Meet the man behind the scenes at Lismore House, Helston Flora Day hot spot

Falmouth Packet: Meet the man behind the scenes at Lismore House, Helston Flora Day hot spot Meet the man behind the scenes at Lismore House, Helston Flora Day hot spot

It is the most famous part of the Flora Day dance route, but what goes on behind the scenes of Lismore House and garden remains something of a mystery.

Packet news editor Emma Ferguson gained exclusive access and chatted with owner Michael Jay about preparing for the big day – and a case of mistaken identity.

It is now less than 24 hours until Flora Day and all this week people across Helston have been getting ready for the big day.

For one man, though, preparations began almost six months ago.

Michael Jay has owned Lismore in Cross Street for the last 18 years, having grown up in the town. Although undoubtedly a beautiful house, it is the gardens that the property is particularly known for – the most famous in Helston and an integral part of the Flora Day celebrations, with the Children’s, Midday and Evening dances all making a stop there.

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It is a responsibility that Mr Jay does not take lightly. Planning began in earnest back in the New Year, although many of the plants were taken inside at the end of the summer and treated over the winter to ensure they are looking their best come May 8.

The garden has always been known for its geraniums, with some from stock dating back more than 100 years.

No less than 110 pots of geraniums will be put out on display on Flora Day, together with a further 60 pots of other plants and flowers.

These are fed twice a month from the end of February by housekeeper Valerie Filbey and then weekly from the middle of April.

The garden contains hydrangeas, begonias and of course thousands of bluebells – including around the garden’s lake, which all the dancers pass and the centrepiece of probably the most popular shot for photographers on the entire dance route.

Mr Jay, 71, said: “The public expect the beds to be right and the gardens perfect.

“The problem is, as far as I’m concerned, we try and make it better every year, but there is a limit.”

The lawns receive similar levels of attention. When eating your picnic while waiting for the Midday dancers to arrive, don’t forget to look below where you’re sitting, because everything from the special nitrogen spray treatment through to the addition of camomile into the grass seed mix, to add fragrance, has been carefully thought about.

“If we made the lawns like a park lawn should be, we couldn’t put the dancers on it. It’s got to be specially treated to allow the children’s dance and midday dance,” explained Mr Jay.

Grass is kept long for a few weeks before, to strengthen it, before it is cut a week before Flora Day and then again on the two preceding days (i.e. Tuesday and Wednesday this week) which gives the perfect colour.

Gardener Gil Richards used to be an assistant head garden at Kew in London, while Lismore’s retired head gardener Alfred Poplar, who cared for the grounds for 50 years, always returns to give his seal of approval.

On the Saturday before the paths are scraped, the Flora Day committee ropes off sections of the garden three days before and the same team delivers the portable toilets every year, two days in advance. The family of the late Bill Pethick, Helston Town Band’s most famous bass drum player, always polishes the plaque placed on a tree in the garden marking where his ashes were scattered along the dance route.

It should be remembered that this is still a private garden opened up only due to continued good will of its owner – although this fact can be lost on a minority of spectators on the day.

“The problem is it’s so popular everybody wants to come in to the garden and we have to think of health and safety, and preserving what we have got.

“When we feel that the garden is full [it can hold around 2,000 people] then we say, ‘No more’. That upsets sometimes, but there’s nothing we can do about it.

“Once the dancers are in no more public comes in, full or not.”

That does not stop some people arguing. “A lot of people think it’s a public garden; I’ve had comments such as, ‘You should check your deeds, we’re allowed to come here’,” recalled Mr Jay. “Ninety-nine per cent of people that come in respect the place – it’s just one or two that give me a hard time.”

It is only once in the 18 years Mr Jay has lived there that dancers have been unable to stop there – two or three years ago, when due to the rain it was not thought safe enough underfoot for the evening dancers to enter.

Perhaps the most unusual occurrence has been the time when a woman fainted at the bottom of the garden. While being stretchered to the waiting ambulance she begged the paramedics to wait until the dancers had passed, so she could see them.

Mr Jay is often asked why he walks with the band on Flora Day and not alongside the mayor – the simple answer being that he is president of the band. He is also one of the few men to always receive an invitation to dance the Midday without fail. Although he has yet to take up the offer, he appreciates the invitation nonetheless.

He regularly works abroad and Flora Day is now known in 26 countries, from Fiji to Russia. This year he is welcoming three colleagues from Turkey into his home to enjoy the spectacle, as part of his exclusive party on the day for friends.

One woman who has become a regular attendee only became friends with Mr Jay thanks to a case of mistaken identity.

“It was a very hot day,” remembered Mr Jay. “Unbeknown to me she said to her friend, ‘I wonder if I can persuade that waiter to bring me a drink.’ As I walked past she said, ‘Excuse me, could I have a glass of water?’ I said I might be able to do a little better; I went to the house, got a silver tray and a Champagne glass – she was thrilled.

“She then said, ‘Do you think the owner of the place really appreciates it?’ I said would you like to meet him? I went in, put my jacket on and came out – it was a good laugh. We became great friends and she has been coming down to stay with me for ten years.”

Another who was less fortunate was a woman who asked Mr Jay whether he would fish her glasses out of the portable toilet – a request he politely declined.

While most of the work is concentrated on the grounds, the 11-bedroomed house also has been prepared ready for the Midday dancers to process through its hallway – although this largely centres around a temporary carpet being placed down, to prevent muddy footprints and wearing.

Comments (1)

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4:09pm Thu 15 May 14

jannerinus says...

Such a very interesting interview with Mr Jay. I danced the Mid-Day many times and always looked forward to the section through Lismore and the welcome break when my family would be ready with refreshments.
I did not know of the Billy Pethick connection with the garden but he would be greatly honoured with such a fitting resting place for his ashes. I wonder if any of the family of Dr and Mrs Michael still come to their old family home?

Jack Rundle
in Texas
Such a very interesting interview with Mr Jay. I danced the Mid-Day many times and always looked forward to the section through Lismore and the welcome break when my family would be ready with refreshments. I did not know of the Billy Pethick connection with the garden but he would be greatly honoured with such a fitting resting place for his ashes. I wonder if any of the family of Dr and Mrs Michael still come to their old family home? Jack Rundle in Texas jannerinus
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