The coronavirus pandemic of 2020 caused the Whittlesea Straw Bear organisers to abandon plans as early as June for the following year’s mid-January festival, and aim for a ‘virtual’ route, using Zoom, Facebook and YouTube. Teams and performers were invited to send in videos of themselves to complement a thoughtfully put together programme – the trick being to replicate two hour-long concerts, one ceilidh, and the pageantry into a weekend’s presentation.
After director Douglas Kell’s welcoming address, the customary Friday evening concert was broadcast, headed by Granny’s Attic, Jackie Oates, Barry Goodman and local performers, with an impressive instrumental set by the band, Brown Boots. Saturday began with the mayoral address, before founder Brian Kell conducted a talk, Forty Years Of Straw And String, during which he denounced thoughts on paganism at the final straw burning saying: “It was all my idea. It was that or throwing it in a skip!” There was footage of processions going back to the late 1980s as well as recent years.
Taking stock of 40 years, there was a Meet The Drivers, comprising former bear Phil Oldfield asking ‘Questions to ask a Straw Bear driver’ of many of those who had processed as the ‘big’ and ‘little’ bears – questions about their motivation, feelings, and the best and worst bits, with replies about personal pride and the community. Many of those speaking were the sons, daughters and grandchildren of those a decade earlier. There was the film, How To Build A Straw Bear, a contribution by Germany’s Kolping family on events shared with the Whittlesey team at Stuttgart, Walldürn and Whittlesey itself by the bears from each nation over time, and the festival as reported from early days on local television channels. There was Dave Tonge from Norwich and Hannah Brailsford telling stories for older and younger audiences respectively, and a virtual afternoon music session and evening ceilidh was even scheduled! Offerings concluded on the Sunday with a final concert featuring Pete Coe, with Bayou Seco from New Mexico (featuring Ken Keppler’s inimitable Waltzing With Bears song). Finally, the straw bear processed, preceding burnings from over the years were shown on video, and ‘live’ behind closed doors in a wheelbarrow in a private garden before Christmas 2020, this year’s Isolation Bear was burned – with licensed Risk Assessment, not the usual weekend due to lockdown strictures. (Videos from the weekend are still available to watch on the Straw Bear website.)
Contributions were and still are invited through PayPal. Whilst unlikely to match a collection on the day from the usual thousands of people attending (amongst which are the doting relatives eager to watch their offspring performing as mini-Molly dancers), it is hoped that many Whittlesey people spent time watching these contributions and will maintain the momentum until 2022. All will be revealed – virus willing!