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The Whittlesea Straw Bear dances through the streets, followed by a bear keeper, several onlookers, and two smaller bears.
The Whittlesea Straw Bear, 2018. Photo credit: Rebecca Cole

An interview with the Whittlesea Straw Bear

Meet Douglas Kell, occasional Whittlesea Straw Bear and the latest director of the Straw Bear Festival, and find out what it means to be one of the UK's most-loved folk icons.

It’s not often you get to interview the central figure in a living folk tradition, so I’m not really sure what to expect as I send over a Zoom invitation and sit waiting for the Whittlesea Straw Bear to log on. All I really know is that this bear’s street name is Douglas, and that it comes from an ever-extending line of other straw bears. Beyond that, my imagination is firing. What will he be wearing? Will he have had time for a trim? Does Douglas even have a face?

When Zoom finally kicks into action, Douglas Kell turns out to be a disappointingly urbane gentleman in his early-to-mid forties. Far from being a dancing, stumbling creature of arable origin, he looks reasonably well-organised, which is presumably more fitting to his main role as director of the Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival. A jovial soul, he has grown up in this intriguing tradition – his father, Brian, having revived it in 1980 – and knows about as much about it as anyone does, which, as he freely admits, is not a vast amount. Such is often the way with these old English traditions. However, the fact that he has been involved since before he was born (we’ll get to that later) means that he has lived it, and having been the Whittlesea Straw Bear as both man and boy, he has represented the magic of whatever this tradition may mean to thousands upon thousands of onlookers and revellers.

These days, Douglas describes himself as “an occasional bear” and an active Morris dancer (White Rose Morris and Black Swan Rapper), so we’re glad that he found the time to sit down and explain to the Tradfolk readers precisely what it means to don that suit and become this much-loved Whittlesea folk icon.

Other bears might say something different and have different feelings about it, but certainly, I think pride comes into it.

Douglas Kell, Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival director

I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you’re actually a lot younger than I was expecting you to be. Many people involved in the organising of continued folk traditions tend to be older. Are you the latest in a long line of bears?

[Laughs] Well, yes, in theory. There are only three generations in the organisation. I’m the middle generation, our sons and daughters are currently coming up, and then there are people like my dad, Brian Kell. He revived the tradition when he moved to Whittlesey some 40-odd years ago.

What made him want to revive it?

Dad had done a number of folk-related activities in the past, singing from an early age up in the Northeast, where he’s from. He was doing rapper dancing with Sallyport Sword around Northumberland, and when he moved down to Stevenage with work, he formed Stevenage Sword, which unfortunately folded very recently. Finally, he got moved to the Peterborough office, and he was looking at Whittlesey as somewhere to stay, got interested in the history and found out about the straw bear. He linked it back to Ashley Hutchings’ album, Rattlebone & Ploughjack, which has a bit of narration on it about the ploughboys and the straw bear, going into the tune that we use today. So that’s how the interest was sparked, and he took the idea to the Whittlesey Society who supported him in the revival in 1980.

So it runs in your family. You were the very first little bear, weren’t you?

Yes, that’s where I started. In fact, my first straw bear event was actually before I was even born. I was a bump during the second year. I was a bit early, so I was not a giant bump at that point, but yes, lo and behold, a few weeks later I came along. I grew up knowing all about it and being there with the bear on the day. Initially, we would be left with our family friend, Dave Martin, who played the big drum. Me and my brother would be on either side with our own instruments, enjoying the band because it was a good place for us to be – plenty of eyes to watch out for us, not that we ever really strayed that far. We grew up doing that, but I think I was nine when I became the first little bear. It was an honour, that first one. But then, as I got bigger, I started vying for the big bear position, and I finally got in once the older generation of bears started to retire.

And you’re the big bear now, aren’t you?

I am an occasional bear.

On the festival website, it’s written that the person in the bear costume is “unfortunate”, but I’m not sure I believe that. You’ve just said yourself that being the Whittlesea Straw Bear is an honour.

Yes, I think all the bears offer a slightly different twist on the character and what it means to them. For me, certainly, it’s an honour – especially being the big bear. That was dad passing the torch down to the next generation and getting us a bit more involved. And now, obviously, I have become more involved through being the director of the festival this year. Other bears might say something different and have different feelings about it, but certainly, I think pride comes into it.

There is a video [see above] in which we interview a number of different bears and get their opinions. For me, there’s a lot of pride in being… not quite the mascot of Whittlesey, but certainly the centre of attention that attracts people to what is actually quite a small market town.

