Since having children we have been making an annual trip across the Fens for the Straw Bear Festival in Whittlesea (the t’s are as silent as the ‘h’). I remember going a few times as a child with my grandfather, and since having our own children it has become established as a family tradition. For the children it is something to look forward to after Christmas and they enjoy the music and dancing. For us it is a good excuse to catch up with old friends and family over one or two decent beers.
The Straw Bear was revived in 1980 to celebrate a Fenland tradition, outlawed in the 1890’s. Back then, after Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night, the local Ploughmen would dress one of their number head to toe in the finest straw, and he would become the bear. Lead by a rope and chain, the bear was paraded through the town to entertain the townsfolk in exchange for food, beer or money. For a resident, failure to pay up may have seen their land or garden freshly furrowed. The ploughmen danced too, with faces blackened and one dressed in drag, called Molly, the Cambridgeshire Fens had its own, anarchic, version of the more familiar Morris. Today, the bear continues, the weather is invariably bitter and a good couple of hundred dancers and musicians descend upon the town.
A crowd gathers on the Market Square, people line the streets. A banner floats above, and the solemn drum beats. Eight foot high, lead by a rope, stiff legs waltzing a clumsy jig, the Straw Bear cometh.
Squeeze boxes, fiddles, flutes and horns. A procession of dancers, Molly and Morris, Rapper and clog. Faces painted, black, red or blue, dressed in bright rags and beating their sticks, the Border men pass. In clean white shirts, immune to winter’s chill, and with tinkling bells, the hardy Morris men follow.
The procession ends and the troupes disperse. Drumming and yelling, competing for crowds. Across the streets the people spread out where cars are dismissed by an ancient art. Children look on, some dance, some wonder. Then the bear is seen. Closer it lumbers, adult legs are clutched. But curiosity wins, faces reappear, sometimes with smiles and photo’s are taken.
On to the pubs and the inns. Across crowded bars rounds are brought. A space clears, swords flash, a fiddle resounds, a drum beats and a new dance begins. The tempo quickens and the blades whirl. Up and under a rapper’s star is woven and held high to merry cheers.
We follow the bear, the crawl continues. From cold Fenland streets into throbbing pub lounges, glasses are fogged and old friends are met. Another round brought, the special ales are tasted and preference declared. Gossip and banter, an elbow is knocked, a bad joke disarms. Everyone is Mate.