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Whittlesey (Whittlesea)
Butter Cross, Whittlesey - - 1554357.jpg
Market square
Whittlesey (Whittlesea) is located in Cambridgeshire
Whittlesey (Whittlesea)
Whittlesey (Whittlesea)
Population 16,058 (2011 Census)
OS grid reference TL271967
Civil parish
  • Whittlesey
  • Fenland
Shire county
Country England
Sovereign state United Kingdom
Postcode district PE7
Dialling code 01733
Police Cambridgeshire
Fire Cambridgeshire
Ambulance East of England
EU Parliament East of England
List of places
52°33′29″N 0°07′48″W / 52.558°N 0.130°W / 52.558; -0.130

Whittlesey (also Whittlesea) is a market town and civil parish in the Fenland district of Cambridgeshire, England. Whittlesey is 6 miles (10 km) east of Peterborough. The population of the parish was 16,058 at the 2011 Census.


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

History and architecture

St. Marys spire
The spire of St. Mary's church viewed from the west

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. At Must Farm quarry, a Bronze Age settlement is described as 'Britain's Pompeii' due to its relatively good condition. As of 2016, it is 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.

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. 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 were controlled by the abbeys in Thorney and Ely respectively until the Dissolution of the Monasteries (c.1540). The two parishes of St Mary's and St Andrew's 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, 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 was noted 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 mud boundary walls during a period in which there was a tax on bricks, some examples of these roofed walls still stand today and are unique in Fenland.

Whittlesey was also infamous for its number of public houses; folk lore dictates that, at one time, there were 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'.

In other history, Whittlesey was an important trade route in the late Bronze Age (about 1100-800 BC), where civilisations traded with many places, including the Balkans. Such evidence is clear at the important archeological 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 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. The church contains a chapel (formerly a school-room) which was restored in 1862 as a memorial to Sir Harry Smith.

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

The Market Place

The Market Place, located in the centre of Whittlesey, is still the site of the town's market, held every Friday. A right to hold a weekly market was first granted in 1715, although there have been several periods since then during which the market did not function, for example from the late 1700s until c. 1850. Because of the nearby city of Peterborough, the market is no longer of great importance to the town.

Situated in the centre of the Market Place is the Buttercross dating back to 1680. Originally a place for people to sell goods at market, the structure was considered useless in the 1800s and was only saved from demolition when a local businessman donated some slate tiles for the roof. In more recent years it served as a bus shelter, until the controversial relocation of bus services from the Market Place to a purpose-built terminal in Grosvenor Road.

Whittlesey today

Looking north from St. Mary's church, Whittlesey
Looking north over the Market Place from the spire of St. Mary's during the 2012 Whittlesey Festival
The George Hotel, Whittlesey
The 18th-century George Hotel (now a Wetherspoons pub) decorated for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in June 2012

The 'Whittlesey Summer Festival', held annually in September, takes over much of the town centre. Attractions in recent years included a large classic car display, 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. 2009 also saw the people of Whittlesey raise £10,000 for bushfire victims in Whittlesea, Melbourne.

From 2011 to 2015 the town was the location of a long-running planning battle between rival supermarket chains Tesco and Sainsbury's, who competed to build on neighbouring sites on Eastrea Road. Dubbed 'Supermarket-gate' by local press, the dispute was eventually resolved when Sainsbury's won approval for their supermarket, business park and country park development in June 2015. Plans for over 400 houses on an adjacent site, construction of which began in late 2014, also generated some controversy when approved due to concerns about the additional traffic generated on the A605.

Located close to the King's Dyke brickworks are three 80-metre high wind turbines, the largest on-shore turbines in England, which power the McCains chips plant.

The town has one secondary school, Sir Harry Smith Community College (opened in 1953 on the site of Whittlesey Workhouse), and three primary schools. There is also another primary school in the neighbouring village of Coates.

Whittlesey Museum is located in the Old Town Hall and contains collections relating to the natural and cultural heritage of Whittlesey and the surrounding area.

Whittlesea Straw Bear

Straw Bear
The Whittlesea Straw Bear 2008
Musicians of Pig Dyke Molly dance team playing at Whittlesea Straw Bear Festival 2007

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 town has a non–league football club, Whittlesey Athletic F.C., which plays in the United Counties League Division One, at Feldale Field.


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 neighbouring Coates.

Notable people

In birth order:

  • Sir Harry George Waklyn Smith (1788–1860), best known for a role in the Battle of Aliwal (India), was born in the town. He rose militarily 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.
  • John Clare (1793–1864), a poet, mentions "Whittlesea's reed-wooded mere" under January in his poem "The Shepherd's Calendar".
  • 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.
  • Edward Storey (1930–2018), a Whittlesey-born poet, published some ten volumes of verse, a biography of John Clare, an autobiography and some libretti. He worked with Poets in schools for Eastern Arts and broadcast on the BBC.
  • Gary Dighton (1968–2015), a British national time-trial cyclist who competed in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics and broke the national 25-mile time-trial record with 48:07. He attended Sir Harry Smith Community College.
  • David Proud (born 1983), a writer and the first disabled actor to have a regular role in the BBC soap opera EastEnders, was living in Whittlesey and attended Sir Harry Smith Community College.

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