THOUSANDS of people descended on the market town of Whittlesey for one of the areas most unusual and popular folk festivals.
The 32nd annual Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival took place in Whittlesey, near Peterborough, over the weekend.
Organisers believe around 4,000 people lined the streets of the town for Saturday’s Straw Bear procession.
It is estimated that a further 1,000 people packed Sir Harry Smith Community College, in Eastrea Road, for the finale of the fun-filled festival.
Festival director Pete Williams, who has helped organise Fenland’s premier event for more than a decade, was delighted with the weekend.
Last year’s festival was blighted by torrential downpours, but a chilly breeze was the only thing the procession had to contend with on Saturday and yesterday’s straw bear burning also stayed rain free.
He said: “It’s been excellent, really good. We’ve had good weather and we’ve had a good response from the public and from the district council.
“There’s been lots of people, good music and good weather. This year’s event ran like clockwork.”
The weekend’s festivities began on Saturday morning, as the straw bear procession started from the Manor Leisure Centre, in Station Road.
For Luke Crick, of New Road, Whittlesey, it was a step up to the adult bear suit, after he wore the child straw outfit when he was 11 years old.
The 21-year-old led the procession of 120 musicians and 500 dancers through the streets of the town.
He said: “It’s great. It’s good to do something in the community.
“I was the little bear when I was 11, so it’s good to be it once again this year, but as the adult bear.
“The suit is quite uncomfortable, but it’s a good laugh.”
Meanwhile, it was a Straw Bear hat trick for young Oliver Cross.
The seven-year-old Park Lane Primary School pupil appeared as the child bear for the third year in a row.
Prior to the parade, he said: “I’m really looking forward to it.”
As the procession reached the market square, molly and morris dancing groups split off to perform for the gathered thousands outside local pubs and prominent buildings.
Tracy Hough, of Burnt House Road, in Turves, near Whittlesey, took her daughter Lainey (4), to the procession, as she does every year.
She said: “It’s something different and shows a real sense of Fenland community spirit. It also attracts people from all walks of life as well.
“My favourite part is watching the parade and mingling in the crowds.
“You can bump into people who you haven’t seen for a while, because it’s a very small world.”
Meanwhile, Lainey, who watched the procession and dancing from her mother’s shoulders, added: “I like watching the little bear in the parade.”
Festivities continued into the afternoon, including poetry sessions at the town’s library, before live music events at night at Sir Harry Smith Community College and Park Lane Primary School.
They continued yesterday with the festival’s finale, as the straw bear was ceremonially burned at Whittlesey’s secondary school.
Nick Hill (39), from Church Street, Whittlesey, watched the burning with his wife Lisa (38) and son Robert (8).
He said: “It’s been great. The weather has held out, there’s been loads of people out and about and they’ve all been enjoying themselves.”
Lisa added: “It’s good because it brings a lot of people back to the town who lived here in the past.”
Mr Williams puts the success of the annual festival, which is a prominent date on event calendars for people across the country, to its unique tradition.
He added: “It’s traditional and it brightens up the dark month of January, giving everybody a sense of fun. It’s a great event for the town.”
However, he will now step down as director of the event at the festival committee’s annual meeting in June – as his three-year tenure is complete.
He said: “This year has been a top notch festival for me.
“I shall remain involved with the Straw Bear Festival forever.”