At the weekend we made our annual pilgrimage across the Fens, to Whittlesey, for the Straw Bear Festival. In most respects it was the same as any other year – Morris, Molly and Sword dancing, music, beer and meeting up with friends and family. Oh, and not forgetting the penetrating January chill. Watching Pig Dyke Molly, in their precisely anarchic black and white kit, my oldest daughter told me the dancers were funny and that she wasn’t scared of them anymore, Previous years she has often given them a hard, wary stare, but now it’s harder to fear a middle-aged man in a tutu!
In the late afternoon, walking from the Bricklayers Arms – the place was packed as a group of men wove swords into an intricate to display – to The Falcon we passed the Bear and followers procession back to the Leisure Centre. Our route took us past St Mary’s church and my brother noticed the its tower was open, so having never been up we decided to take a look.
We had a short wait for the current viewers to come down and then we were off. The narrow stairs spiraled up to the ringing chamber, a room where group portraits hung in authentic sepia; it felt unhinged from the 21st Century, down to the wiring, it felt stuck in an unchanging Downton era. Then we were given permission to continue to the top. The spiral stairs narrowed further until you arrived at a small opening, I suppose no more than four feet high. Squeezing double through it took you outside, onto a narrow walkway around the base of the church spire.
“Hello Richard!” I looked up, fully out of context, it took me a few seconds to place the ruddy face, but the binoculars, hung around his neck, should have been an obvious give away, for it was a man I was used to seeing out on the Washes some twenty odd years ago. Charlie, reserve warden for the RSPB Nene Washes, now flooded. I think I’ve seen him twice since then, but this is Straw Bear, so a chance meeting at the top of a church tower, just before sunset, perhaps isn’t such a surprise.
The tower area was small and busy, so there was neither the space or time to catch up properly, but the views were spectacular – my camera phone doesn’t do them justice. If you’ve always failed to understand the beauty of Fenland, I suggest you climb a church tower, take a look around you and climb down enlightened. The panorama was never less than vast. To the north the River Nene was drowned beneath the floods covering mile after mile of Washland. From this angle the flood waters seemed precariously close to the town. To the west the chimneys and wind turbines at the Hansen brick works stood ahead of the towers of Peterborough Cathedral and the stacks of the city’s power station. Had there been more light, Ely Cathedral, to the south, would also have been visible. South, beyond the leisure centre’s muddy looking sports fields, more Wind turbines marched across the Fenland expanse, stretching off to the perfectly level horizon. Looking down at the town, with the night drawing in, most folk had either returned to their centrally heated homes, or retreated to the boozy warmth of the nearest pub.