The Last Straw?

I hate to admit it but this years jaunt to the annual Whittlesea Straw Bear festival was originally going to be my last – for reasons I shall come to later – and I hoped to cram in all the best of the festival in some attempt at capturing a moment of greatness to use in future anecdotal story telling sessions with the kids. Instead a better organised parade, coupled with fair weather and some random encounters have ensured that this years was the best yet. Good enough to leave as is? Possibly not. In fact I’m already planning next year’s visit, and this time I’m bringing people from all over the country – hopefully. What follows is my account of the day… and a lot of anecdotal rambling… and flashbacks to the past… and pictures… but it will be awesome, I promise….

I would have loved to claim that this day started with a sluggish arm reaching out of a warm bed to silence the incessant prattling of the alarm on my wife’s mobile phone, but as is becoming an alarmingly regular thing I hadn’t slept at all the previous night. Instead the alarm went off upstairs as I say entertaining my toddler with an impromptu car show on the living room mat. He had awoken a little before six and my wife kindly brought him down to me before returning for a well deserved lie-in. As the two of us assembled a collection of brightly coloured cars I glanced at the clock, then at the calendar on the wall above my desk. It was Straw Bear Saturday and I was having real trouble getting excited about it.

Cue trip down memory lane… (cue Scooby Doo style wibbly, wobbly effect)

You see I spent my teenage years living in Whittlesey and as an impressionable youth I found the appeal of drinking in the streets, well, appealing. I can’t say I didn’t appreciate the whole ‘Britishness’ of the event, but the main thrust of getting me along was the prospect of a cheeky pint at the Old Crown. What I experienced was a great laugh with great mates. I did get one small drink – and was offered snuff by one of the performers, but I had no idea what it was and ‘Just Said No’.  The wealth of colour and sound was near mind-blowing, despite it – on paper – being nothing more than grown men dressing up in raggy clothes, dancing to accordion music and waving hankies.

The appeal of the Straw Bear is this, it’s an experience.

The only way to ‘get’ it is to experience it yourself.

But over time I grew distant from a lot of the friends I was at school with and moved to Wisbech to live with my then fiancée. I don’t drive and rely upon the Mrs to get me most places – unless there’s a helpful bus route of course – and so it became an effort to drive twenty miles down the road, but we didn’t miss a year until our youngest was born. Taking a week-old baby along to the Straw Bear was not as appealing as sitting at home, exhausted from feeding, changing, feeding, changing, feeding, changing, feeding….

Turns out we missed some bitterly cold weather.

Even more surprising was the fact that I hadn’t missed going at all.

I won’t lie, it saddened me to think that I had lost interest in such a unique experience, but after seeing the same troupes doing the same routines year after year, but lacking that ‘personal interaction’ was killing the festival’s appeal for me.

We attended the following year, but due to the extremely bitter cold we watched the main parade and then retreated to the warmth of my Mum’s house – luckily located near one of the pubs that played host to street performances, meaning that we could watch some through the window while snacking on Jammie Dodgers and Kit-Kats. Last year’s festival was missed as our family car became a piece of sculpture on our drive as freezing weather killed it from the inside out. Which brings us back to the here and now (or rather the there and then as this is a retrospective piece) and I was sat on the mat thinking of just calling the whole trip off.

I looked at the weather reports, hopeful of rain predictions, but found nothing but fair weather predictions. As if preempting my thoughts my mother texted over a weather report from Whittlesey itself ‘Wet on ground, but dry’ and my children started asking the questions. You know the sort, all parents do – hell, anyone who has ever watched a film with kids and a journey central to the plot will know; the incessant wittering natter about departure times and travel plans.

