle with sugar.

Put on a greased baking tray and bake for about 25 minutes at 180c until lightly golden and cooked through. Resist the temptation to ‘improve’ this recipe by adding other ingredients such as cinnamon, eggs, baking powder.

Heava cake is best eaten warm from the oven with a good cup of tea. It’s a cake that’s meant to be made quickly and eaten quickly, hence its association with the fleet footed huers.

But to a greater than St George,
Our Helston has a right, O,
St Michael with his wings outspread
The Archangel so bright, O,
Who fought the fiend, O,
Of all mankind the foe

R. Morton Nance’s addition to the traditional Hal an Tow lyrics. c1930

Thanks to Glyn Richards for his research both academic and practical…

1 comment:

Marmaduke Scarlet said...

Thank you so much for this! Years ago I used to get a little cake from a small bakery in London and I could never remember what they called it. The bakery is no longer in business, but I saw this and recognised the name. I cannot wait to try this! Will keep you posted :)