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|Population||16,058 (2011 Census)|
|OS grid reference|
|Sovereign state||United Kingdom|
|Ambulance||East of England|
Whittlesey is an English town 6 miles (10 km) east of Peterborough in the Fenland district of Cambridgeshire. Its population of 16,058 at the 2011 Census includes the neighbouring villages of Coates, Eastrea, Pondersbridge and Turves.
History and architecture
Whittlesey appears in the Cartularium Saxonicum (AD 973) as 'Witlesig', in the 1086 Domesday Book as 'Witesie', and in the Inquisitio Eliensis. The meaning is "Wit(t)el's island", deriving from either Witil, "the name of a moneyer", or a diminutive of Witta, a personal name; + "eg", meaning "'island', also used of a piece of firm land in a fen."
Before the fens were drained, Whittlesey was an island of dry ground surrounded by them. Excavations of nearby Flag Fen indicate thriving local settlements as far back as 1000 BC. At Must Farm quarry, a Bronze Age settlement is described as "Britain's Pompeii" due to its relatively good condition. In 2016 it was being excavated by the University of Cambridge's Cambridge Archaeological Unit. At Must Farm at least five homes of 3,000 years in age have been found, along with Britain's most complete prehistoric wooden wheel, dating back to the late Bronze Age.
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. Roman artefacts have been recovered at nearby Eldernell, and a Roman skeleton was discovered in the nearby village of Eastrea during construction of its village hall in 2010.
The town's two parishes of St Mary's and St Andrew's belonged to the abbeys in Thorney and Ely respectively until the Dissolution of the Monasteries about 1540. The two 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.
Until it was drained in 1851, nearby Whittlesey Mere was a substantial lake surrounded by marsh. According to the traveller Celia Fiennes, who saw it in 1697, the mere was "3-mile broad and six-mile long. In the midst is a little island where a great store of Wildfowle breed.... The ground is all wett and marshy but there are severall little Channells runs into it which by boats people go up to this place; when you enter the mouth of the Mer it looks formidable and its often very dangerous by reason of sudden winds that will rise like Hurricanes...." The town is still accessible by water, being connected to the River Nene by King's Dyke, which forms part of the Nene/Ouse Navigation. Moorings can be found at Ashline Lock, alongside the Manor Leisure Centre's cricket and football pitches.
Whittlesey was significant for its brickyards, around which the former hamlet of King's Dyke was based for much of the 20th century, although only one now remains, following the closure of the Saxon brickworks in 2011.
The local clay soil was also used to make cob boundary walls during a period in which there was a brick tax. Some examples of these roofed walls still stand today and are claimed to be unique in Fenland. Clay walls predate the introduction of brick tax in other parts of the country, and some were thatched.
Whittlesey was an important trade route in the late Bronze Age (about 1100–800 BC). Evidence for this was found at the archaeological site of Must Farm, where log boats, roundhouses, bowls with food in them, and the most complete wooden wheel were housed.
St Mary's Church contains 15th-century work, but the majority of the building is later. It has one of the largest buttressed spires in Cambridgeshire. It also contains a chapel which was restored in 1862 as a memorial to Sir Harry Smith.
St Andrew's Church is a mixture of the Perpendicular and Decorated styles of Gothic, and has records dating back to 1635.
The Market Place
The town market is held in the Market Place every Friday. The right to hold a weekly market was first granted in 1715, although there have been several periods since in which the market did not function, for example from the late 1700s until about 1850.
In the centre of the Market Place is the Buttercross, dating back to 1680. Originally a place for people to sell goods, the structure was considered useless in the 1800s and only saved from demolition when a local businessman donated some slate tiles for the roof. Latterly it served as a bus shelter, until the bus services were relocated from the Market Place to a purpose-built terminal in Grosvenor Road.
Whittlesey is between Peterborough, 6 miles (10 km) to the west, and March, 11 miles (18 km) to the east, and 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 Fen Causeway constructed in the first century AD, a route approximately followed by the modern A605.
