Here I am again, visiting the places bursting with creativity and artistic intrigue; not so you don’t have to, but on the contrary, so you’ll want to. Although, for this one, you’ll have to wait a whole year until the event comes around again. My good friend Tim is getting married you see, and I’m his best man. Now, this won’t affect you in the slightest, unless you’re a fellow friend or family member, or particularly Julie (that’s his future bride). But as is the tradition we had a stag weekend, and spent a couple of months planning it (partially with his involvement, but there had to be an element of surprise). After various suggestions (which included a weekend on the channel island of Albany, lodgings in a Scottish Highland manor and a museum dedicated to waste disposal), we settled on an annual event occurring in Whittlesea.
So, with that established, I’d better tell you something about Whittlesea, or Whittlesey as it’s now called, although confusingly its rail station still bears the old name. It’s a small town in Cambridgeshire, that judging by the reaction of most people I’ve spoken to, is largely unknown outside of the south-east of England. But renown or not, Whittlesea…sorry, Whittlesey… is where I found myself last weekend, for the annual Burning Straw Bear Festival, a continuation of an old fenlands tradition and one of the oddest but enjoyable weekends I’ve had in many a January (because, let’s be honest, an English January is usually pretty grim).
As the official Straw Bear website tells me, no one quite knows how the tradition of this day started: “…it was the custom on the Tuesday following Plough Monday (the 1st Monday after Twelfth Night) to dress one of the confraternity of the plough in straw and call him a ‘Straw Bear’…”. So there you have it. There is some element of a pagan offering for a bountiful year ahead, I’m sure, but I don’t recall anybody else asking about that. After all, most are there to enjoy the beer, the music and the atmosphere. The straw bear in question looks very little like a bear, to be honest (except perhaps the kind of bear that you might encounter in a nightmare following an evening drinking too much mead and reading folk tales), and more like what he is (which is some bloke covered in loads of straw, although creepily secured to give the definite appearance of a head and limbs).
He is led around the town by a fancily dressed ‘keeper’, who has him on a lead at one point, and a throng of merry locals follow him in procession through the streets of Whittlesea. Dammit, I mean Whittlesey. Old folk and pagan traditions like this happen all over the British Isles, but tend to go unremarked in the mainstream media, and the Straw Bear Festival is no different, although it appears to be a bit unique as it displays the kind of vibrant happy celebrations usually reserved for spring and summer. The weather was cold, but it was bearable, but I still got to thinking how the people of Whittlesey cope in two feet of snow or a blizzard. I have a feeling it’d take much more than that to halt the proceedings. The event actually fell into obscurity in the early 20th century (the bear was seen as form of begging by the zealous police force of the 1900s), until it was revived in 1980 by the local Whittlesea Society, and has grown in popularity ever since.
Molly, Morris, Clog and Sword dancing was prevalent (and you’d really want to be laying off the ale for the latter one), and no, I’m not an expert on any, but I think all of us have encountered a Morris dancing troupe at some point. Love them or loathe them, and I’m personally not sure, they’re a tradition I’d probably miss in spite of myself, if they were to ever disappear. The dancers were all dressed traditionally and appropriately, as you can imagine, and gave the whole town a splash of colour on a grey January day. Also, in amongst the crowds, watching these dancers, were people dressed as giant chickens and some fella whose darkened face looked like one of that scary tribe from King Kong (apparently one of the Old Glory Molly dancers I believe, one of several established and renowned dance troupes). The local pubs were heaving as well, but this was welcome as it added to the feeling of being involved in something locally significant. I can recommend The Black Bull (particularly for the open fire and live musicians), and The George was quite atmospheric for a Whetherpoons owned establishment. If you ever go I recommend a local ale, imaginatively called ‘Straw Bear’, which was going down like pop. By the fifth one I was getting emboldened, and starting chatting to the locals, even asking for photographs. Two nice ladies, dressed like band members from Kiss (for want of a better description), were happy to oblige us and pose for a photo. By the time several of us got the train from Whittlesea to Ely for the next stage of the weekend, I was feeling rather pissed, to be honest. A lovely older lady called Wendy started chatting to me, and was very helpful in giving us local knowledge about Ely, including the best pubs. So thanks again Wendy, it was very nice to meet you, and your hand drawn map was better than the local printed information one. Anyhow, back to my report on Whittlesey, where there was also live folk music everywhere, making for quite an English country fair atmosphere, and also explains why I’ve been digging out some old Folk albums this week. Liege and Leaf hasn’t had so much action on my stereo for years.
As I mentioned, we were a bit merry when we took the train from Whittlesea station to Ely, the gorgeous cathedral town where we were booked for dinner (at the rather lavish Poets’ House). Ely is well worth a visit itself, and I can recommend The Lamb Hotel for digs (and cheaper than the Poets House). The cathedral is a rather breath taking spectacle, both inside and out, and Oliver Cromwell’s house is also worth an investigation. It also struck me how flat this part of the country is, with some very striking waterlogged views flashing by when we were on the train. However, I’m skirting over that part of the weekend, as the Straw Bear was the focal point. Sadly, I didn’t get to see the final burning of the bear on the Sunday (don’t worry, there’s nobody left inside it), as I’d left soon after mid-day to begin the long journey back up to Manchester, but there’s a clip of the burning below. Most of the entertainment and festivities seem to take place on Saturday, from what I’ve been told, so I probably didn’t miss much else. The burning looks like a smaller version of the finale to The Wicker Man, except (thankfully) nobody dies!
So, there you have it. In these days, where many of us are becoming sucked into an unimaginative, state compliant, homogeneous whole, it’s beautiful to see local traditions like this being kept alive. They express the weird and wonderful need in the human psyche to make merry and paint some colour across the cold and grey winter days. So if you’re stuck for anything to do the second weekend after New Year, Whittlesey is the place to be.
Great footage from Youtube, from Trevor Windle:
NB: Thanks to Tim Bleasdale and Lee Harker for three photographs from Facebook