In the small market town of Whittlesey, located in Cambridgeshire and just 5 miles from Peterborough, a peculiar event takes place each year in January that attracts visitors from far and wide – the Straw Bear Festival.
On an often cold and dreary winter weekend, this otherwise unassuming town in the heart of the Fens attracts visitors from far and wide.
You may have seen images and videos of the “Straw Bears” at the focus of this festival, but for outsiders not accustomed to this local tradition it can seem bizarre at best!
If you don’t have other plans and live nearby, visiting Whittlesey during the Straw Bear Festival is a great way to spend a day. Read this blog to find out everything you need to know about it, including the history of the festival and what you can do when you’re there.
What is Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival?
The Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival is an event that occurs each January in Whittlesey, a town in Cambridgeshire. The festival was established in the 1980s but is a modern revival of an ancient fenland custom to celebrate Plough Monday by making a straw bear, someone dressed head to toe in a costume made from straw.
The Straw Bear Festival takes place over a weekend: a concert kicks it off on the Friday evening, with a procession and dancing as the main events on Saturday, and it ends with a ceremonial burning of the bear on the Sunday.
The history of the Straw Bear Festival
Dating back to at least 1882, a long-held custom in Whittlesey was to dress a man up as a “Straw Bear” on the first Tuesday after Plough Monday. He’d then be taken around the town entertaining the locals with his clumsy and funny gestures.
The tradition declined in popularity by the end of the 19th century, and the last recorded appearance of the Straw Bear was in 1909.
That was until 1980, when the Whittlesey Society revived the custom, with the bear now accompanied by dancers. Since then, the Straw Bear Festival has grown to include more Morris dancing sides and other events throughout the weekend.
What to do during Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival
There are lots of things to do during the Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival to keep everyone entertained, particularly on the Saturday when the main events occur and you can do the following:
- Follow the procession that makes its way through the streets of Whittlesey. Led by the Straw Bears, the procession is made up of various Morris dancing teams. With their lively music and colourful costumes, it’s a sight to behold!
- Watch Morris dancing. After the procession, the different dance teams then occupy locations around the town so you can wander around a see them all. If you’ve never watched Morris Dancing before it may seem strange, but attending the festival is a great way to experience this very English tradition.
- Go to a storytelling session. For families with young kids, there are multiple free sessions throughout the day to keep the little ones entertained.
- Get a drink in one of Whittlesey’s many pubs. The Saturday of the Straw Bear Festival is one of the busiest times for the town, so the pubs are buzzing with life and you can find many drinks available, including some great local ales. Some pubs will even be serving in cups that you can take outside so you don’t have to miss out on the festivities.
- Grab a bite for lunch. There are some lovely cafes and other places to eat in Whittlesey, and there’s no better time to try them than during the Straw Bear Festival. Try one of the delicious chip shops for a quick lunch that you can take away and eat while watching one of the dance teams. You can also check out our rundown of the best restaurants in Whittlesey for ideas of where to visit.
- Climb to the top of a church. In the centre of Whittlesey, Saint Mary’s Church is often open to the public, especially as part of the festivities. If you’re lucky, you may even be able to climb the spire to get unique perspective of the town, including a great bird’s-eye-view of the Straw Bear Festival in action.
How to get to Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival
Whittlesey is a short drive from Peterborough on the A605, so it’s easy to get to by car if you’re coming up or down the A1 and if you’re near the city it’s one of the best things to do in Peterborough.
You can also get to Whittlesey train station easily, as it’s only one stop away from Peterborough.