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Butter Cross, Whittlesey - geograph.org.uk - 1554357.jpg
The Buttercross, Whittlesey
Grid reference: TL271967
Location: 52°33’24"N, 0°7’51"W
Population: 15,581
Post town: Peterborough
Postcode: PE7
Dialling code: 01733
Local Government
Council: Fenland

Whittlesey is an ancient fenland market town in Cambridgeshire. It is some six miles east of Peterborough, Northamptonshire and lies close to the county boundary with Huntingdonshire.

The town has historically also been spelled Whittlesea - the name of the railway station is still spelt this way.


The village's name is usually written 'Whittlesey' these days, more etymologically fitting, though the spelling 'Whittlesea' appears on occasion, in particular as the name of the village's railway station, Whittlesea Station.

Whittlesey appears in a charter of the tenth century as Witlesig, and in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Witesie The Inquisitio Eliensis[1] lists it in a rather obverly Latinised form as Wittleseia.

The name is Old English, perhaps from Witles ieg, which means "Witel’s island", after an otherwise unknow man named "Witel" or "Witta".[2]

Placenames ending in '-ey' and '-ea' are commonplace in the fenland; they are the Old English ieg (island or dry land in the fen) and ea, meaning "river".

Place in the fens

Turningtree Bridge

Whittlesey stands between the City of Peterborough and the town of March. It is bordered to the north by the River Nene and to the south by Whittlesey Dyke. Anciently it was connected to Peterborough and March by the Roman road know known as the Fen Causeway, constructed in the first century AD on a route which today is approximately followed by the modern A605.

Whittlsea Station is on the Ely to Peterborough Line (historically the Great Eastern Line), with direct trains to Cambridge, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leicester, Stansted Airport and elsewhere.

The fens around the town are prominently defaced by three 260-foot high wind turbines, which are the largest on-shore turbines in East Anglia. They power the McCains chips plant, reducing their electricity bills by 60%.[3]

King's Dike

King's Dike is drainage channel in the Cambridgeshire fenland and a hamlet sitting beside it, to the west of Whittlesey.

The dike runs between the remnant old course of the River Nene at Stanground in the west and Whittlesey, whence its course continues as the Whiittlesey Dike.

The hamlet is just north of the dike from which it receives it s name, standing in the gap between Whittlesey and Peterborough's southern, Huntingdonshire suburbs. The railway line runs through, but without a station at King's Dike. There is a brickworks here. The River Nene itself is to the north.

St Mary's spire


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.[4]

St Andrew's is a mixture of perpendicular and decorated styles and has records back to 1635.[5]

The Market Place

The Market Place, located in the centre of Whittlesey, is still the site of the town's market. Held every Friday, (as it has been for many years) the market is no longer of great importance to the town.[6] The Market Place is also used as the main bus stop (except on Fridays, when it is located down Queen Street).

The Buttercross

Situated in the centre of the Market Place, and dating back to 1680, this was originally a place for people to sell goods at market. In the 1800s, it was considered useless, and orders were given for the building to be demolished. It was only saved when a local businessman donated some slate tiles for the roof. Today, it serves as a bus shelter, and is the town's most famous landmark.


Summer festival

The Whittlesey Summer Festival (which, despite the name, is held on a Sunday in mid-September) takes over much of the town centre. Attractions in 2009 included a selection of classic cars, a large Italian Food stall, fairground rides, a steam engine, and a flying display by a Hawker Hurricane of the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.[7]

Whittlesea Straw Bear

The Whittlesea Straw Bear 2008

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.[8] (Similar ritual animals have been known in other parts of Europe, and still appear in parts of Germany at Shrovetide.[2] [3][4])

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.[9]

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.[9]

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, molly dancers, rapper and longsword dancers, clog dancers and others, who perform at various points along the route.[9]

Traditional music sessions take place in many of the pubs during the day and evening, and a barn dance rounds off the Saturday night.[10] The bear "costume" is burned at a ceremony on Sunday lunchtime[11] (just as, in Germany, the Shrovetide bear costumes are also ceremonially burned after use).[5])

Whittlesey Mere

Until it was drained in 1851, nearby Whittlesey Mere to the south of Whittlesey was the largest lake in southern England. It formed part of the boundary between Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire, and is first mentioned in writing in a seventh century charter; long before the town of Whittlesey appears.

The Mere provided Whittlesey with access to the network of lodes crossing the fenland. 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. Whittlesey Mere's name remains as that of an area of Huntingdonshire farmland which was once beneath the waters of the mere.

Outside links


  1. Inquisition Eliensis, abbreviated "IE": a "satellite" section of the Domesday Book, listing the lands belonging to the abbey of Ely [1]
  2. Ekwall, Eilert (1960). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-Names (4th ed.). Oxford University Press. 
  3. "McCain introduces winds of change to UK's largest chip factory" (press-release). Mccain.co.uk. 14 August 2007. http://www.mccain.co.uk/info/press-releases/wind-turbines.aspx. Retrieved 6 September 2010. 
  4. Whittlesey St Mary - Cambridgeshire Churches
  5. Whittlesey St Andrew's - Cambridgeshire Churches
  6. Whittleseyweb
  7. Peterborough Today website: Families flock to Whittlesey Summer Festival
  8. Hole, Christina, A Dictionary of British Folk Customs, p286. Paladin (1978) ISBN 0 586 08293 X
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 Straw Bear Festival website
  10. Straw Bear Festival website – Festival 2009
  11. Straw Bear Festival website – Burning