Straw Bear Festival 2012

If anyone ever says to you – as English people seem inclined to say – “what a shame we have no culture of our own at all.” Tell them they should have been at the Straw Bear Festival this year, but that it’s not too late to go to next year’s.

Or perhaps they were just ignoring what we do have because it’s not noble or serious enough. If so, tell them to come anyway and learn to embrace the riotous, ridiculous, vulgar and fun spirit of the morris – on the streets and unashamed.

As for us, we had a great day on Saturday. It was one of those winter days when the sunshine is the colour of champagne, there’s an icy mist over the fens, it’s almost warm in the sun, but stepping out of it is like running face first into a snowdrift. We set off in the procession with hoards of other morris, molly, rapper and clog dancers at half ten in the morning, dancing through streets that were packed with onlookers, and then we danced, on and off, until 3pm, when the lowering of the sun made us all feel like we were about to die of exposure.

Ely and Littleport Riot’s kit may be partly at fault here. It’s great in the summer to dance in a light blouse, skirt and waistcoat, but not even adding a pair of gloves and maybe a regulation red woolly hat really makes it suitable in the winter, no matter how many thermal vests and long johns you wear underneath.



This is us at our first dance spot before lunch, when the sun was still out and everyone was feeling warm enough. We shared this spot with Cross Key Clog Dancers and their remarkably well dressed musicians:


These very splendid people with gold backed red or green waistcoats and trimmed hankies are Minster Strays:


Manor Hill Clog Morris


And our old friends Mepal Molly. Mepal Molly know a grand total of three dances, but this year Mike astonished everyone by expanding their repertoire to a world shaking four dances, all on his own:


(Sorry. In case the sarcasm wasn’t clearly evident there, I’d probably better say that most sides have a repertoire of around 20 different dances, and try not to repeat any dance in a spot, if they can avoid it.)

While we were dancing there, all three of the bears passed by. The home-grown Whittlesea bears, Bear and Baby Bear, and the Baum Bear who comes all the way from Germany and is now a regular participant:


He sheds a lot because he’s only loosely tied, but he’s more scary looking for it, IMO, because the shape of the person underneath is not so obvious. All three bears have handlers who lead them along by a short rope. The baby bear has a baby handler to match 😉

After that excitement, we had lunch, and then we danced in the beer garden of a pub called The Ram, and I managed to get some whistle playing in:


A further item of our kit is a brightly coloured blanket we’re allowed to wear when we’re not dancing, so here I am in mine, worn Saxon-style like a mantle. An excellent garment it is too, but next year I’m lining it and possibly adding a layer of insulation in the middle.

We had a great side with us there – Tyler’s Men, who looked a bit like Mepal Molly, but Mepal are more of a comedy act, and these guys could really dance. For some reason, this move often gets a laugh from the audience, particularly when the guys on the other side hit the proffered sticks as hard as they can:


Random photo of me because I scarcely ever look any good in photos and I quite liked this one. Long term readers of this blog may remember the saga of this waistcoat and share my incredulity at the fact that it now needs taking in. I think in the last four years it must have actually fitted me for about four weeks:


We then moved to another spot where we danced with these guys – The King’s Morris.


They danced the same style as three of the Coton men in Mepal Molly, so before we all moved on from there, one of their dancers teamed up with the three Coton dancers and danced a stray Cotswold number called “Vandals of Hammerwich.” That was very fun and companionable.

And then, at the final dance spot, we danced with Black Pig Morris, who get my prize for most spectacular outfits of the day:


and Pretty Grim, who dance a similar tradition of Border morris as the Riot do.


The Riot have recently started trying to learn a traditional Border dance – one of the few collected in the 19th Century by Cecil Sharp (who neglected to bother documenting much about Border because he thought it was just a debased form of Cotswold morris. I know we owe him everything, but still… pillock.) Pretty Grim call this dance “The Grim Reaper” and demonstrated it with the Riot scrutinising every step. We call it “Twiglet.” As you can tell, as far as glamour and awe goes, we are sometimes let down by our marketing strategy.

Possibly it’s the marketing strategy that makes people so reluctant to accept that morris is something to celebrate – it’s too bloody silly. Perhaps if we ignore it, it’ll go away and we can get something which we can be proud of instead? But for my part, I like silly. It’s the same tradition as Monty Python’s Fish Slapping Dance, and what a sad world it would be without that 😉

Ooh, look, and we’re even in the paper.  Fame at last!

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Grace Roberts
12 years ago

Ooh I love Morris dancing. So exciting. So it’s a little eccentric, but that’s what makes it so quintessentially English IMO. Does this happen in Littleport? My family are originally from there, and Hillgay, Ten Mile Bank. They were farm workers in the 18/19 centuries.The cottage my grandmother was born in is still there in Littleport.
Must make note to go see Straw Bear Festival next time. You look splendid in your mantle.
Fish Slapping Dance….absolutely hilarious!! 🙂

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