Whittlesea Straw Bear went Online in 2021

Because of Covid-19 restrictions, the Straw Bear Festival had to take place online in January this year. If, like me, you are missing festivals, you can find most of the videos here www.strawbear.org.uk

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is the-two-bears-grandfather-and-grandson-paul-cornell-and-noah-randall_photo-by-megan-randall-1.jpg
The two Bears – grandfather and grandson – Paul Cornell and Noah Randal. (Photo by Megan Randall)

But how do you run a festival that is based around a central figure dressed in five stone of straw, that usually depends upon crowding several thousand people into a small Fenland town? That was the dilemma facing the Straw Bear organisers as it became clear that live events were not going to be possible in January. Over the summer, they began an 8-month planning process that became Straw Bear Online.

Very early on, they agreed that they would try to run their virtual festival in a way that followed the format of the live event as closely as possible, and that they 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 and Christine Kell and Ady Bull, using Brian’s garage as a workshop. Paul Cornell had already offered to be the “isolation Bear”, and a lot of planning was put into a route, risk assessment and whether a small number of the Straw Bearers could 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 and film some poignant footage that had several of their YouTube viewers in tears as it formed the finale of the “Processions through the ages” video.

Paul Cornell was the Isolation Bear (Photo by Ady Bull)

They 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.”

The Bear makes its way down Gracious Street. (Photo by Christine Kell)

They were also able to bring people together in real time with a selection of Zoom events to choose from. 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 was a huge amount of hard work, alongside their everyday responsibilities of work and home schooling. Rebecca Kell is worthy of particular mention, as she built an entirely new website from scratch and did almost all of the video editing.

It was a trip down memory lane for many, and there were lots of fond reminiscences in the YouTube chat as they recalled past visits and spotted friends now departed in the archive footage. The organisers were delighted to have 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 they could put on while staying at home – and it was definitely the warmest Straw Bear ever!

And we are all very much looking forward to the time – whenever that may be – that the Straw Bear can once again dance through the streets of Whittlesea.

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