Fen blow - Traditions plough a strange furrow

PUBLISHED: 12:42 13 January 2006 | UPDATED: 21:37 28 May 2010

Some people suggest Whittlesey is behind the times. Of course, I'd never suggest that but while last Sunday was Plough Sunday in villages all around the country, it's not happening in Whittlesey until this Sunday. There is a reason. It's to fit in with th

Some people suggest Whittlesey is behind the times. Of course, I'd never suggest that but while last Sunday was Plough Sunday in villages all around the country, it's not happening in Whittlesey until this Sunday.There is a reason. It's to fit in with the annual Straw Bear Festival - also a few days late this year.The bear shuffles through the streets tomorrow, surrounded by attendant dance teams, before being burned on Sunday.Many people think this historic custom was started in 1980. It's much older. In medieval times and even as recently as the start of the 20th century, the Christmas holiday lasted well into January, a holiday rich in different customs - especially (for some reason) in Cambridgeshire.Many families would feast until the 12th night after Christmas. Then they made a Twelfth Night cake in which was baked one broad bean. Whoever got the bean would have good fortune in the coming year.The next Sunday was Plough Sunday. In many Cambridgeshire villages (as elsewhere), a plough would be dragged into the parish church to be blessed - in the belief that the fields it ploughed that month would produce good crops.Next day, Plough Monday, farm workers would blacken up their faces and put on clean white shirts. They'd decorate the plough with flowers and ribbons and drag it round the village, threatening to plough up the garden of anyone who refused to give them money. What they got was spent on beer. I'm told that in Doddington it was called Plough Witching Day.Then, on the Tuesday, Whittlesey (or Whittlesea as it then was and as the railway companies still believe it is) celebrated Straw Bear Day, the bear being made out of straw from last year's harvest. Only after Straw Bear Day did everyone go back to work.Personally, I think the Straw Bear organisers missed a trick. When they revived the custom in 1980, they should have revived another Plough Monday custom. This was the day on which boys old enough to start work were initiated as members of the plough team.In Norfolk and some Fen villages, this involved the boys having their faces pressed firmly up the rear end of the plough horse.I imagine they never forgot the day they left school.

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