So my mind was made up for me. I pulled on my comfortable shoes, slung a camera bag over my shoulder and loaded the children into their safety seats – a task made harder by a toddler with 90’s rave-scene arms. Doing the now obligatory ‘essentials check’, which involves me tapping each of my pockets to locate the essentials for the day: wallet, iPod, Phone, lens filter, spare battery and keys – I wandered, no… I sauntered… definitely sauntered. I was sauntering around the car as my children probably sat inside wondering why I had chosen to saunter and not to amble, a question which I would have, if it had been posed to me, answered with a smug remark about being the same damn thing. So, erm, back to the reality, I was sauntering around the side of the car, tapping my pockets for a second time, when I tripped over a small tree stump and slumped against the car window before standing up quickly and checking all near-by windows to see if any neighbours had witness the saunter become a slump. No-one had. The children did. They knew not to say anything though. In the relative safety of the car – at least I couldn’t fall over now – I stuck the iPod on the in-car charger and awaited my wife who was probably having her own misadventures in the house whilst attempting to chase the cat out from behind the cabinet.* As she got into the car she gave me a look as if to say that she knew about the sauntering and she really wished that I had decided to amble instead. I gave her a look back that involved an eyebrow being raised to retort that they were the same. She continued to give me the same look. I realised that she was just trying to work out why I was wiggling my eye brow and stopped, turned to face forwards and quickly checked Twitter for the latest updates.

You see this is the first year that I have ‘enhanced’ the Straw Bear experience with the wonders of the Internet. Despite my obvious technological leanings I had not considered viewing Facebook groups, or searching key words on Twitter before attending. It seems folly in many ways for me to have been so un-prepared in the past. A quick search of ‘Straw Bear’ on Twitter threw out messages of people waking up after a Friday night of drinking and merriment, of people travelling to record a podcast, of people looking forward to sampling the Straw Bear Ale, or Councillors looking forward to seeing Whittlesey at it’s best and teenagers – much like my younger self – looking forward to a day out with friends. I had been messaging a couple of locals prior to the event and was hoping to use the tools available to me through my mobile device to find them and meet up. Little did I know while refreshing the Twitter feed that I would indeed meet a Tweeter, and that it would open my eyes to a world of new potential and possibility.

So. Meandering mind-set put to one side I was enjoying the car journey across the Fens towards Whittlesey taking in a stunning early morning vista of cloudy skies and wind turbines, carpets of fields and trees dotted around. It’s sometimes easy to take your local area for granted – unless you live near an ‘area of outstanding beauty’ in which case it is CONSTANTLY rammed down your throat by money hungry tourism offices.

The Fens can be dark, depressing places, but when the sun is right and you have the time to just look around you can see why the area has been inspirational to people over the years. Now I’m not going to try and insinuate that my short car journey created some sort of state of epiphany, but it was eye opening regardless. As we got to Whittlesey and I racked my brain for a suitable parking location, trying to get close to my Mothers but avoiding the route which passes by on two main roads, and realised also how much Whittlesey had changed since the heady days of the nineties when I would stock up on sour chews from the Bread Basket bakers/sweet shop opposite Sir Harry Smith Community College, and don’t even get me started on how that looks now, I remember when it looked like this:

Heck I remember the old school tuck-shop.

None of that ‘Healthy Menu’ option then, back in the day it was all E-numbers and crisp packets.

I really should make an effort to visit and see the inside soon – before popping down to Somerfield – now the Co-Op – and getting a portion of chips and wandering down to the play area at the Manor leisure centre to munch on down and enjoy some swings and roundabouts. We got parked up near to Park Lane School and all ambled – I may have sauntered – to my Mother’s, catching glances of colourful outfits and obscure instruments bobbing down the street – obviously being carried/worn/inserted. A knock at the door and we were inside, my sister and my nephews had already arrived and were in the process of stuffing their coat pockets with snacks, so I barged through the swarm of pre-pubescents and got myself some BBQ beef swag! Get it! First result of the day! We talked about our plans, worked out that someone would be bringing fresh roast pork round at two in the afternoon for rolls – this would be the lynchpin to hang the day upon – and that other than that we were free to off-load the kids for a while if we chose to, but for now, and as a family we all trekked into town, through the church gardens and found a good spot to the side of The George – also changed, mostly for the better(?) buying badges and programmes to ensure that we pay our way for the festival and before long we heard the low thump of the Bear drum.

As the parade appeared in the distance I realised that I was going to lose a lot of photos if I stayed where I was – thanks to Lurch’s second cousin visiting Whittlesey and having no regard for the fine art of digital photography – and quickly scampered up onto a near-by wall, much to the obvious horror of my wife, mother and near-by bear followers (who were more likely concerned about the implications of a six foot chubster falling onto them from a five foot wall). But I was perched, like an eagle surveying it’s prey and enjoyed the look on some of the other semi-pro photographers as they realised my obvious genius. So stood a clear ten feet up in the air I snapped away capturing shots of everything and anything as the procession moved past in it’s usual ceremoniously awesome fashion. I was yet again entranced by the multi-coloured insanity of the Gog Magog Molly dancers.

