Sunday, 12 January 2014

If You Go Down To The Fens Today....Straw Bear Festival 1

Deep in the Fenlands of Cambridgeshire lies the unremarkable town of Whittlesea. But something very remarkable, very odd and very English takes place in early January every year.

When I arrived in town at 9:30 on Saturday morning the place was more or less silent. An inexplicable tinkling of bells could be heard as the occasional pedestrian headed through the market square and squeezebox music seeped out from the open door of a pub. 

Then, an hour later, there are crowds lining Station Road and the market place is buzzing with conversation. In the distance the throb of a slow, steady drumbeat, growing slowly nearer.  A loud cheer goes up as around the corner.....



...a man comes leading what appears to be a dancing straw stack. "The Straw Bear", as it's known, is accompanied by what can only be described as "Cubs" and they all dance around to a rather ponderous tune which is growing gradually louder.



A band of bizarrely attired musicians comes into view playing squeezeboxes, drums, whistles and concertinas. There's a banjo, a trombone, a flute, fiddles, tambourines.....



....and dancers too!




And....




...and...



...and...


...and...


(so that's what the inexplicable tinkling bells were)
...and...


...(some of the dancers were quite little)...
...and...


...and...


...and...


...some seriously scary men passed in glum silence...
(more of them another time)
...and...


some women who were just as frightening
(more of them later too)
...but...


everybody else seemed ready to dance
!!!


(The first time I've taken a video for this blog!)

Well, that's Morris dancing by the White Rose Morris Men from Yorkshire. If you've seen any traditional English dancing then you've probably seen Morris dancing. But, as you've undoubtedly guessed some of the wackily attired people you saw earlier in this post are not about to do anything of the kind. I'll be back with more pictures, more videos and some words of explanation in subsequent dispatches.


Baby Bear says,
"Take care".

18 comments:

  1. good video addition John; those guys would be nicely fit hopping about like that if they do it with some regularity and I assume they must to remember their 'steps'. It amazing how a dance is contrived by some-one, and years later it is still being replicated like this. Seems like the whole town was out there John - you weren't amongst them with your squeeze-box? I'm really interested to learn some, of the women adorned in black and green ..

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    1. I will get around to the black and green ladies - eventually! You'd never believe that folk dancing could attract so many people out on a cold day.

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  2. Wow! that's some festival John, tinkling bells and Morris Dancing I would have enjoyed.

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  3. John, this looks like SO MUCH fun. I would have loved to see it.

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  4. I just watched the video. Now I REALLY wish I was there. You did a great job. Must have had a tripod or something else to rest the camera on. I look forward to seeing more videos, but I don't think you will entice me to start doing it.

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  5. Enjoyed your first video too and hope to see more! One of the first tunes I learned in long-ago piano lessons was a old Morris dance, and years later when I spent more time in the UK it took on a whole new meaning. What a festival - looks like the bears and all not-quite-Morris-dancers enjoyed it too!

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  6. What fun! I'd love to see this for real, I pass through Whittlesea on the train when I'm going to Suffolk so I know where it is - a bit far for a day out really though.

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  7. Wonderful! When we lived over that way I always wanted to see the Straw Bear festival and never did so it was great to see your photos. The 'glum' men and women do look rather scary and I'm sure I've seem the Morris men with the feathers in their hats (or some similar to them) at Middleham in Yorkshire. Looks like great fun:)

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  8. So colorful, and new to me.I learn so much here.
    It's great to see so many young people participating and ready to carry on
    tradition.
    I am looking forward to the stories behind the dances and costumes.

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  9. It sounds great, I love events like this!

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  10. Great video and a good crowd.

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  11. Can't wait for the explanation! I knew when you mentioned bells that there would be morris dancers, but the rest is so intriguing. Can't wait for the rest of the story.

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  12. That was a great post, John! Loved the video, also. Wondering about those explanations, also! Hugs!

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  13. Thanks to everyone who wrote in. Hugs and kisses, Sue and Liz.

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  14. Robert Swindells20 January 2014 at 23:14

    Thanks for bringing this festival to us John. I have seen glorious street dancing in Donegal, parades in Ulster and dance festivals in the Philippines but it is really so enjoyable to see the local traditions and know that these things go on still without great tourist board fanfares, which somehow makes them more meaningful, though I wonder what the meaning is.

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