A purple road sign that states the name, "Whittlesey", and "Welcome to Fenland".
Whittlesea or Whittlesey?
Before the Fens were drained, Whittlesey sat on the edge of Whittlesey Mere. An island town, it was known as Whittle by the Sea - the wash coming in all the way from North East Anglia and surrounding it. Over the years, Whittle by the Sea became Whittlesea, and eventually Whittlesey (since it was no longer anywhere near the sea). The Straw Bear Festival has retained the older spelling, as has the railway station.
What does it mean to the people of Whittlesey? Are they excited by it?

There definitely seems to be a lot of that, yes. There was a lot of disappointment last year when we had to cancel because we were so unsure about where the COVID situation was going, and we didn’t want 3,000-4,000 people crowded into the Whittlesey streets. Obviously, this year, it’s very much different, but there’s still that COVID risk so we’re trying to keep it a bit smaller. There’s definitely a lot of buzz; everyone’s wanting to get a little bit more involved. There are a number of shops that have already got their fronts decorated, and they’re wanting to sponsor the festival and see what they can do. It just brings so many people into the town and everyone turns up and just has fun. It’s kind of a carnival atmosphere, and hopefully we can get some of that back.

What do you know about the history of the Whittlesea Straw Bear?

Basically, the bear was used by the ploughboys, who at that point – this early in the year – didn’t have any work to do. They would have been down to their last bits of copper before they could go back to start ploughing again from Plough Monday. So the bear would go out with them, do some entertaining, have a dance and beg for alms, basically. The bear was the showpiece of that entourage. That is most probably the true history of it.

Whittlesea Straw Bear and keeper, circa 1909. Via the Straw Bear Festival website

It’s said that they would threaten to plough up gardens if they didn’t get alms, which is probably when the local police sergeant put a stop to it [in 1909, the straw bear was forbidden, as it was seen as a form of cadging]. But the bear clearly became a local character, and we’ve found some details showing that he was invited to some of the summer carnivals. I have no idea what that was like. That bear suit can get pretty warm, even in winter. Perhaps they had a slightly different bear suit with less covering on the face, so air would have been able to circulate. I’ve not been a bear in particularly warm climes.

Anyway, historically, the bear was a tool for begging, in essence. And then, when we revived it, he became a kind of welcoming of the Spring. Winter is over, now we can start to get out again, celebrate, and there’s the turning of the seasons, so to speak.

Traditions don’t stand still, do they? They flourish, and you’re adding new meaning to this tradition as you’re going along. I’ve heard you mention that he can bring good and bad luck. Given that so little is known about the bear’s previous life, I presume that’s something that you’ve added to the tradition yourselves over the last 40 years. How did that come about?

Yeah, it is considered bad luck for the year if the bear doesn’t get out. But there are other little things. It has become a rumour that you shouldn’t really pull straw from the bear – you should wait for it to drop off him; that’s the bit of lucky straw you should be picking up off the street. It can’t be straw that you’ve removed; it has to have fallen through the dance. Where did that tradition start? Who knows.

That’s how it happens, isn’t it? That’s part of the wonderful thing about ongoing traditions, I think. They attract new meaning for the people who continue to take part.

Absolutely, yes. And that gives the public their own sense of feeling for the event. They’re not just there to be entertained. They want to go and hug the Bear, they want to go and shake his hand or just go and say hello, because that’s them becoming a part of the festival and getting some of the well-being for being a part of it. As you say, traditions don’t sit still. They’ve got to adapt and develop. If they don’t, unfortunately, they fall by the wayside because they’re not as interesting enough to keep that flow.

Traditions don’t sit still. They’ve got to adapt and develop. If they don’t, unfortunately, they fall by the wayside.

Douglas Kell

All that said, not all that much has changed with the Whittlesea Straw Bear. It started quite small – just a parade with the bear and a band going out. Then the Morris teams became involved, Peterborough Morris being one of the notable ones from the beginning, and Stevenage Sword were with us pretty much every year as well. White Rose, too, I think.

You have loads of Morris and Molly dancing sides attending now, don’t you?

Yes. In the 40th year, we made a point of having 40 sides on the street, but that was definitely a one-off. It was a lot of work, especially for my wife, the dance team coordinator. And that dance schedule took us a long time to think about, to try to get it right, because you can’t have the spots too close to each other, especially if you’ve got a Border side with a big drum bashing away over the top of a Cotswold side just dancing to a fiddle. It doesn’t work. So it’s making sure these spots are spaced out correctly.

