It’s that time of year again – the Whittlesey Straw Bear Festival. This is a great festival to really kick-start the year – lots of dancing, lots of music, and lots of following a Straw Bear around from pub to pub drinking good beer. I won’t talk about what the festival is all about as I have done this before on previous posts, but click here and here if you want to know more.
We took the train to Whittlesey from Cambridge – we decided this was the best mode of transport as last year we saw that every pub in the town was holding a mini beer festival. We changed at Ely; the journey only took just over 40 minutes. On Ely platform it was pretty obvious that most people were festival-bound – many passengers were carrying musical instruments, and some were Morris dancers with bells and bright clothes hidden under their thick overcoats. It was bitterly cold; one poor chap could barely drink his coffee as he was shivering so much. The fields were white with frost, the mist was rising from the rivers and streams and dykes, and at one point we had a white-out. Mist was all around us in the heart of Fenland.
As soon as we arrived in Whittlesey we headed with the crowds up Station Road and made for The George in a prominent position on Market Place for a big warming breakfast. This lovely old Wetherspoons pub was heaving at 9.45 am and we were lucky to find a seat. On at the bar was Grainstore Cooking, a great beer brewed in the town of Oakham (not brewed by Oakham) which I have enjoyed a couple of times in the Grainstore brewery tap. There was also the lovely Oakham Straw Bear on draft. I decided to opt for a warming cup of tea at this point, but others had already started on the beer.
We made it out for 10.30 to watch the parade which was bright and colourful with its 250 dancers and musicians. We watched a bit of dancing, and then headed indoors to thaw out. We chose Hub’s Place on the Market Square as I remember there being a beer festival in the courtyard garden last year. I wasn’t wrong; there was a cute outdoor bar set up selling Oakham Straw Bear, Oakham Inferno, Elgood’s Straw Beer, Everards Tiger, Woodfordes Wherry, Woodfordes Nelson’s Revenge, and Black Sheep Ale. I chose a Straw Bear at 4.4%, and sat inside by the fire, joined soon after by lots of Morris and Molly dancers with their painted faces. Straw Bear is a lovely straw-coloured peachy tasting beer, very refreshing, but not an awful lot of conditioning in this one which was a pity. It was pleasant enough though.
We moved around the corner, checking out the Falcon and its beer festival in the yard where they were also selling Elgood’s Straw Beer amongst others, and moved onto the Letter B. It’s quite unassuming from the outside, and it was only when we were inside that I realised it was Peterborough’s CAMRA pub of the year 2012. And what a fantastic little pub it was too; a traditional proper pub, and heaving with Morris and Molly dancers. On the bar was Oakham Straw Bear, Elgood’s Straw Beer and Tydd Steam Beartown. I bought a wonderful hoppy and sweet Beartown. I then realised that they had more beers out the back in the Grufton bar. (I found this out when I heard a man ask the barmaid: ‘Do you have any proper beer-coloured beer, rather than this pale stuff?’ and she directed him there).
I spotted that Oakham had brewed two special beers for this pub, and on asking the barman about them he told me they were brewed for the landlady and the landlord for winning the Pub of the Year award. The landlady’s beer, the Special, had already gone, so I had the landlord’s beer – It Has to ‘B’ Bruce’s Beer, with a picture of Bruce on the pump clip. It was chestnut coloured, maltier than a normal Oakham, but still with that Oakham sherbet hop flavour – the hops became more apparent and the malt less so the more I drank. It was good to meet up with Alcofrolic Chap here who was also enjoying the beers on offer in the many great pubs in this small market town.
Next up was The Hero of Aliwal, round the corner and by the river, where we stood and watched some Morris dancers performing outside, followed by the solemn and black-faced Old Glory Molly who took a girl from the crowd and performed what she found out later to be a fertility dance. Her friends were aware of this and were laughing all the way through. We went inside this pub that felt like more of a clubhouse and found an indoor beer festival. There were several Greene King casks, but they also had on Oakham Preacher which was a new beer and a nice find. It was 4.3%, relatively dark and full flavoured with sweet hop notes and a touch of fruit. We then decided to cross the road to the Boat.
Inside the crowded Boat there were several Elgood’s beers on tap. We moved to the courtyard outside to the mini beer festival where it was freezing cold (Alcofrolic Chap said it’s always cold here as it’s close to the water, and he was right!) and saw that there were 3 more Elgood’s barrels: Straw Beer, Black Dog and Cambridge Bitter. I hadn’t had a Straw Beer yet so opted for this, which was light and honey-flavoured, and very tasty. And freezing cold. We were about to leave when we spotted the Straw Bear himself entering the pub with his minder and followers. He had a bit of a dance, then set off for the Hero of Aliwal where we followed him. His minder patched him up where his straw was coming loose, I posed for a photo with him (you have to, don’t you) then we followed the parade of bears, dancers and musicians around the little back streets, where he ended up in the Falcon.
We walked to the heaving New Crown Inn and then to the Black Bull on the High Street, but couldn’t even get in the door.
We then went to the Bricklayer’s Arms, down Station Road, a small, crowded and very lovely traditional pub. There were lots of Morris dancers in there, and some musicians were playing in the corner which added to the atmosphere. There was a bar with about 6 barrels set up in the corner, including Bombardier, Tydd Steam Dr Fox’s Cunning Linctus, Marston’s Pedigree, and Tydd Steam Barn Owl – I went for the latter as I fancied finishing with another straw coloured ale (it’s Straw Bear Day after all). Very sweet, hoppy and refreshing. Old Glory Molly walked in, with their entourage of female musicians wearing hats of ivy and long black coats, and they proceeded to dance in the tiniest of spaces with their jerky, forceful movements – I had to squeeze past them, trying not to be elbowed as we left for our train.
All in all, it was another great Straw Bear and I look forward to the next one. And with all the good pubs in Whittlesey and the many beer festivals, the train is definitely the way to do it.