On the first Saturday following Plough Monday, which is the first Monday following Twelfth Night, the Straw Bear Festival takes place in Whittlesea, or Whittlesey, (as the case maybe), near Peterborough in Cambridgeshire. In days gone by the tradition used to take place on the Tuesday following Plough Monday when a Plough Boy was dressed up as a straw bear. He and his friends would entertain the locals in Whittlesea. However, the age-old tradition was stopped by a local police inspector in 1919 because he saw it as a way of ‘cadging’ and it brought on ‘bad behaviour’ resulting in prison sentences. The tradition was revived in 1980 and this year is the 41st since then. North Herts branch of CAMRA started going to the festival in 2002 and have been going ever since. Sometimes well supported, most times not.
Since the revival, the event takes place over the weekend, culminating in the burning of the Straw Bear, (minus its occupant), on the Sunday. Nowadays, thousands of people turn up to see the procession of the Straw Bear and there are many, many Morris Men and Women troupes, Molly Men and Women troupes, several Clog Dancing troupes, Sword Dancing troupes and a couple of Appalachian dancing groups, all accompanied by their own musicians; something for everyone with a colourful and musical display.
The initial procession used to start at the Ivy Leaf Club at 10.30 am and wind its way to the Market Square. However, for a few years now it starts in Station Road, which is ideal, as if you come by train, you arrive at the procession departure point. En route to the Market Square, various dance groups stop and take turns to dance in the streets. Two other processions start at 12 noon and 1.30 pm respectively and this time they dance at various local pubs around the town. At 3.00 pm some of them return to the Market Square for the finale, whilst others carry on dancing and sinking the odd pint or two. For a small donation, there is a comprehensive programme for the day.
Once the opening procession has passed, we all follow it to the market square where the dancing begins and also the drinking. There are 4 pubs in the 2020 GBG, Boat Inn, Falcon Hotel, George Hotel and Letter B. In addition, there are many others where the dancing takes place and the beer is good. It’s a long day, so half pints are ample. It’s worth a visit and the next year the date should be Saturday 16 January 2021. For details of the festival, log onto the web page at www.strawbear.org.uk or email them on firstname.lastname@example.org, nearer the time.
By late afternoon most of the dancers and the ‘tourists’ are ensconced in the local pubs and the club, but not the intrepid band from Hertfordshire. We will, by a series of pubs, make our way back to the station to catch the train to Ely. Normally, we would visit the two pubs in the current GBG. However, this year there is a choice between the GBG pubs and the Elysian Beer Festival. For only, (I think), the second time, both festivals are on the same day.
Alas all too soon we have to catch the train home and wait for next year.
Below are the train times for our Saturday outing, which I hope after several checks are accurate. We normally go via Peterborough, but currently there are three replacement buses, so we are going via Cambridge, which means we miss the opening procession unless you catch the 0716 and change at Cambridge and Ely, arriving at 0928, one hour early; ah well.
CAMRA North Herts
|Straw Bear Travel Times 2020|
|Stevenage||–||0849||there’s one at 0903|
|Straw Bear||1145 ish||1700 ish||At Straw Bear|
|Beer Festival||1810||1945||At Beer Festival|