Each January, the town of Whittlesey comes alive with the sound of folk music and the dancing steps of a Straw Bear. A man dressed head to foot in a straw costume parades through the streets attended by musicians and folk dancers from around the UK.
This weekend event, now known as the Straw Bear Festival, follows a nineteenth century tradition celebrating Plough Monday as the start of the agricultural year. Agricultural labourers dressed one of their own in a costume of straw, saved for the purpose from the previous harvest. They went from house to house begging for money after the “Bear” had entertained householders with a dance. The takings were shared amongst the labourers and most of the money was spent in the Whittlesey public houses of which there were many. The farmworkers often blacked their faces with soot in the hope of not being recognised as their entertainment became more and more rowdy. In fact, the event was finally banned by the local constabulary as it was seen as an opportunity for cadging and drunkenness.
In 1980, the tradition was revived by the Whittlesey Society and local folk enthusiasts. The event is held on the weekend nearest to Plough Monday which is itself always celebrated on the Monday after Epiphany. As well as the parade with over 250 invited musicians and dance sides, there are storytellers and a ceilidh style concert. On Sunday, known as Plough Sunday, a church service is held where a plough is taken into the church to be blessed. The event finishes when the costume of straw “The Bear” is set alight and burnt.
In 2024 the Straw Bear Fenstival will be held from 12-14 January You can visit the stawbear festival from the Whittlesey moorings.