It was when the B&B owner laughed down the phone at me that I felt my carefully crafted plans fall apart like a chocolate teapot.
'A bed for tomorrow night?' he giggled. 'In Helston? I'm afraid there's no chance of that at all. Tomorrow's the Furry Dance.'
'I'm sorry?' I said, still a little dazed after finishing my first day's walk a couple of hours earlier.
'The Furry Dance,' he repeated slowly, curling his vowels with such studied artistry that I could practically hear his sideburns. 'Everything within a five-mile radius of Helston will be totally booked up.'
'Ah,' I said.
'Yep, that's the Furry Dance for you,' he said and hung up with a sigh that sounded like it was accompanied by a finger tap on the side of the head and a knowing roll of the eyes.
Meanwhile I had a problem; after just one day of walking my itinerary had gone straight out of the window, and worse still, I had absolutely no idea what the man was talking about.
The Helston Faddy
It's now consigned to the Top of the Pops 2 bin, but back in 1978 Terry Wogan reached number 28 in the UK charts with his interpretation of 'The Floral Dance.' There have been other versions, but Terry's is the one that sticks in my mind because I was only eight at the time and had yet to develop anything resembling critical skills. 'The Floral Dance' is one of those instantly grating tunes that welds its way into your synapses simply because it's not welcome there, and it's this tune that defines the very fabric of the Helston Furry Dance.
Held every year on or around 8 May, the festival, which some people call Flora Day and others the Faddy, is said to be one of the oldest in the country; it's so ancient that nobody knows when it started, and although there are plenty of theories as to its origins, they are little more than conjecture. To be honest, this is a godsend; if the Furry Dance was a modern invention it would be bizarre in the extreme, but because it's an ancient rite whose origins are forgotten even by the hoary old men propping up the darkest corners of Helston's many pubs, it's acceptable for the revellers to push the boundaries of sanity, because it's all in the name of keeping English tradition alive.
As I evidently wasn't going to be able to stay in Helston on the day of the festival, I decided to shelve my walk for the day and take a trip to Helston to find out why the Furry Dance is Cornwall's most famous annual event. I arrived at eleven o'clock in the morning to find a busy town centre stuffed with people meandering around aimlessly, but unlike them, I had a mission; first I wanted to find out what the Furry Dance was all about, and second I wanted to track down the festival's very own ale, Spingo, which I'd been told was partly responsible for the Furry Dance's insanity.
It took me just five minutes to bump into the children's dance, which whisked me off into the depths of the village. Helston is a classically beautiful Cornish town with narrow, winding lanes, old stone buildings and even a stream running down the main street, and through this maze of back alleys and gardens spun a line of children, dancing in pairs in spotless white costumes. Walking among the children at intervals were men carrying loudspeakers, and not for the last time I was whisked back to 1978 without being asked whether I actually wanted to go there. 'Ba-da-dah, Bom, Ba-da-da Ba-dam, Pom, Pom!' went the chirpy brass instruments of the town band, just as they would do for the rest of the day, and to this mindless tune the children waltzed away while the crowd clapped in time with the tubas.
Thankfully the dance eventually took me past the Blue Anchor pub, and I bolted for the door along with a large crowd of thirsty-looking locals.
The Spingo Dance
The Blue Anchor is the only pub in Cornwall that sells Spingo ale, a local beer that's brewed right there on the high street, bang next door to – wait for it – the Keith Richards Gents Hairdressers. The pub's sign proudly announces that the Blue Anchor is the site of the oldest functioning brewery in Cornwall, which might have had something to do with the crowds of people pouring through the front door, the haunted look of jaunty choruses in their eyes. Luckily the landlord had opened up the doors to his above-ground cellar to churn out pints of beer as quickly as possible, so none of us had to wait too long.
'Hello,' I said to the long-haired man on the other side of the cellar trapdoor. 'Have you got Spingo here?'
'I ain't got nothin' else,' he smiled, and pulled a full pint out from behind him. ''Ere you go, that's two quid. Enjoy.'
