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Whittlesey, historically known as Whittlesea as the name of the railway station is still spelt, or Witesie, is an ancient Fenland market town around six miles (10 km) east of Peterborough in the county of Cambridgeshire in England. With the neighbouring parishes of Coates, Eastrea and Pondersbridge, it has an approximate population of 15,000.

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 Causeway 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 (historically the Great Eastern Line), with direct trains to Cambridge, Birmingham, Liverpool, Leicester, Stansted Airport and others.

Whittlesey appears in the Cartularium Saxonicum (973 A.D.) as Witlesig, in the Domesday Book as Witesie, and in the Inquisitio Eliensis (1086 A.D.) as Wittleseia. 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 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 artefacts have been recovered at nearby Eldernell.In 2010, in the nearby village of Eastrea, a Roman skeleton was discovered. Named ‘Maximus’ by villagers, the 2000 year old skeleton was unearthed during an archaeological dig on the proposed site of the new Eastrea village hall.

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.

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 (built on the site of Whittlesey Workhouse), and three primary schools. There is also another primary school in the neighbouring village of Coates.

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. A traditional country auction is now held regularly under the Buttercross too. Below are the most notable buildings located on the Market Square:

Situated in the centre of the Market Place, and dating back to 1680, the buttercross 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.

Located near to the George Hotel, the original part of this house dates back to Tudor times, and was part of St. Mary’s Church monks’ kitchen. Dr. Waddelow, who is often incorrectly believed to have lived at No. 11, extended the house in 1900. A sundial, made from the top of the church spire, and which was taken down in the early 20th Century, is located in the garden.

The Grade II listed George Hotel (previously the George and Star), currently owned by national chain Wetherspoons, is the only remaining pub on the Market Square, one of several that are believed to have formerly existed there. The building, which dates back to the late 1700s, used to extend further eastward; a meat shop and archway for horses and carts used to stand there, but were demolished to make way for Station Road. The pub was Grade II Listed in 1974. After being closed since 2004, (and subsequently being boarded up) the building was bought by a Bristol-based company and heavily refurbished in 2006.

Following change of ownership to Wetherspoons in 2007, the building was boarded up, subsequently remaining in a poor state of repair for three years. Until April 2010, no work was done to the building, despite the company’s ambitious plans, which were approved by Fenland District Council in 2008. Work (to cost an estimated £2million) was due to start in September the same year. Plans included total restoration of the pub, a beer garden, an extension and a name change, reverting back to the original ‘George and Star’.

On 26 June 2009, at around 7pm, arsonists targeted the building, starting several small fires in the bar and lounge area. Thanks to the fire brigade’s quick work, damage was limited to the ground floor, with the exterior showing no signs of fire damage.

After being closed for around three years, renovation work finally commenced on 26 April 2010, and the pub reopened on 23 July 2010. By building a large extension to the rear of the property, builders increased the size of the old bar area by around 25%.

Number 11, historically called Mansion House but locally referred to as the Old Post Office, has records dating back to 1749. It is a large, Georgian, three-storeyed building, with a large courtyard and a number of outbuildings. The building has been Grade II* listed since July 1970. Before becoming the Post Office in 1913, the building had had many owners, including the Reverend Robert Addison, who moved to Canada after selling the house. Major extensions and renovations were carried out in 1933. The Post Office business moved to High Causeway in 1998 and the building has been vacant since. It was boarded up in around 2005. As of 2010, the buildings and courtyard were in a bad state of repair. The property is currently owned by Cambridge-based company The Whitfield Group. In 2006 they submitted a planning application which included partial demolition of an extension at the rear of the existing structure (a 1980 addition, of little historical importance), and the erection of seven new dwellings in the old courtyard. These new houses were designed to match old outbuildings, which used to stand on the site until their demolition in the 1980s. The committee requested that the original derelict house be renovated before work begins on the new houses. However, following concerns that these proposals were ‘overdevelopment of the site’, the owners submitted a revised, more sympathetic application in February 2009. These plans were approved by Fenland District Council. Following years of dereliction, restoration of the building finally began in September 2010. The development of the courtyard began in early 2011.

