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Whittlesea Straw Bear Online
The Bear makes its way down Gracious Street - photo by Christine Kell

How Successful was the 2021 Online Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival?

At a time when all live events are adapting to go ahead, the organisers of the annual Fenland festival have delivered Whittlesea Straw Bear Online 2021.

They met the challenge of how to run a festival based around a central figure dressed in five stone of straw that usually results in a crowd of several thousand people in a small town, after an eight-month planning process.

Planning the Straw Bear Online 2021

The organisers agreed on two things very early on: we would try to run our virtual festival in a way that followed the format of the live event as closely as we could, and that we would put a Bear on the streets of Whittlesey in some form.

The making of the Bear was one of the first things to be finished, mainly by Brian Kell and Ady Bull, using Brian’s garage as a workshop. Paul Cornell had already offered to be the ‘Isolation Bear’. The organisers put a lot of planning into a route, risk assessment and whether a small number of the Straw Bearers would be able serve as a distanced audience along the way. However, as December came around, and with Tier 4 and lockdown looming, three generations of the Cornell/Randall family pulled out all the stops to take out the Bear on Christmas Eve. They filmed some poignant footage that had YouTube viewers in tears as it formed the finale of the ‘Processions through the ages’ video.

We were also keen to include some exclusive content that people coming to visit for the weekend might not ordinarily see. ‘How to build a Bear’ and interviews with some of the many people who have driven the Bear over the years were well received, without taking away the mystery of the festival’s central figure. As Brian said: “The driver is not the beast. All the driver does is give the Bear mobility. It’s an entity all of its own.”

Whittlesea Straw Bear Online
The two Bears – Grandfather and Grandson Paul Cornell and Noah Randall – photo by Megan Randall

Putting on the Straw Bear Online 2021

We were also able to bring people together in real time with a selection of Zoom events. Over 400 people enjoyed two live music sessions led by members of White Rose Morris and the Straw Bearers, who are often found in the Letter B until the small hours of Sunday morning, an at-home ceilidh with top musicians Doug Eunson and Sarah Matthews, with caller Martyn Harvey, and a talk on ‘40 years of straw and string’.

Putting on Straw Bear Online 2021 was a huge amount of hard work, alongside our everyday responsibilities of work and home schooling. I should particularly mention Rebecca Kell at this point, who built an entirely new website from scratch and did almost all of the video editing.

Whittlesea Straw Bear Online
Paul Cornell was the Isolation Bear – photo by Ady Bull

Straw Bear Online 2021 Review

It was a trip down memory lane for many. There was lots of reminiscing in the YouTube chat as they recalled past visits and spotted friends now departed in the archive footage. It re-affirmed that Straw Bear means so much to so many people. It wasn’t quite like being there in person, but it was the most festival-like experience we could put on while staying at home. And it was definitely the warmest Straw Bear ever! We are all very much looking forward to the time when the Straw Bear can once again dance through the streets of Whittlesea.

Whittlesea Straw Bear Online 2021 took place on 15-17 January 2021. Most of the videos are still online, and can be accessed via www.strawbear.org.uk

Read about the history of The Straw Bear

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