The ceremony of the Widow’s Buns is celebrated today in Bow, as it has been each Good Friday for as long as anyone can remember. Here is my account of last year’s event and if you get down there by three o’ clock this afternoon, you can witness this cherished East End ritual for yourself.
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.”