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Saturday, 8 January 2011

whittlesea straw bear festival

Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival of times gone by, from their archive
Following on from my recent, and probably thankfully, short-lived accidental obsession with straw goats, I'm looking forward to seeing pictures of the annual Straw Bear Festival next weekend in the "ancient Fenland town" (Wikipedia's words) of Whittlesea in Cambridgeshire. I promise, I'll stop before we get to straw crafts.

In fine folk festival style, the Bear (a man dressed up in straw) dances through the town, with its keeper and musicians in tow, the straw gathered by farmers ("That'll do for the Bear" as the harvesters used to say, apparently). The celebration, which also includes Mummers plays marks Plough Tuesday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night), and tying up with the European tradition of animated agricultural creations, the Bear is  now joined by one from Germany where, as it turns out, they're also fond of their straw bears (around Shrove Tuesday). 

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the Straw Bear Festival is a tradition that died out sometime at the beginning of the early 20th century, only to be revived at the tailend of the 1970s, a decade marked by, among other things, a resurgence of interest in paganism, folklore and all things ancient, earthy and frequently, unintentionally, uncanny. 

In the interim, Fairport Convention/Steeleye Span/Albion Band founder member Ashley Hutchings provided inspiration by including the Bear's song (accompanied by a spoken word detailing of the custom) on his 1976 Rattlebone And Ploughjack release, a time-honoured weirdy-beardy 70s album of English Morris and Molly dancing tunes and spoken word history, and a contender for Stuart Maconie's Freak Zone on BBC 6 Music if ever there was one.  

More recently, Leicestershire indie band Young Knives used a fantastic image of the Straw Bear for the cover of their Mercury-nominated Voices Of Animals And Men album, which raises the curious thought that fans of the band might've been inspired to add the Straw Bear to their festival circuit. More likely, they'd buy the fine T-shirt, so spreading the word, or at least confusing and bemusing those who saw it. Buy the 30th anniversary Straw Bear Festival badge and you too can complete the link between arcane oddities-lover and modern indie-folk fan. It's not Wicker Man, but it is very perfectly strange.

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