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Widow’s Buns At Bow

April 18, 2014
by the gentle author

It is Good Friday and time for another Hot Cross Bun to go in the basket at the Widow’s Son in Devons Rd, Bow, as part of the East End’s most-celebrated Easter tradition. Festivities reach their climax at 3pm, so be sure to get there in plenty of time!

Baked by Mr Bunn’s Bakery in Chadwell Heath

On Good Friday, what could be more appropriate to the equivocal nature of the day than an event which involves both celebration of Hot Cross Buns and the remembrance of the departed in a single custom – such is the ceremony of the Widow’s Buns at Bow.

A net of Hot Cross Buns hangs above the bar at The Widow’s Son in Bromley by Bow, and each year a sailor comes to add another bun to the collection. And this year I was there to witness it for myself, though – before you make any assumption based on your knowledge of my passion for buns  – I must clarify that no Hot Cross Buns are eaten in the ceremony, they are purely for symbolic purposes. Left to dry out and gather dust and hang in the net for eternity, London’s oldest buns exist as metaphors to represent the passing years and talismans to bring good luck but, more than this, they tell a story.

The Widow’s Son was built in 1848 upon the former site of an old widow’s cottage, so the tale goes. When her only son left to be a sailor, she promised to bake him a Hot Cross Bun and keep it for his return. But although he drowned at sea, the widow refused to give up hope, preserving the bun upon his return and making a fresh one each year to add to the collection. This annual tradition has been continued in the pub as a remembrance of the widow and her son, and of the bond between all those on land and sea, with sailors of the Royal Navy coming to place the bun in the net every year.

Behind this custom lies the belief that Hot Cross Buns baked on Good Friday will never decay, reflected in the tradition of nailing a Hot Cross Bun to the wall so that the cross may bring good luck to the household – though what appeals to me about the story of the widow is the notion of baking as an act of faith, incarnating a mother’s hope that her son lives. I interpret the widow’s persistence in making the bun each year as a beautiful gesture, not of self-deception but of longing for wish-fulfilment, manifesting her love for her son. So I especially like the clever image upon the inn sign outside the Widow’s Son, illustrating an apocryphal scene in the story when the son returns from the sea many years later to discover a huge net of buns hanging behind the door, demonstrating that his mother always expected him back.

When I arrived at the Widow’s Son, I had the good fortune to meet Frederick Beckett who first came here for the ceremony in 1958 when his brother Alan placed the Hot Cross Bun in the net, and he had the treasured photo in his hand to show me. Frederick moved out from Bow to Dagenham fifteen years ago, but he still comes back each year to visit the Widow’s Son, one of many in this community and further afield who delight to converge here on Good Friday for old times’ sake. Already, there was a tangible sense of anticipation, with spirits uplifted by the sunshine and the flags hung outside, ready to celebrate St George next day.

The landlady proudly showed me the handsome fresh 2011 Hot Cross Bun, baked by Mr Bunn of Mr Bunn’s Bakery in Chadwell Heath who always makes the special bun each year  -” fabulous buns!”declared Kathy, almost succumbing to a swoon, as he she held up her newest sweetest darling that would shortly join its fellows in the net over the bar. There were many more ancient buns, she explained, until a fire destroyed most of them fifteen years ago, and those burnt ones in the net today are merely those few which were salvaged by the firemen from the wreckage of the pub. Remarkably, having opened their hearts to the emotional poetry of Hot Cross Buns, at the Widow’s Son they even cherish those cinders which the rest of the world would consign to a bin.

The effect of the beer and the unseasonal warm temperatures upon a pub full of sailors and thirsty locals rapidly induced a pervasive atmosphere of collective euphoria, heightened by a soundtrack of pounding rock, and, in the thick of it, I was delighted to meet my old pal Lenny Hamilton, the jewel thief. “I’m not here for the buns, I’m here for the bums!” he confided to me with a sip of his Corvoisier and lemonade, making a lewd gesture and breaking in to a wide grin of salacious enjoyment as various Bow belles, in off-the-shoulder dresses, with flowing locks and wearing festive corsages, came over enthusiastically to shower this legendary rascal with kisses.

I stood beside Lenny as three o’ clock approached, enjoying the high-spirited gathering as the sailors came together in front of the bar. The landlord handed over the Hot Cross Bun to widespread applause and the sailors lifted up their smallest recruit. Then, with a mighty cheer from the crowd and multiple camera flashes, the recruit placed the bun in the net.  Once this heroic task was accomplished, and the landlady had removed the tinfoil covers from the dishes of food laid out upon the billiard table, all the elements were in place for a knees-up to last the rest of the day. As they like to say in Bromley by Bow, it was “Another year, another Good Friday, another bun.”

Peter Gracey, Nick Edelshain and Roddy Urquhart raise a pint to the Widow’s Buns.

Tony Scott and Debbie Willis of HMS President with Frederick Beckett holding the photograph of his brother placing the bun in the net in 1958.

Alan Beckett places the bun on Good Friday, 4th April 1958.

The Widow’s Son is the local for my pal Lenny Hamilton, the jewel thief.

A Widow’s Son of Bromley by Bow

by Harold Adshead

A widow had an only son,
The sea was his concern,
His parting wish an Easter Bun
Be kept for his return.
But when it came to Eastertide
No sailor came her way
To claim the bun she set aside
Against the happy day.
They say the ship was lost at sea,
The son came home no more
But still with humble piety
The widow kept her store.
So year by year a humble bun
Was charm against despair,
A loving task that once began
Became her livelong care.
The Widow’s Son is now an inn
That stands upon the site
And signifies its origin
Each year by Easter rite
The buns hang up for all to see,
A blackened mass above,
A truly strange epitome
Of patient mother love.

You may also like to read about

The Bread, Cake & Biscuit Walk

Lenny Hamilton, Jewel Thief

5 Responses leave one →
  1. April 18, 2014

    A beautiful story, which inspires us not to give up hope. The tradition of the buns in the net here is linking the past and the future. Valerie

  2. April 18, 2014

    A very impressive narrative, beautifully told by the G.A.! I love that poem from Harold Adshead — it compresses everything on the point after all!

    Love & Peace for Good Friday

  3. April 18, 2014

    A heartwarming and inspirational story that gave me goosebumps as I read it. Traditions seem to be falling by the wayside of recent years and local pubs at a faster rate, I hope both of these survive. I intend to witness it first hand next year.

    Also went onto read the page on Lenny Hamilton – Great story by a man brave enough to put the final nail in the coffin of the people who nearly put him in his!
    I produce art that is influenced by my time in Prison, I think there may well be one soon with its origins leading back to him.

  4. Victoria permalink
    April 18, 2014

    Wonderful start to a Good Friday to read about the Widow’s Son. It’s long been on my wish list of places to visit after a close friend told me about the pub and the story a decade ago. I too like Gary was inspired to read on after today’s post, though I chose instead the Bread Cake and Biscuit Walk …. And then on to to buying hot cross buns from St John’s bakery. I was glad to eventually turn virtual enjoyment into reality as went to a tea shop in Bury St Edmunds and sat for a restful half hour enjoying the sounds of American jazz music and a homemade hot cross bun. Happy Easter to you GA and to Mr Pussy!

  5. April 22, 2014

    You can’t allude multiple times to “Lenny, the jewel thief” without sharing more of *that* story!

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