All of the fun of the bear - dancing, music, and fun at Whittlesey

Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival 2017

Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival 2017 - Credit: Archant

Hundreds of people lined the streets of Whittlesey to enjoy the annual tradition that is the Straw Bear Festival.

Whittlesey Straw bear Festival 2017

Whittlesey Straw bear Festival 2017 - Credit: Archant

Organisations from across the area and Europe joined in the dancing and festivities which raises money for a host of good causes in the town.

Brightly coloured painted faces, dancing, music and fun were on offer over the weekend as crowds watched and joined in.

Nobody is sure when the custom dates back to but it became tradition on the Tuesday following Plough Monday - the firstt Monday after Twelfth Night - to dress one of the ploughmen in straw and call him a ‘Straw Bear’.

A newspaper of 1882 reports that “he was then taken around the town to entertain by his frantic and clumsy gestures the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics, a spread of beer, tobacco and beef”.

Whittlesey Straw bear Festival 2017

Whittlesey Straw bear Festival 2017 - Credit: Archant

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The bear was described as having great lengths of tightly twisted straw bands prepared and wound up the arms, legs and body of the man or boy who was unfortunate enough to have been chosen.

Two sticks fastened to his shoulders met a point over his head and the straw wound round upon them to form a cone above the “Bear’s” head.

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The face was covered and he could hardly see.

He was made to dance in front of houses while gifts of money or beer and food was expected.

It seems that he was considered important, as straw was carefully selected each year, from the best available, the harvesters saying, “That’ll do for the Bear”.

The tradition fell into decline at the end of the 19th century, the last sighting being in 1909 as it appears that an over-zealous police inspector had forbidden straw bears as a form of cadging.

The custom was revived in 1980 by the Whittlesea Society, and for the first time in seventy years a straw bear was seen on the streets accompanied by his attendant keeper, musicians and dancers, about 30 in all.

Various public houses were visited around the town as convenient places for the bear and dancers to perform in front of an audience.

The bear now wears a special costume weighing around five stone.

The procession now contains more than 250 dancers, musicians and performers from various parts of the British Isles performing traditional Molly, Morris, ‘Clog’ and Sword dancing.

There is also American style Appalachian dancing, street performances and Mummers plays.

A decorated plough is pulled by 21st century plough boys and is now an established part of the procession.

The Saturday is the only day on which the bear makes an appearance before the ‘Bear Burning’ on the Sunday. This leaves the way open for a new bear to be created from the next season’s harvest.

Groups who have benefitted over the years include Jenner Health Centre, the junior football club, the premature baby wing at Peterborough Hospital and East Anglia Children’s Hospices.

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