We have reigned it back again, and we’re running about 20 this year, although that will probably increase again. We ran with about 30 sides for quite a number of years, and that feels about right.

Three generations of straw bears take to the streets of Whittlesey

I get the sense that the bear and its keeper are chosen according to tradition. The roles get passed down. Would that be correct?

That’s definitely how a lot of that works. So my dad was the first revived bear and then, when he discovered he couldn’t really do a whole day, a second bear, Phil Oldfield, who was the son of one of the other original founders, Geoff Oldfield, took on that role. Then we had Phil Walker join and became very involved. He was a local farmhand – he’s only just retired, I think – on the farm where we used to get the straw from. He had the right frame and build for being a driver. Then we had Paul Cornell, who has been the director of the festival in the past.

So, as they got a bit older, it became apparent that sons and daughters – we have female bears as well – would come up. Unfortunately, my brother was only ever a little bear because he died before he got a chance to be a big bear. But I’ve been a bear, we’ve had both of the Cornell sons, Joseph and Christian; Paul’s daughter, Megan; Elizabeth, who was Phil Walker’s daughter. We’ve had Tom Sennett and Luke Crick, who were also little bears that became big bears, and Ady Bull, who has come in quite recently but got involved straight away and was given the honour. We now have six bears, I suppose, on rotation – two every year. But we have room for expansion.

My son was actually born on Straw Bear Sunday… there’s a bit of straw bear magic for you.

Douglas Kell

And your children are bears?

My son is now a little too big to be a little bear, so he’s playing a waiting game. I don’t want to say dead man’s shoes [laughs], touch wood, but he still needs to be a little bit bigger to be the big bear, to be fair. But he was actually born on Straw Bear Sunday.

Oh, wow. Talk about being born into the tradition!

Yes, that’s right. My wife, the dance teams coordinator, who had a busy day walking around heavily pregnant, wasn’t due at this point. She was still a few weeks off. We all went to bed at the end of the day and then, about 3am, my phone started beeping and I thought, “Oh, no, what has happened?” I thought it was something to do with the festival and we’d have disaster recovery plans going off all over the place. But no, it was her calling from downstairs, telling me her waters had broken.

So, instead of the normal Straw Bear Sunday meal, which happens afterwards for the organisers, they wet the baby’s head. He was properly born into the Whittlesea Straw Bear tradition. There’s a bit of straw bear magic for you.

Three generations of Whittlesea Straw Bear. Douglas and Brian Kell (back-row bears, left to right), and Douglas’s son, the little bear (front row).

Do you have to have grown up in the organisational group to be a bear, then?

As I say, people like Ady, who came along a bit later on and got involved and did lots of work, still got the honour of the bear. So, it’s not whether or not you’ve grown up in the organisation, it’s more a mark of respect for the amount of work you put into the festival. You’ve earned your right to be a bear, so to speak.

Just to be clear about the terminology, the person inside the straw bear is called the…

…the bear driver. Although some would say the bear actually drives the driver in a way, because, as I mentioned earlier, the bear is a character in a driver’s head, and that character comes out through the bear. Certain drivers are a bit more cheeky, others are a bit more show-off, and others just say hello and are more welcoming. It all depends on the driver’s personality.

What kind of bear are you?

I like to get involved with the Morris teams, and that’s where some of my cheekiness comes in. I dance Morris as well, so I understand what goes on. I have even danced Morris as the bear, which is very interesting when you haven’t got a lot of vision [laughs].

It’s interesting when the little bears get a little bit bigger and they start to develop a bit of a personality and they’ll start playing. They generally interact with the big bears more than other people, so when they do eventually become the big bear, they’ll have a bit more confidence. There’s a big difference, I would say, between being the little bear and the big bear. With the little bear, you’re performing to a lot of the children, but when you’re the big bear you are the main focus of the entertainment and what the adults want to see. Quite often you’re also involved with everything else we’ve got going on, like the Morris dances, etcetera.

A menapian mummer straw bear from County Fermanagh. Photo credit: John McVitty, The Mummers Foundation

Are there other straw bears that you know of?

There’s one in Northern Ireland with the Wren Boy Procession [there’s also a menapian mummer in County Fermanagh] which has a very similar shape and style of straw as well. But locally, there are only really noted straw bears from Whittlesey and Ramsey, up the road. There was talk of a possible one in March. There are loads on the continent, especially in Germany.

