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The Bread, Cake & Biscuit Walk

November 22, 2021
by the gentle author

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

As regular readers will already know, I have a passion for all the good things that come from the bakery. So I decided to take advantage of the fine afternoon last week 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.

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

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. Jenny Bluefields permalink
    November 22, 2021

    Henry, most likely known as Charlie Barefield, married Edith Barnes in 1915. His mother died before the start of WWI so you’re probably right, he was sharing a joke with his new wife!

  2. Milo permalink
    November 22, 2021

    I’m glad we got a shot of the Eccles cake. It was important.

  3. Sir Slingsby Slugge-Pelet permalink
    November 22, 2021

    I was salivating over your tour. I love English custard tarts, much preferring them to the Portuguese efforts which seem to be ‘taking over’.

  4. Ann V permalink
    November 22, 2021

    I just love the ‘heroic biscuit’.

  5. Jane Clouston permalink
    November 22, 2021

    Thank you for this intriguing the history of the wedding cake !

  6. Chris Webb permalink
    November 23, 2021

    There is a well known story that a soldier posted home an army issue biscuit with something like

    “Your country needs you,
    But this is how it feeds you”

    written on the back. Not up to the standard of Rupert Brooke or Siegfried Sassoon but equally effective. I believe his family sent it to a newspaper who published it.

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