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The Bread, Cake & Biscuit Walk

March 30, 2011
by the gentle author

This biscuit was sent home in the mail during World War I

As you will know from my many stories about doughnuts, custard tarts, hot cross buns, mince pies, beigels and loaves of bread, I have a passion for all the good things that come from the bakery. So I decided to take advantage of the fine afternoon yesterday to take a walk through the City of London in search of some historic bakery products to feed my obsession, and thereby extend my appreciation of the poetry and significance of this sometimes undervalued area of human endeavour.

Leaving Spitalfields, I turned left and walked straight down Bishopsgate to the river, passing Pudding Lane where the Fire of London started at the King’s Bakery, reminding me that a bakery was instrumental in the very creation of the City we know today.

My destination was the noble church of St Magnus the Martyr, which boasts London’s stalest loaves of bread. Stored upon high shelves beyond the reach of vermin, beside the West door, these loaves were once placed here each Saturday for the sustenance of the poor and distributed after the service on Sunday morning. Although in the forgiving gloom of the porch it is not immediately apparent, these particular specimens have been there so many years they are now mere emblems of this bygone charitable endeavour. Surpassing any conceivable shelf life, these crusty bloomers are consumed by mould and covered with a thick layer of dust – indigestible in reality, they are metaphors of God’s bounty that would cause any shortsighted, light-fingered passing hobo to gag.

Close by in this appealingly shadowy incense-filled Wren church which was once upon the approach to London Bridge, are the tall black boards tabulating the donors who gave their legacies for bread throughout the centuries, commencing in 1674 with Owen Waller. If you are a connoisseur of the melancholy and the forgotten, this a good place to come on a mid-week afternoon to linger and admire the shrine of St Magnus with his fearsome horned helmet and fully rigged model sailing ship – once you have inspected the bread, of course.

I walked West along the river until I came to St Bride’s Church off Fleet St, as the next destination on my bakery products tour. Another Wren church, this possesses a tiered spire that became the inspiration for the universally familiar wedding cake design in the eighteenth century, after Fleet St baker William Rich created a three-tiered cake based upon the great architect’s design, for his daughter’s marriage. Dedicated today to printers and those who work in the former print trades, this is a church of manifold wonders including the pavement of Roman London in the crypt, an iron anti-resurrectionist coffin of 1820 – and most touching of all, an altar dedicated to journalists killed recently whilst pursuing their work in dangerous places around the globe.

From here, I walked up to St John’s Gate where a biscuit is preserved that was sent home from the trenches in World War I by Henry Charles Barefield. Surrounded by the priceless treasures of the Knights of St John magnificently displayed in the new museum, this old dry biscuit  has become an object of universal fascination both for its longevity and its ability to survive the rigours of the mail. Even the Queen wanted to know why the owner had sent his biscuit home in the post, when she came to open the museum. But no-one knows for sure, and this enigma is the source of the power of this surreal biscuit.

Pamela Willis, curator of the collection, speculates it was a comment on the quality of the rations – “Our biscuits are so hard we can send them home in the mail!” Yet while I credit Pamela’s notion, I find the biscuit both humorous and defiant, and I have my own theory of a different nuance. In the midst of the carnage of the Somme, Henry Barefield was lost for words – so he sent a biscuit home in the mail to prove he was still alive and had not lost his sense of humour either.

We do not know if he sent it to his mother or his wife, but I think we can be assured that it was an emotional moment for Mrs Barefield when the biscuit came through her letterbox – to my mind, this an heroic biscuit, a triumphant symbol of the human spirit, that manifests the comfort of modest necessity in the face of the horror of war.

I had a memorable afternoon filled with thoughts of bread, cake and biscuits, and their potential meanings and histories which span all areas of human experience. And unsurprisingly, as I came back through Spitalfields, I found that my walk had left me more than a little hungry. After several hours contemplating baked goods, it was only natural that I should seek out a cake for my tea, and in St John Bread & Wine, to my delight, there was one fresh Eccles Cake left on the plate waiting for me to carry it away.

You can watch a film about a cake made to replicate the spire of St Bride’s Church by clicking here.

Loaves of bread at St Magnus the Martyr.

Is this London’s stalest loaf?

The spire of Wren’s church of St Bride’s which was the inspiration for the tiered design of the wedding cake first baked by Fleet St baker William Rich in the eighteenth century.

The biscuit in the museum in Clerkenwell.

The inscrutable Henry Charles Barefield of Tunbridge Wells who sent his biscuit home in the mail during World War I.

The freshly baked Eccles Cake that I ate for my tea.

You may like to read these other bakery related stories

The Daily Loaf

Go Nuts for Doughnuts!

The Tart with the Heart of Custard

The First Mince Pies of the Season

Hot Cross Buns from St John

Justin Piers Gallatly, Baker  & Pastry Chef

Night in the Bakery at St John

Night in the  Brick Lane Beigel Bakery

10 Responses leave one →
  1. Barry Jackson permalink
    March 30, 2011

    Another of your fascinating and beautifully written pieces. You deserved the bun!

  2. March 30, 2011

    A thought on Henry Charles Barefield’s biscuit- perhaps he saw it as the bread and wine at the Last Supper ‘this is my body, this is my blood”? thinking he would die he sent the biscuit home to be eaten and live on in others?though an atheist myself I can see the poetry of it .

  3. Joan permalink
    March 30, 2011

    Perhaps a trip further east to Bow, and specifically the Widow’s Son pub, is in order to see the stale hot cross buns. Homer Sykes has some photos here:

    As its coming up to Good Friday you could even see the ceremony whereby each year a member of the navy presents a hot cross bun to the pub.

    Best wishes and thanks again,


  4. tina allman permalink
    March 30, 2011

    Dearest gentle author,

    How endearing I find your pages. I am placed on a magic carpet and taken on a journey far removed from mine own. I cannot wait to get my hands on the book one day and leisurely visit the places that you show so many of us.
    Regards. T. Allman.

  5. melbournegirl permalink
    March 30, 2011

    Yes, yes – bring on the book, Gentle Author!!

  6. the gentle author permalink*
    March 30, 2011

    Your wishes will be fulfilled in 2012.

  7. melbournegirl permalink
    March 31, 2011

    Hooray! ‘Twill be a long wait though.

  8. April 5, 2011

    Thank you so much for writing this beautiful piece about biscuits, bread and cake in London. I am very fascinated by hidden histories, and I love all the material details you have included in your post, and the alternative view of London sight-seeing that you present.

  9. February 19, 2012

    Loved this item. St Magnus the Martyr is one of my favourite churches, but didnt know about the loaves.

    Another London bread to pay homage to is the White Conduit Loaf. This was a small bread roll eaten with butter or cream at the White Conduit House in Islington, a pleasure garden popular in the 18th century. The site was built over long ago but a pub was built on the corner of Barnsbury Road and Dewey Road which still has the name White Conduit House written on the outside wall. I visit the place on my tour of Islington’s Food History – see . The next walk is on February 26th.


    Rob Smith

  10. September 1, 2013

    Regarding the Barefield bisquit , I can offer a fact to the storey. Henry’s mother Ann died in 1906 so the bisquit was being mailed to Henry’s wife Edith Emily Barefield who he had married in 1915.In 1911 Henry was living at 20 (not 21) South View Road with his widowed father Henry, a nurseryman and market gardener and his brother William of the same profession. In 1911 Henry Charles was a railway clerk. In WWI Henry Charles was a sergeant with the Royal Army Medical Corp Royal Engineers. Henry Charles Barefield died 1932 at the General Hospital in Tunbridge Wells. His wife died in Tunbridge Wells in 1967.

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