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Strange bears get a Whittlesey willkommen

The celebrated straw bears of Whittlesey will be joined by similar creatures from across the North Sea at their annual outing in January, 2000 - and it's all thanks to a school exchange trip.

The visiting bears are coming from the town of Walldurn in Germany, along with a party of supporters, to take part in a festival of processions and dancing on January 8 and 9.

Until recently the two sets of strawbearers were unaware of each other's existence, even though their traditions extend back at least two centuries, and possibly much longer.

Phil Oldfield, one of two men who wear the main Whittlesey bear each year, recalls how the connection was made: "It was a strange coincidence.

"If you go way back in history, there's records of straw bears in Ramsey, just down the road from Whittlesey. The Ramsey Abbey School, by chance, happened to have an exchange arrangement with a school in Walldurn. One of our strawbearers, Martin Hughes, was a teacher at Ramsey Abbey and went over with the kids, and before they went, someone gave them a booklet about the Walldurn bears."

It was a simple matter to make contact, and as a result, several bears from Walldurn took part in the Cambridgeshire event in January, 1999.

On that occasion, they brought their own straw to make their own creatures, which look very much like the Whittlesey animals. It's like seeing a haystack walk down the street, with arms, legs, head an torso covered in straw.

"They use oat straw," says Phil, "which is a lot longer than ours. Literally, one person grabs a handful of straw and places it around the leg, say, and someone wires it on. Consequently, their bear doesn't move very freely. They were very impressed by the way the Whittlesey bears could move."

In February 1999, a party of strawbearers went over to Germany, taking dancers with them. The Whittlesey event has spawned a longsword team, Wype Doles, and a molly side. There's also a children's dance team, New Road Molly, at one of local schools.

"We had a whale of a time," says Phil. "Once we got there we found that straw bears are quite common in that part of Germany. In a large town nearby they had two straw bears made out of dry pea straw, which looked as if it was attached to a boiler suit. It was very stiff and people could get in and out of it fairly easily [unlike the Whittlesey creature], and the head wasn't made of straw. It looked like it was made with pig skin, though I'm sure it wasn't. Once you were in the suit, they popped the head over you.

"You can't take the head off ours because it sits on a steel frame. Once you are in the suit you are in it for a few hours."

The Walldurn event takes place on Shrove Tuesday. It's one of a cycle of straw bear processions, held on successive days in neighbouring towns. "It's carnival time," says Phil. "and they celebrate the end of winter and welcome in the spring. But it's tied in with the religious aspect too.

"We arrived on the Saturday, but they'd started on something like the previous Thursday. We were invited to attend a procession at another town and we couldn't believe it. There were 80 or so groups with fantastic carnival floats. Even the majority of spectators were in fancy dress. It's all about making a lot of noise to beat out the winter.

"Monday afternoon was another carnival day, with the same procession in another town. Always, they end with a massive ball in the evening. Then on Shrove Tuesday it was the Walldurn carnival.

"They put up five of their people dressed as bears and they had a band leading the procession with the bears, and then everybody else behind them.

"The way they use their bears is very similar to what happened in the traditions in Whittlesey and Ramsey. With ours, they'd go out begging for money for the bear, whatever they could get. The Walldurn bears are run by a local charity, I guess rather like the Lions clubs here, and on what they call Rose Monday, the day before Shrove Tuesday, they dress three members up and they wander round the town, knocking on doors, rattling tins, stopping cars and so on.

"We got taken into a beer wholesaler and it was a case of, 'Have a bottle of what you want, lads.' We went into The People's Bank, and all the bank staff were dress in fancy costume. As soon as we got in there we were handed schnapps. We'd taken the Whittlesey sword dancers and molly side and we actually got to dance in this bank."

No one seems to know how two such similar customs have grown up on two sides of the North Sea. "I think they're in the same ball game as us," says Phil. "They don't really know where it all started. Like ours, their tradition had died out and it's only fairly recently revived. But the similarities are uncanny."

The two towns are not at all similar; the land around Whittlesey is very flat, whilst Walldurn is surrounded by rolling hills.

Twenty years since it revived its festival, Whittlesey now draws a devoted following. Around 240 dancers are expected to perform at the 2000 event (which is now invitation-only for performers, in agreement with the local police). Walldurn, on the other hand, is a genuine centre of pilgrimage, with thousands travelling to its Roman Catholic basilica.

"I have heard all sorts of theories about how it started; about links with the Celts and suchlike," says Phil, "but I prefer it that nobody knows, really. I like it to be a mystery."

Fascinating facts: The Cambridgeshire event is actually known as the Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival - taking the old spelling of the town's name. But though the old name is no longer used for the town, it's still possibly to buy a ticket to "Whittlesea" - the earlier spelling still survives at the town railway station.

1999 Simon Pipe, Mark Rogers, The Outside Capering Crew

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