Instantly I got the madcap notion of joining them (again) – which I did look into, but they are based too far away 😦 – before snapping back to reality and, well, snapping shots of reality. Or as best you can find at the Straw Bear. As the tail end of the procession passed by I was privvy to a rare sight – going by the report in the PET – about 2,000 people wandering along the road following the parade, a view that thanks to the wonders of digital photomographicality I can share.

A lot of people, and that was just behind me, this was what was in front of me – and what I would soon use my expert knowledge of Whittlesey alleyways and back-streets to negotiate – don’t even get me going on this, it was a shameful time of misspent youth and possibly cost the tax payer money due to the Police playing along – like some kind of raccoon.

Obviously this doesn’t take into account the masses around the corner either… so many damn people.

So we bustled along, avoiding the swathes of people standing, staring in disbelief at what had just, moments before, passed their eyes. We were on a mission, we wanted to get a good spot near to the Black Bull, ready for the next set up, so took my eldest and youngest, leaving the middle one with Granny and Grandpa, and hurried along empty pavements to get a good spot. And we did indeed get one. Sadly we had also elected to stand next to another incredibly annoying man. I know a lot of annoying people, I get annoyed every day, but I can honestly say I am normally noticably less annoyed by people whom attend the festival. Still with his smart alec commentary blathering into my ears I snapped away, grabbing varied shots, playing with focal range etc… Shots were coming thick and fast…

I was pleased with the results, even using my wife as a bi-pod at one point, and figured that I didn’t need to spend the whole day taking snaps, so enjoyed watching – free of the restrictions of a viewfinder. We watched a few groups perform before heading back for an early lunch, yet again watching the dancing through the front room window. Pizza was consumed, snacks were munched, dancing was watched – I also managed to ensure some nosey pedestrians were more careful about which windows they decide to stare into, by turning the mirror on themselves and waving enthusiastically, as if they were a passing celebrity, taking photos and whistling.

My wife and I elected to ‘allow the children to stay at Granny’s house’ and we sloped off towards Childers for a swift drink with my sister, who shockingly had come to a similar conclusion with her two boys… great minds and all that. So we snuck through the church yard again – there is a path, we weren’t hopping fences or nothing, so fear not, no desecration was committed – and popped in to see an old school friend who hadn’t changed much, just got taller.

As I stood with a hard drink in one hand and a camera in the other – for fear of missing a GREAT shot – I scanned the room to see if I could spot anyone else I was at school with. I didn’t see many familiar faces, but I reckon that was more to do with the fact that it has been fifteen plus years since I saw most of my old chums, but then one face floated into my peripheral vision, and shockingly their fact hadn’t aged at all. Not a day. Not a minute. It was almost like being at the school disco in 1995 all over again, only with more expensive alcohol and more old men in coats. I considered wandering over and saying hello, but then had a moment of doubt, what if it was a younger sister? A daughter? I didn’t want to spoil the illusion of this Dorian Grey-esque mystery. I suspect her Facebook profile picture is ageing for her. Either way, it was time to move on, I had a mission to chase up. I was after a free pen.

Yes.

A free pen, a plastic one, a cheapy freebie, a promotional pen.

Not valuable, but I HAD TO HAVE IT!

To get one I had to locate the editor of the local paper, the Cambs Times/Wisbech Standard – Mr John Elworthy.

Oh, and I’d have to find him amongst about 5,000 people.

Normally you’d need to be lucky, or holding a giant placard – obviously, but I had Twitter.

