The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival is the revival of a custom that may date back prior to 1859. In 1882 it was recorded that on the day following Plough Monday
The custom on Straw Bear Tuesday was for one of the confraternity of the Plough to dress up with straw one of their number as a bear and call him the Straw Bear. He was then taken round the village to entertain by his frantic and clumsy gestures the good folk who had on the previous day subscribed to the rustics’ spread of beer, tobacco and beef at which the bear presided. (Cambridgeshire Customs and Folklore, Enid Porter)
The custom died out soon after 1909 but was revived in 1980. The day begins with a procession of Morris and Molly dancers following the bear to the Market Place. After this, dancing and folk music breaks out across most of the 10 or so pubs throughout the day while a smaller procession keeps up with the bear.
3 Special beers are brewed for the occasion:
Elgoods Straw Beer – a pleasant enough 4% bitter with a taste of honey, Oakham Straw Bear – a crisp, hoppy 4.4% pale ale and, best of all I think, Tydd Steam Beartown – a 4.5% best bitter that’s a slightly richer, maltier beer with a bit of warming orange that offers some protection from the fenland frost.
The Letter B
There are several good pubs in Whittlesey, most of which have a beer festival on the day. Among them is the Letter B, the 2012 Peterborough CAMRA Pub of the Year, a fantastic boozer with the best range of beers including Digfield Mad Monk, a premium bitter that was a welcome winter warmer, and a special from Oakham to mark the best pub award.
Hero of Aliwal
Just down the road is the Hero of Aliwal, a free house that perhaps had the least exiting beer festival (3 of the casks were Greene King) but did have the new Oakham Preacher, a bit sweeter than their usual beers but otherwise a nice typical hoppy Oakham.
Across the Briggate River/Kings Dyke is the Boat Inn, a pub since at least 1839, its believed part of the building may be 11th century, the exposed brickwork at the back certainly looks much older. At the rear is a patio beer garden and an area for Petanque. The straw Bear appeared and danced there for a while,
Then we followed the procession to the Falcon, an early 18th century inn which also had a beer fest outside at the back.
The procession ends at the Market Square outside the George Hotel, late 18th century, superbly renovated and reopened in 2010 as a Wetherspoons pub. It was sad to see such a prominent building boarded up in previous years so is good to have it open again these past couple of years. As well as the Elgoods and Oakham festival beers, Grainstore Cooking and Batemans XXXB were on.
Also on Market Square is Hubs Place, a bar with a beer festival in the courtyard at the back with beers from Elgoods, Everards, Oakham and Woodfordes.
Further along the Market Street stands the Black Bull, a 17th century inn with low beamed ceilings, a pub always packed during the Straw Bear fest, and north of that is the late 18th century New Crown, a thatched pub that’s a gathering place for the music and dancing. Elgoods Straw Beer was on at both.
We ended up at the Bricklayers Arms drinking a Tydd Steam Cunning Linctus when Old Glory, the most menacing and solemn of the Molly troupes, barged into the pub and roughly caroused around. There’s something about Old Glory that seems to capture the essence of Straw Bear Festival, harking back to a time when agricultural workers used dancing as a means to get money during the lean, hard winter months, and whose dancing I imagine would have been rougher than the ribbons and hankies of the morris dancers seen nowadays.
Map from Straw Bear website:
There is a Straw Bear pub built in 1975 and named by residents a few years before the revival. I’ve yet to visit that, the Ram Inn or the Railway Inn…