No. 12 Market Place, (Grade II Listed since 1950) is situated in the south-west corner of the Market Place. Whilst the front appears to be Georgian, much of the building was re-modelled in around 1910. In January 2010, a planning application was submitted to turn the building, formerly used as offices, into a restaurant. In March permission was granted with the hope that it would help to regenerate one of Whittlesey’s main Conservation Areas. Hub’s Restaurant and Wine Bar opened several months later.

Situated on the western side of Market Square, no. 13 is currently used as an Indian restaurant, called Sonargaon Tandoori. It is thought that there were once at least six pubs situated on the Market Place, and it is likely that No. 13 housed one of them. Prior to becoming a restaurant in 1996, it was used as offices. It became Grade II listed on 25 July 1974.

In July 2009, a new housing development, to be situated between Whittlesey and the nearby village of Eastrea, was proposed. As well as approximately 500 homes, the plans included a nursing home and other amentities. Developers held a meeting at which local residents expressed concerns about the development’s possible adverse impact on Whittlesey’s infrastructure. Despite this, in April 2011, Fenland District Council granted outline planning permission for the site. The updated plans involved around 460 houses, a 70-bed care home, a local centre and public open space, as well as necessary amendments to the adjacent A605. The council received eight letters of objection from angry residents concerned about the traffic the estate would bring. After the plans were approved, local counciller Martin Curtis also expressed this view, saying that he felt that “the traffic situation had not been taken into account.” Planning director Richard Edwards defended the decision by saying, “It will bring new homes which are needed in the area.”

Also in April 2011, supermarket giant Tesco submitted plans to build a new store, around a year after their plans to build one in the centre of the town were rejected. The new plans, like the housing development, involved land off Eastrea Road. If allowed, planners said that it would create up to 200 jobs.

In July of the same year, plans were unveiled to build a retail park, Sainsbury’s supermarket and 54 acre country park in Whittlesey, adjacent to the prospective Tesco site and across the road from the area earmarked for new housing. A pub and restaurant chain expressed interest in opening at the site too. The company behind the plans, Whiteacre Management, hoped that the complex would bring around 300 jobs. Mayor Derek Stebbing liked the idea of the park – which would border Whittlesey’s existing nature reserves – but felt two supermarkets were not needed.  The decision between the two was deferred in May 2012, and it was not until the 29th of August that councillors opted for Sainsbury’s plans and refused Tesco’s.

In May 2009, Cllr Derek Stebbing became mayor of the town, after Cllr Steve Garratt stepped down. Garratt was the leader of a project earlier in the year in which Whittlesey raised £10,000 for bushfire victims in Whittlesea, Melbourne.

The ‘Whittlesey Summer Festival’, held in September, takes over much of the town centre. Attractions in recent years included a selection of classic cars, a large 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 with the festival, with entries displayed throughout the day in the Whittlesey Christian Church.

Since June 2009, Whittlesey has had its own community magazine, entitled Whittlesey Life. Whittlesey is twinned with Stadt Nettetal, Germany.

Whittlesey has a long history of public houses; folk lore dictates that, at one time, the town had 52 – one for each week of the year. In 1797, a local farmer, when writing his diary, noted that ‘they like drinking better than fighting in Whittlesea’.

However, the large number of pubs slowly declined throughout the 1900s, having peaked in the earlier years of the century. As part of a national trend, several more pubs closed over the early 2000s, facing either conversion into housing or dereliction. On the other hand, certain establishments have flourished recently, namely the George Hotel, which was bought and renovated by national chain Wetherspoons.

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. (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 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 (just as, in Germany, the Shrovetide bear costumes are also ceremonially burned after use).

The Whittlesea Straw Bear and Keeper are featured on the album art of The Young Knives album, Voices of Animals and Men.

Note: this page is partly based on a Wikipedia page. Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License; additional terms may apply. Where possible, text is being updated to original, fully referenced research. ‘Our photos’ means we took the photographs. The Street View and street map visuals are courtesy of Google.

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