Whittlesea railway station, using the town name's older spelling, is on the Ely to Peterborough Line, with direct trains to Cambridge, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leicester, Stansted Airport, Ely, Ipswich and Peterborough.
Culture and community
The Whittlesey Summer Festival, held annually in September, takes over much of the town centre. Attractions in recent years have included a classic car display, an Italian food stall, fairground rides, a steam engine, and in 2009, a flying display by a Hawker Hurricane of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight. An art competition for students of Sir Harry Smith Community College also runs during the festival, with entries displayed throughout the day at the Whittlesey Christian Church. At the 2009 festival people of Whittlesey raised £10,000 for bushfire victims in Whittlesea, Melbourne.
From 2011 to 2015 there was a planning battle between the rival supermarket chains Tesco and Sainsbury's, which competed to build on neighbouring sites in Eastrea Road. Dubbed "Supermarket Gate" by the local press, the dispute was eventually resolved when Sainsbury's won approval in June 2015 for its scheme for a supermarket, a business park and a country park. Plans for over 400 houses on an adjacent site, construction of which began in late 2014, generated controversy when approved, because of concerns about additional traffic being generated on the A605.
Whittlesea Straw Bear
The festival of the Straw Bear or "Strawbower" is an old custom known only to a small area of Fenland on the borders of Huntingdonshire and Cambridgeshire, including Ramsey Mereside. Similar ritual animals have been known in other parts of Europe, and still appear in parts of Germany at Shrovetide.)
On Plough Tuesday, the day after the first Monday after Twelfth Night, a man or a boy would be 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 making the bear.
The custom died out in about 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 on Plough Tuesday but on the second weekend in January. On the Saturday of the festival, the Bear progresses around the streets with its attendant "keeper" and musicians, followed by traditional dance sides (mostly visitors), including morris men and women, molly dancers, rappers and longsword dancers, clog dancers, who perform at 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 that had partly inspired the Whittlesey revival.
"Sessions" of traditional music take place in public houses during the day and evening, and a barn dance or ceilidh, and a Cajun dance end the Saturday night. The bear "costume" is burned at a ceremony at Sunday lunchtime. The Shrovetide bear costumes are also burned ceremonially after use in Germany.)
The town has a secondary school, Sir Harry Smith Community College, which opened in 1953 on the site of Whittlesey Workhouse, and three primary schools. There is another primary school in the neighbouring village of Coates.
- Sir Harry George Waklyn Smith (1788–1860), best known for his role in the Battle of Aliwal (India), was born in Whittlesey. His military career raised him from a rifleman to a major general and Baronet of Aliwal. He was governor of the Cape of Good Hope during unrest in 1847–1852.
- L. P. Hartley CBE (1895–1972), novelist, was born in Whittlesey. His best known novels are the Eustace and Hilda trilogy and The Go-Between.
- David Proud (born 1983), a writer and the first disabled actor to have a regular role in the BBC soap opera EastEnders, lived in Whittlesey and attended Sir Harry Smith Community College.
- Must Farm Bronze Age settlement
- John Clare's poem "The Shepherds Calendar", mentions Whittlesea in the verse for January.
- List of places in Cambridgeshire
- Straw bear (German traditional character)
- Sir Harry Smith Community College
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- New housing
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- Straw Bear Festival website Archived 15 May 2009 at the Wayback Machine
- "Straw Bear Festival website – Procession". Strawbear.org.uk. Archived from the original on 26 December 2008. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
- Straw Bear Festival website – Festival 2009 Archived 28 August 2008 at the Wayback Machine
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- "Never Go Down Fighting – Young Knives' 'Voices of Animals and Men' Turns 10". louderthanwar.com. Retrieved 10 October 2019.
- Higginbotham, Peter. "The Workhouse in Whittlesey, Cambridge". workhouses.org.uk. Retrieved 6 September 2010.
- Cambs Times: Whittlesey Athletic unveil new floodlights in Cambridgeshire cup tie |March and Chatteris News |Cambs Times, accessdate 4 February 2020.
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