THOUSANDS of people are expected to line the streets of Whittlesey this weekend, when the 32nd annual Straw Bear Festival comes to town. John Baker reveals the origins of a tradition dating back to the 19th century.
THE Straw bear will stroll the streets again on Saturday for Whittlesey’s most popular event of the year - and this time organisers hope for less rain and an easier passage for the parade.
Every year thousands of visitors enjoy the annual Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival where a man dressed as a straw bear is led through the town followed by a baby straw bear, dancers and performers, in a parade with origins dating back to the 19th century.
About 350 performers are due to create a stunning spectacle of traditional dancing, music, street theatre, colour, story telling and poetry in the town’s streets this weekend.
Torrential rain soaked onlookers last year, but the weather was a minor problem compared to the problems presented when organisers discovered that no road closures were in place – at 8am on festival Saturday.
The oversight from Fenland District Council was solved after a frantic phone call from festival director Peter Williams, and the parade went ahead an hour late.
Organisers say there will be no repeat of the embarrassing episode this year.
Donald Crick is one of the small team of “strawbearers” helping the unusual festival to run smoothly.
Mr Crick, who has helped out almost since it was revived in 1980, said: “It’s keeping a British tradition alive, very good for the town, and totally different to anything elsewhere.
“The performers come from all over Britain, and we have had visitors from China, Scandinavia and as far away as New Zealand.
“It’s all based on Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night), but if the event was held then it wouldn’t give shop owners and pubs enough time to restock after Christmas and New Year, so we hold it a week later.”
No one quite knows the precise origin of when the quirky festival started, but it was certainly based on an 19th century custom of dressing a ploughman in straw and calling him a ‘Straw Bear’, parading him across town to ask for donations.
A newspaper of 1882 reports that the bear was “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 was a way of making a bit of money for farmhands in the winter months, when the land could not be worked, and if no gifts were handed out the ploughmen often churned up the person’s front garden.
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, covering the occupant’s face.
The tradition fell into decline after the last sighting in 1909, when an over-zealous police inspector forbade ‘Straw Bears’ as a form of begging.
But in 1980 the custom was brought back by the Whittlesea Society, and for the first time in 70 years a ‘straw bear’ was seen on the streets accompanied by his attendant keeper, musicians and dancers.
Nowadays the straw engineers fix the straw to a suitable garment and the head is supported on a metal frame on the shoulders.
A roster of volunteers, preferably tall, young and strong ones, are needed to don the bear costume, one of whom is Donald’s grandson Luke.
Volunteers usually swap over during the day, as the costume can weigh several stones and is very tiring to wear.
The festival starts on Friday evening with a concert, while on Saturday the bear makes his appearance at 10.30am at Manor Field Leisure Centre in Station Road.
The procession includes morris, clog, Appalachian and sword dancers parading through the town until 3pm when it returns to its starting point.
There’s also storytelling in the Methodist/reformed church, poetry in the library and songs from Ock’n’Dough, before a musical evening event at Sir Harry Smith Community College.
On Sunday the bear is burned to mark the end of the festival, and after a brief break the organisers start planning for next year’s event to get the acts in place before they are booked elsewhere.
Several roads will be closed for the event. For more information go to www.strawbear.org.uk.