There be dancing dragons

26th March 2004 at 00:00
...well, one actually, joining St George, St Michael and hundreds of locals in a great springtime display of Cornish revelry, reports Renata Rubnikowicz

Oggy, oggy, oggy!" shouts a woman oddly crowned with what looks like half a hedge. "Oi, oi, oi!" yell the crowd. On a chilly May morning in Helston, on Cornwall's Lizard peninsula, the town celebrates the coming of spring, as it has for time out of mind. Flora Day 2003 is under way and the brass band is in full swing as the flora dance, or furry dance, depending on the strength of your Cornish accent, winds through the town.

Hearing children sing "Summer is a come-o and winter is a gone-o", I crane to see a devil, a dragon, St George (played, as usual, by the local MP, brandishing a wooden sword), St Michael (the patron saint of Helston) and a group of green-clad children acting the pageant of the Hal-an-Tow. It's an ancient story of good versus evil, loudly told (St Michael has written his lines on the back of his cardboard shield), as black and white Cornish flags flutter above.

The first of the day's dances, which start at 7am, ends with the crocodile of dancing couples winding in and out of the last of the houses and shops.

As about 1,000 children, clad in white with flowers in their hair, line up to start their dance at 10am, some of the older townspeople are already celebrating in an equally traditional way with locally brewed Spingo ale in the 15th-century Blue Anchor.

Vince Davis, a Flora Day organiser for 12 years, and head of Year 11 at Helston comprehensive school, is passionate about young people's participation. This year up to 500 of the school's 1,600 students will be taking part. "It's vital," Mr Davis says, "that we make as much as we can of the heritage and traditions that have existed for centuries here."

Four local schools take part. Lead school this year is St Michael's primary, whose head, John Owen, says he has "been Cornish for 13 years only". The majority of St Michael's children, about 240 from Year 2 upwards, choose to dance. And all, he says, see it as an honour.

In the weeks beforehand, children practise the steps in the playground. The dance has worked its magic on Mr Owen, too. "I've become quite involved," he says. "It's a lovely day for Helston, and a lovely day for the children." His pupils will already have had a dress rehearsal, dancing through the streets - and houses - on nearby estates, and many will have helped collect the greenery and bluebells older children have hung in great swags throughout the town.

Some of the bluebells have come from the ancient woodlands of the Trelowarren estate near Helston. When so much of Cornwall's image emphasises the new (the Tate Gallery at St Ives; the gardens of the Eden Project; the new maritime museum at Falmouth; surfer culture and a rash of hip 'n' happening hotels), it's fascinating to see how the owner of Trelowarren, committed Cornishman Sir Ferrers Vyvyan, marries the traditional with the 21st century on his 1,000-acre estate. Mentioned in the Domesday Book as the property of the ill-fated Harold, Trelowarren's Iron Age fort and mysterious underground "fougou" are today flanked by the huge white dishes of Goonhilly satellite listening station. With a mission to conserve the land and the estate, Sir Ferrers has renovated some of its Grade II listed buildings ecologically as holiday homes, winning awards for green tourism.

Water is heated by burning wood coppiced from the estate. The interior design, by Sir Ferrers's wife, Lady Victoria, is beautifully calm and Conran-modern, yet utterly of the place, with kitchens made from local wood and Cornish granite worktops, and items locally sourced wherever possible.

Guests are welcomed with a basket of local food, and encouraged to visit the producers, such as the organic Gear Farm nearby, during their stay.

Locally grown produce is also used at the estate's restaurant, though here the exception that proves Sir Ferrers's rule is his insistence on a French chef. A trained landscape architect, Sir Ferrers is also restoring the estate's historic gardens, and recently planted 160 oak trees in an 18th-century grid - a project with a 350-year timescale.

In contrast to these grand schemes, the Lizard offers simpler delights: delicious ice-cream at Roskilly's Farm; Cornish pasties at the sunshine yellow Lizard Pasty Shop, and walks to Daphne Du Maurier's Frenchman's Creek or along the wild coast of serpentine rock to the Lizard Head, to look for seals and rare fringed rupturewort and suffocated clover at the Lizard National Nature Reserve.

Cottages on the Trelowarren Estate in Helston sleep from four to eight.

Prices at Easter from pound;560 a week for a cottage sleeping four, self-catering, subject to availability. Details: 01326 221224; www.trelowarren.com. Information on timeshare: 01326 222105. Flora Day this year is on Saturday, May 8. More information: www.helston-online.co.uk

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