Whittlesea Straw Bear

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If you venture to Whittlesea, at the edge of the Fens near Peterborough, during the second weekend in January you cannot help but notice that strange straw animals and oddly attired people have taken over the streets of this small market town.  The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival was re-established in the town in 1980 after having been outlawed for over 70 years. Hitherto, the last sighting of a straw bear in these parts was in 1909 when the annual winter festival was stopped by local police because it was seen as a form of unwanted cadging from the public.
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No-one seems to know how far back the tradition goes but it was once the custom on the Tuesday following Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night) to dress a ploughboy in a straw suit and parade him through the town. The ‘straw bear’, attended by a keeper, would dance for gifts of beer, money and tobacco that would be later enjoyed by the local ploughing fraternity who were always short of cash at this slack time of year.
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Similar winter traditions once existed elsewhere – in other parts of England and also in central Europe and Germany. There are clear connections, too, with ancient pre-Christian wild man traditions, and even similarities with some forms of West African tribal practices in which men are adorned in fetishistic animal or demon costumes. There’s also a plain link with agricultural fertility, and the desire for a bountiful harvest, as only the best quality straw from the previous year’s harvest is used to dress the bear, which is paraded around the town’s squares and taverns on the Saturday before the straw suit is taken from its occupier and ritually burned on the Sunday.

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Whilst clearly revivalist, the modern festival has a vigour and joie de vivre that is at odds with the sombre post-Christmas, mid-winter gloom that tends to characterise this time of year. Perhaps its joyous atmosphere has a lot to do with  the unselfconscious high spirits of the English whenever they get a chance to dress up in silly clothes and clown around. Such behaviour is aided and abetted by widespread music and dancing by brightly costumed dancing sides that go under exotic monikers like Gog Magog, Pig Dyke, Old Glory and Ox Blood Molloy, Kemps Men Morris, Red Leicester, Pretty Grim and Black Pig Border Morris. The fact that all of the town’s pubs are open all day really does not hurt either.

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Some may find it contrived but, revivalist or not, there is something atavistic and primally English at work here. The good cheer and high spirits are infectious and it seems the easiest thing to instantly become part of this transient happy community. Whatever the precise truth of its historical tradition, the Whittlesea Straw Bear festival is a weekend of conviviality and broad smiles accompanied by daft dancing and the plentiful consumption of real ale. A time of gentle eccentricity, it is an occasion when, for once, it actually feels quite good to be English.

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About East of Elveden

Hidden places, secret histories and unsung geography from the east of England and beyond
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11 Responses to Whittlesea Straw Bear

  1. Buffy says:

    Never heard of that. Very interesting! Great photos!

  2. dianajhale says:

    Great to see images of this Laurence. As you say even though it is a revival it has an authentic feel. Did you know about the film project Iain Sinclair is involved with? http://www.iainsinclair.org.uk/2014/06/24/by-our-selves-field-notes-from-a-road-trip-withjohn-clare-the-straw-bear-of-whittlesey-by-iain-sinclair/

  3. Thanks Diana. Yes, I had heard about this but it temporarily evaded my memory. The film looks to be superb and Toby Jones is a natural for John Clare. The project seems to be a sort of phantasmagorical revisiting of Sinclair’s wonderful ‘Edge of the Orison’ (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Edge-Orison-Traces-Clares-Journey/dp/0141012757/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1421233446&sr=1-1&keywords=edge+of+the+orison) – you don’t have to buy from Amazon of course but this link has a ‘look inside’ feature.

  4. Dina says:

    This is most interesting, Laurence, I had never heard of this before. I see the strong connections to traditions in Germany in the appearances, it reminds me of the Fastnacht. Lovely images!
    Warm greetings from Bonn and Cley,
    Dina and Klausbernd

    • Thank you Dina and Klausbernd. Yes, it is a fascinating bit of folklore. I have seen photos of some of the parallel German traditions and they seem to be quite similar in essence.
      All the best, Laurence.

  5. Very interesting and a great way to brighten-up downbeat January. I have no problem with the revivalism of these traditions because well why not! Great photos, costumes and colours.

  6. aaron says:

    living in whittlesey this is a great festival and enjoyed every year the only down sides are in recent years the police and council have been ordering the pubs to shut early to prevent “anti social behaviour” and the slow decline of the english pubs the straw bear pub is now closed and the bricklayers arms is also closed both had links to the straw bear festival one bearing the name and the other has two straw bears on its sign both with a keeper one with union jack and one with german flag

    • Thank you, Aaron. Interesting to hear pubs closed early because of potential ‘anti-social behaviour’. Is this likely? It all seemed very good natured where I was there. Thinking of visiting on the Sunday rather than Saturday next year – any suggestions on this?

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