Bouncybhall 

Great day thus far at #Strawbear having a drink at my Mum’s place on London St watching dancers through the window! No sign of @johnelworthy
@johnelworthy
@Bouncybhall now in Comfort cafe. Will leave a trail of Cambs Times pens as I leave
Bouncybhall 

Market Place Whittlesey, hunting @johnelworthy like a podgy Terminator, lol! Great day! Loads of people enjoying the fair weather #strawbear
@johnelworthy
@Bouncybhall outside Black Bull now
And there you go, one editor located, hand shaken and conversed with. The conversation was very interesting, John was EXACTLY as I remembered him from a meeting when I worked at Fenland District Council and as on the ball as you would expect from a ‘newspaper type’. A great anecdote was told, opinions were shared and then I was off to meet another local Tweeter.
Sad thing was, I forgot to ask for my pen.
I was all like Darth Vader in Episode III.
Luckily John promised to put on aside for next year’s festival, and I assure you now I will get me that pen.
So I toddled over to The Falcon Hotel to try and meet up with Andy T. who was by a ‘blue door’… sadly we arrived just as the Straw Bear himself was departing, causing a flurry of plastic pint glasses to be emptied swiftly as the revellers followed the eminent man of straw. We looked around but saw no sign of Andy, which was a shame, I had been on a roll – hell, I’d even seen local Cllr Martin Curtis who was walking around with his family, rocking a rather awesome hooded top.  As we were close to mother’s again we wandered back to her house to find more dancers performing right outside the window, including Santa!
Obviously he wasn’t really Santa. That much was obvious, there’s no such thing as Santa. Pfft, you must think that I am some kind of fool.
No, he was a centaur.
See, Centaur… sort of…
There is a remote possibility that he was actually just a kind old man in a pretend wooden horse costume, but I think the odds of this are very slim. Luckily this didn’t end up in the same way my meeting with Bernie Clifton did in 1995. Luckily the Police were not involved, but I still can’t look at a pair of slack tights without a cold shudder emanating from my spine.
So my son and wife had a chat with Centaur Claus and I got my personal favourite photo of the day before watching some more Gog Magog Molly and supped down some golden nectar. As I looked around, through the viewfinder, I picked up face after face staring at the dancing, enjoying something that they would never usually endeavour to see, but with the promise of beer, friends and fun thousands of people did exactly that.
You see the Straw Bear festival is not about the dancing, the beer or the music. No it’s about a collective enjoyment. It’s about getting together in the most miserable month of the year and casting off financial concerns, throwing away the shackles of employment for a while and just enjoying a day. This doesn’t happen enough these days, and while a shame it does highlight a need for more traditions from the past to be dragged into an obscure modern iteration. Think about how many times you’ve sat at home and watched The Highland Games, World’s Strongest Man, Red Bull Flugtag, that cheese chase down the hill etc… they gather a crowd wanting something less mainstream. Something that isn’t sponsored by Cadburys. Something that isn’t endorsed by a range of so-called celebrities looking to sell a new book/DVD/album. What they want is to see something new, experience something with friends and create new memories.
New memories.
How often can you say that you do that?
It’s easy to live retrospectively, but the Straw Bear festival manages to stir up all sorts of emotion for me personally, relating greatly to my growing up in the area, but also of the feelings I had seeing things for the first time. That child-like enthusiasm for discovery, clevely hidden inside a pub crawl, with elements of the pagan. Brilliant.
As we left Whittlesey to it’s celebration I cast a glance over those same familiar roads and buildings with a happier sense of being than I had started the day with, and while I was soon back to my humdrum life in ‘boring’ old Fenland I had new memories, memories that I have stuck in this blog post for seven people to read while bored and Googling something random.
If you can get to the festival next year, please do. I cannot recommend it enough. If you can’t… well try to seek out something locally that is similar in feel.
And there it is, my Straw Bear adventure, only it didn’t end there. Thanks to Twitter I now had new people to follow, I spent the evening looking over total stranger’s Twitter feeds reading their experiences. I enjoyed looking at the FourSquare check-ins of people who had arrived in Whittlesey for the first time. I read blogs, looked through YouTube and felt connected to these random people, via this wonderful thing that we call the Internet.
The next week I was contacted by Mr Elworthy again, asking if I had any photos of the Straw Bear, so took a punt and sent a dozen or so over. The next day there they were on the newspaper’s website for all to see, with my name below them. Friday came along and bam, there was my picture in the story. A chance encounter, created by Twitter, had resulted in something great. I had something to show my Nan if nothing else, and given the very nature of 90% of my musings being rather risque I’m glad of that indeed.
So there you go, moral of the story seems to be this: “Do more, get more.”
Remember it.

* I did write a fictitious account of her adventure, it was highly amusing, but I decided that you deserve the truth dear reader, I respect you that much. But F.Y.I. it involved a trifle, a mop, a broken lampshade and a phone call from Prague.

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