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Whittlesey's best kept secret

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Whittlesey is located between the city of Peterborough, 6 miles (10†km) to the west and the town of March, 11 miles (18†km) to the east, and is bordered to the north by the River Nene and to the south by Whittlesey Dyke.† Historically it was connected to Peterborough and March by the Roman road Fen CausewayPeterborough and Ely (historically the Great Eastern Line), with direct trains to Cambridge, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leicester, Stansted Airport and others. constructed in the first century AD, a route approximately followed by the modern A605. The rail station is on the line between Peterborough and Ely.

Whittlesey sign Whittlesey locks

At the last Census taken in 2001 the town's population stood at 15,581.

Whittlesey appears in the Domesday Book as Witesie, but it is probable that the name derives from Whittle's Ea, where Ea is a Saxon term for an island. Indeed the land was once owned and presided over by a man named 'Whittle', so the name literally translates as 'Whittle's Islandí.

Before the draining of the fens, Whittlesey was an island of dry ground surrounded by the marshy fens. Excavations of nearby Flag Fen indicate thriving local settlements as far back as 1000 BC. In more recent times Whittlesey was linked to Peterborough in the west and March in the east by the Roman Fen Causeway, probably built in the 1st century AD, and Roman artifacts have been recovered at nearby Eldernell.

At one time Whittlesey is thought to have had its own abbey, but subsequently the town's two parishes of St Mary's and St Andrew's were controlled by the abbeys in Thorney and Ely respectively until the Dissolution of the Monasteries (c.1540). St Mary's church dates back to the fifteenth century, but the majority of the building is later, and the church now boasts one of the largest buttressed spires in Cambridgeshire. St Andrew's is a mixture of perpendicular and decorated styles and has records back to 1635. The parishes were combined for administrative purposes by the Whittlesey Improvement Act of 1849. Despite the proximity of Peterborough, Whittlesey is in the Diocese of Ely.

St Andrews Church Catholic church

Until its draining in 1851, nearby Whittlesey Mere was the largest lake in southern England, and the town is still accessible by water, connected to the river Nene by King's Dyke which forms part of the Nene Ouse Navigation link. Moorings can be found at Ashline Lock alongside the Manor Leisure Centre's cricket and football pitches.

Other notable historic features include the market cross, known as the buttercross, dating back to 1680, the old town hall (once also serving as the fire station, and now the town museum) of 1857 and a number of thatched mud walls.

The town is also notable for its three 80-metre high wind turbines, which are the largest on-shore turbines in England. They power the McCains chips plant, reducing their electricity bills by 60%.

The town has one secondary school, Sir Harry Smith Community College, and three primary schools. There is also another primary school in the neighbouring village of Coates. Whittlesey Workhouse once stood where the College now is; built in the 1875, it was a large building with an impressive tower, which earned the building its nickname, 'The Spike'. (Prior to 1875 the Workhouse had been located on Broad Street) Coates school used the building in 1937, while their own was under repair, and the property was demolished in 1938. The secondary school was built in 1952, as well as a new housing estate nearby.

Whittlesey Straw Bear

Straw bear Straw bear

The festival of the Straw Bear or "Strawbower" is an old custom known only from a small area of Fenland on the borders of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, including Ramsey Mereside.

On Plough Tuesday, the day after Plough Monday (the first Monday after Twelfth Night), a man or boy was covered from head to foot in straw and led from house to house where he would dance in exchange for gifts of money, food or beer. The festival was of a stature that farmers would often reserve their best straw for the making of the bear.

The custom died out early in the 20th century, c.1909 (probably because the local police regarded it as begging), but it was resurrected by the Whittlesea Society in 1980.

The festival has now expanded to cover the whole weekend when the Bear appears (not Plough Tuesday nowadays, but the second weekend in January instead). On the Saturday of the festival, the Bear processes around the streets with its attendant "keeper" and musicians, followed by numerous traditional dance sides (mostly visitors), including morris men and women, molly dancers, rapper and longsword dancers, clog dancers and others, who perform at various points along the route.

The Bear dances to a tune (reminiscent of the hymn Jesus Bids us Shine) which featured on Rattlebone and Ploughjack, a 1976 LP by Ashley Hutchings, along with a spoken description of the original custom (which partly inspired the Whittlesey revival).

'Sessions' of traditional music take place in many of the public houses during the day and evening, and a barn dance or ceilidh and a Cajun dance round off the Saturday night. The bear "costume" is burned at a ceremony on Sunday lunchtime.

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