'I'm sure I will,' I said, and toasting Terry, I took a deep swig. The beer was good; hoppy with a slightly nutty aftertaste, I could feel it doing battle with Wogan's jingle and winning. Each sip brought further relief, and looking around the crowded pub I realised I wasn't the only one looking for salvation in the bottom of a Spingo. Apart from two pints of lager, a bottle of Bud and one glass of white wine, the whole pub was supping on pints of festival brew.
It quite put me in the mood for the principal dance of the day, which had set off at 12 noon while I was still getting acquainted with my first Spingo. There was nothing for it; if I wanted to feel the full effect of the Helston Town Band's pom-pom-poms and ra-ta-tahs I was going to have to track down the dance. I spent the next half an hour heading for the sound of the band's drums and catching nothing but tantalising glimpses of grey top hats disappearing into the crowd at the other end of yet another winding street. It was like playing bash the mole; every time I looked, the dance disappeared. In an attempt to be clever I tried to head it off in one of Helston's beautifully crafted parks, but all I saw were the backs of lots of heads and a middle-aged couple walking in the opposite direction, laughing to themselves.
'I tell you what,' said the man. 'An awful lot of them women are overweight.'
'Nice dresses, though,' said his wife.
'Ah,' nodded the man, and I just knew I had to catch the act. Voluptuous Cornish women dancing along to Terry's tune just had to be worth the scrum, so I set off again, listening for the distant sound of tubas.
I finally caught up with the dance in the gardens of Penhellis, a lovely house with a garden to die for. The main dance is the same as the children's dance except it's longer (at about one hour and 45 minutes), the dress code is different, it weaves in and out of various shops and houses, and two brass bands play the tune instead of loudspeakers. The men wear full morning dress and the women – who, it turned out, weren't at all fat – wear what the festival's souvenir guidebook calls 'their most charming dresses.' This equates to wedding attire complete with large, pastel-coloured hats, giving the whole parade an unavoidable aura of – you guessed it – wedding. It's like witnessing the ultimate reception party conga, complete with brass band and floral theme.
People love it, they really do. The adults in the dance keep their upper lips nice and stiff, and even though some of them look like they're suffering from the exercise, the dance must go on, and go on it does... and on... and on... and on, until finally the second brass band passes and the second conga bobbles its way through, and the crowds converge to shuffle their way back to the Spingo.
Back in the Blue Anchor the people of Helston were settling in for a long session. My second pint of Spingo wasn't going down as well as the first one, possibly because I'd stopped to grab a burger and chips from a van that smelled of vomit, and as I sat on a wall nursing my ale, I sniffed the air and suddenly all the Furry Dancing and general weirdness started making sense. The group of chatty people from Falmouth to my left had just sparked up a joint of the greenest-smelling marijuana you could hope for and were giggling into their pints; spurred on by this, the couple sitting on my right took one drag on the atmosphere, glanced at each other, and whipped out their own stash of grass; and then another bloke walked through, introduced himself to the group on my left as a visitor from Luton, and asked if he could borrow some papers, as he'd got some grass but had run out of skins. This was all getting a bit much; I don't know much about the road to John o'Groats, but it sure isn't paved with king-size Rizlas, so leaving the dregs of my Spingo for the glass cleaner, I upped sticks and got ready to go.
My final stop on the way out was the toilet, where I found myself sandwiched between two large blokes having a conversation over the top of my head.
'All right mate?' said one.
'Yeah, good,' said the other.
'Do you want some grass?' said the first.
'Nah, you're all right,' said the second. 'I'm sticking to the Spingo.'
'Are you sure?' said the first. 'I'm just off to the herb garden, and I can get you some if you like.'
'No, really, you're OK,' said the second. 'Thanks though.'
'No problem,' said the first as another bloke came in to the cosy cubicle. 'Eh, Dave, how you doing? Do you want some grass? I'm just off to the herb garden for a refill.'
'Sounds good,' said Dave, and I made a swift exit and caught the bus back to Penzance before the true spirit of Helston sucked me in and dashed my walking plans forever. You have to be careful in places where being a hippy is a statement of cultural conformity... at least, you do if you want to get anywhere.