Do they share similarities?

Well, the Whittlesea Straw Bear has a very different design because dad didn’t know how to make a straw bear when he started. There were no written notes and we only had a few little pictures from newspapers in the early 1900s. No one really knew how to make one, so dad kind of made it up. He got a piece of paper, put some scribblings down, and basically what we have is overalls for the legs and then a jacket. There’s a frame that the head sits on, and the head has a metal frame inside it. It keeps the straw away from your face but it adds weight, especially the older frame. We’ve got a nice aluminium one now, but the previous one was steel and that was heavy.

The straw itself is bundled like cricket pads and then sewn onto the overalls and jacket. We put it on like a costume and that gives us a lot more movement; a lot more ability to dance and interact a bit more. A lot of the German bears, which are definitely more traditional, are more restrictive. We’ve got a relationship with a bear in Walldürn, and I’ve been lucky enough to go and see them actually dress their bears. Basically, they use pea straw, which is slightly different, and they get bundles, hold them up to the person, and then wrap a wire around them. They start really early in the morning to get out on time, and it’s basically just men, stood in straw, tied with wire. There’s no easy escape! We have two bear drivers every year, so swapping bear suits in the middle of the day is a lot more feasible.

Trip hazards like curbs catch you out all the time… but you’re quite safe because you’ve got five or six stone of straw to protect you.

Douglas Kell

Can you see much when you’re inside the Whittlesea Straw Bear suit?

You see some, but you don’t see a lot. You can see downwards more. If you think of that late 80s TV programme, Knightmare, where they had kids with helmets on and all they could do was see down, it’s very much like that.

The bear keeper is quite essential then.

Yeah. The keeper is your eyes on the outside to look for that danger. The role of the keeper tends to fall to old, retired bears, because they learnt what to look for and understand the trials that are going on inside the suit a bit better. They’re watching out for simple things like cigarettes. People don’t think about it and they’ll walk up and they’ve got a lit cigarette in their hand – less so nowadays, because people have moved away from smoking and such, but you still have to watch out for it. Trip hazards like curbs catch you out all the time, especially when they’re just a little bit deeper than you were expecting.

You must spend a fair amount of time on your back, then?

Thankfully not [laughs]. I’ve been lucky and I can’t think of a time I’ve been injured in the bear. I have spent time lying down in the back of a van to get between venues occasionally, which is quite interesting because you have no real control over where you’re slipping and sliding around, but you’re quite safe because you’ve got five or six stone of straw to protect you.

What happens to the bear afterwards? Is there a ritualistic sacrifice?

It does get burnt, yes. We haven’t got a public event for that this year, but we are still going to burn him privately. The venue we had always got very busy, so we’re now trying to look for somewhere a bit bigger. We’re trialling something privately this year and then seeing if that can be adapted going forward. But, yeah, that’s on the Sunday. We normally aim for about 2pm.

There’s a lot of tradition which has come from “Burning the Bear”, and who knows where that started back in the day, but it was basically to get rid of the straw [laughs]. You have to get rid of it somehow. Back in the day, the burning was a lot smaller. Basically, they just went to one of the members’ back gardens and put him on the bonfire.

The Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival is presumably something you’ve bolted on over the last 40 years?

Yes, it started very small, as I say, with a bear and a band going around. A few Morris sides joined in and then, as we got more and more sides, there were too many for that single procession. So we ended up having half the sides dance at one spot, then half the sides dance at the next spot, and then that became difficult so we split the teams up and had a bear go between the two. And then it just got bigger and bigger until it grew into roughly what it is now.

We base it in the centre of town. We close the roads to make sure we’ve got room for the thousands who turn up, and we’ve got designated spots all day where the teams rotate. We still go to the pubs, although there are less of those these days because of attrition and the fact that turning pubs into flats is much more profitable. So we make sure we try to support the remaining pubs. Our new home is the New Crown, and we reach as far as The Falcon, which is the other end of town. We spread out as the day goes on to adopt some of the other pubs. The days are long gone since we walked about eight kilometres around the town before getting to the marketplace at the end of the day. That was a long time to be in the bear suit. Plenty of making sure he’s leant up against a wall when he can [laughs]. So again, it’s back to that evolution. The festival has evolved into what it is today.

For more information on the Whittlesea Straw Bear and the Straw Bear Festival, head to strawbear.org.uk.