Turning up on the second Saturday in January to the little known town of Whittlesea one will be greeted by a fantastic site – the Straw bear festival.
My one and only attendance was with my family and mother-in-law. Understandably it was freezing, a factor not appreciated by my Australian mother in law. I tended to agree, the wind blows hard and sharp across those fens…there’s nothing in the way until the Friesland (appropriately) on the European mainland. This wild and desolate landscape is befitting of such a weird and wonderful tradition.
Despite the weather we braved it and upon entering the town square we could see the assembled mass of the procession in the far distance. Soon they were upon us and the Straw bear could be seen, a strange otherworldly creature and quite frightening..well it was to be eldest, then two who upon seeing it come towards me screamed the loudest I have ever heard him. It’s obviously had an effect on him because in idle conversation he brought it up…more than the monsters of Doctor Who which haunted my nightmares but appear to have little effect on him. Reference to Doctor Who is certainly appropriate for this creature has much in common with the creations of that show. Its stomping gate a locomotion many a monster would be glad of, its lack of features a step perhaps too scary for the show’s producers to attempt.
The bear essentials – the history
Plough Monday as you know if you’ve been following this blog was an unofficial day off when farm workers travelled the parish begging. In the east midlands, mainly Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire these were plays, East Anglia celebrated with molly dancers and in some places the celebration was spread out to the next day Plough Tuesday. In the fens it would appear this was the day for the most curious and impressive of beasts, the Straw Bear.
No one appears to know the age of the tradition, a newspaper report in 1882 states:
“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.”
It is clear that its antics and the combination of alcohol saw its demise in 1909 said to be the result of an over-zealous police inspector who banned them because they were begging.
The official website on the bear relates that it was made of:
“great lengths of tightly twisted 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 would around them to form a cone above the bear’s head. The face was quite covered and he could hardly see.”
This later fact would explain why he would be guided by a rope fastened around him by one of the farmers. He was made to dance outside houses and gifts of money, food and beer were given.
Bear bones of a theory
Bear traditions have been recorded in Ramsey Cambridgeshire (revived 2009) and associated with a plough Monday play in Holton-le-Clay, Lincolnshire (yet to revived!) Furthermore there are traditions in places as far apart as Andorra and Germany. Indeed, since 1999 a bear from Walldurn Frankfurt, slightly slimmer and associated with Shrove Tuesday joins in the Whittlesea fun (and unlike those well known pandas have yet to breed!)
The behaviour of the straw bear clearly indicates some relationship with the performing bears which were common in Europe from the 13th century onwards and indeed I remember seeing in the 1980s in Spain (incidentally it is now illegal in the EC but cases have been reported as late as 2007!). However, several aspects suggest trace memory of an older tradition: the selecting of the best straw, the date of course and the ritual burning.
An ex-straw-ordinary Morris meeting
If you had only one day in England and you wanted to get a flavour of English tradition and especially folk dance you could do no better that Whittlesea Straw Bear. Why? Because in this small rather non-descript town are gathered every type of folk dancer; from molly dancer to handkerchief bothering Morris, from cluttering clog dancers to stylish long sword dancers, and in such a small area one can experience it all!. Between 250-600 dancers can be seen on the main day and
What is amazing is this tradition was only revived in 1980 and yet it has all the vim and vigour of something which has continued forever, such is the tribute to its organisers