For a few days in the deepest darkest murk of the new year the Fenland town of Whittlesey becomes a baffling mixture of colour and sound in the guise of its Straw Bear festival.
The festival is a somewhat modern revival of the ancient Fenland custom celebrating Plough Monday, (the first Monday after Epiphany), the centrepiece of which is the parading of a Straw Bear throughout the town. As well as the flatlands very own version of The Wicker Man* the event also sees a huge assortment of ‘dance sides’ take to the streets including exponents of Border Morris Dancing, Cotswold Morris Dancing, Molly Dancing, North West Clog Dancing, British Linked Sword Dancing and perhaps most incongruously Appalachian Dancing.
Having been before I knew what to expect but it was still just so wonderfully unexpected. Getting up close and personal (to clarify not that personal) with the Straw Bear is always a highlight, as is trying to work out exactly how the gentleman from Southport Swords don’t end up losing limbs with their alarmingly odd, (in an entirely good way mind), efforts which appear to be equal parts dance performance, escapology act and, well to be frank, brawling.
However my favourite part of the day was getting to see the wonderful Old Glory again – a group of male dancers and female musicians dancing in, according to the festival programme, the Waveney Valley tradition. Dressed in farm labourers clothes and with blackened faces, the dancers look at best a little disconcerting, add to this the musicians dressed all in black with hats decorated with a mass of ivy and finish with the gents who stand around on the outside of the dancers, staring out into the crowd, and you have one of the most pleasingly unnerving spectacles that you’re ever likely to see.
ps. Given that the festival is as much about sound as it is vision audio recordings were a must, so here’s three snippets for you – and there’s more over on my Audioboo page if you’re interested.
* Yes the Straw Bear does go up in flames at the end of the weekend.