When I persuaded Tom, several years ago now I think, to give me privileges to post to FT he was curious about what I would contribute. So, it turns out, was I; most of the popular culture bases I know much about – music of course, crime fiction, film, beer – have been covered. It’s been a long time since I did any music writing, that would have been for Liverpool University’s student newspaper and when an unknown band called Queen, tipped for the big time, played the student union. It doesn’t help that I’ve exiled myself from Poptimism and those famous FT pub gatherings along with the alleged pulse of the nation down there in the big’n’sinful.
But that, it seems, may be my opportunity. So here I am, your correspondent at the end of a windy peninsula where the acme of fashion is a blue fleece with the BAE Systems logo that says the wearer has a job and they still give away free glowsticks at the Circus Circus club on what is known locally as the Gaza Strip. Sporting success is clinging on to a place in the Blue Square Premiership. Welcome to the blunt end of the nation’s culture.
Now and then I ask myself why I came home to retire. Eleven miles of unspoilt golden beaches with a magnificent mountain backdrop help although in England’s windiest and rainiest town it’s an occasional delight. There’s the ease of access to both the Lake District and the fleshpots of Manchester. And then there’s the pies.
Pies are a serious matter in Barrow. Of course this earliest of convenience foods is universal and transcends class. Well-heeled Melton Mowbray trades on succulent pot-bellied pork pies while working-class Londoners have their own tradition with mashed potato, stewed eels and that surprisingly tasty radioactive-green gloop known as liquor. While football fans munch on their Pukka Pies, Bertie Wooster and his chums prized Anatole’s steak and kidney, and at Reading’s excellent Sweeney & Todd (yes, there is a barber’s shop next door) if you are lucky you can get hare & cherry in season, although the beef and oyster is always to be recommended. Gritty Barrovians, though, don’t hold with such exotica. The true Barrow pie is strictly meat and potato, optionally served with mushy peas but more often consumed on the go. There is an annual pie competition sponsored by the Evening Mail and each pie shop has its advocates. The ubiquitous Greggs and the regional Diggles of Lancaster have a go but their flabby confections seldom get a sniff of the prizes. Thomas’s of Cavendish Street is well thought-of and fans of gravy in their pies favour Fry’s of Anchor Road, but most locals would concede that the annual competition is a sham. The king of Barrow pies comes, by popular acclaim, from a converted former council house on a 1930s estate well away from the town centre which usually stays out of the competion to give others a chance.
Green’s of Jarrow Street is a little wonder. Its pies are made of recognisable minced beef with real slices of potato, clothed in pastry that is delicate and crispy yet firm enough to hold the substantial filling. As with the pie’s cousin from across the Duddon, the Cumberland sausage, the emphasis is on subtle pepperiness rather than a proliferation of herbs and spices, and its none the worse for that. Bite into a Green’s pie and you sense that you are not just having a snack on the run, you are sampling one of the glories of English cuisine. And no, that wasn’t meant as sarcasm.
Best of all, given my cynical take on the marketing business, it breaks all the rules. You won’t see Green’s pies advertised anywhere. Unless you’re in the know you won’t know where to look for it, and when you do find your way past the railway tracks there’s nothing to distinguish it except the green boards with the shop’s name in austere 1950s lettering. And the queue of course, spilling across the road and round the corner (what would Greggs, with theit multiple town centre locations, give for such queues?) Nobody’s in a hurry and once you’ve joined the queue it takes you a good while to get to the counter. Freshness is guaranteed; you’ll probably see several batches of pies brought out and quickly disappear not just over the counter but into boxes for the local workforce to collect. Unusually for a food shop, the queue is mostly male and there’s flirting to be done with the women flitting to-and-fro between kitchen and counter, and local gossip to be caught up on.
If this sounds like a throwback to the 1950s then I suspect its no accident. Barrow is never going to be in then thick of the Zeitgeist but I always have a sense, too, that part of the town still clings to its finest hour, 1955, the year of Willie Horne and the Challenge Cup victory. I bet there was a great pie and pea supper that night.