Jul 11

Secrets and Pies

FT10 comments • 1,617 views


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.


  1. 1

    Thanks for this Rosie: there’s something about that photo reminds me of life on the outskirts of Shrewsbury in the 60s, not so much when I was with mum or dad, but when one of their work colleagues was tasked with looking after me for the day. Not the cars or the people, obviously, but the pebbledash and brick, and the shop-sign too.

    Actually I’d love to read a history of British working-class eating and cuisine, at home, in shops and cafes. Cultural histories of food tend to focus higher up the social scale, presumably because of better (or anyway louder and more self-congratulatory) documentation, plus shifts in fashion are always partly about conspicuous consumption and exclusionary swagger (also the likes of Hannah Glasse and Mrs Beeton were writing manuals on running a reasonably comfy lower middleclass household, complete with some elegant variation and the entertainment of guests, and of course aiming their books at people who bought and read them, which didn’t really include the working class en masse until the late 19th century; so a whole layer of practice and tradition went more or less unrecorded).

    But all the same elements matter to people without padded budgets, and fashions shift at all levels: potato — as an obvious example — can’t always have been part of the British poor’s diet, so when did it come in and why? What did it replace? When did fish and chips arrive?

  2. 2
    enitharmon on 30 Jul 2011 #

    Thanks for the comment, Mark.

    Clearly there’s work to be done on the history of working-class food. It’s not just about class stratification; as with so many things the culture of working-class culture is better documented for London than for up here, which is part of the rationale for the theme of my contributions, which I haven’t entirely worked out yet.

    Lancashire in particular (and Barrow remains spiritually in Lancashire and is quite different from Cumberland) has a history of economic activity among married women going back to the early days of the textile industry, so the bakehouse has always played a significant role in working-class life hereabouts. It was considered a bit of an outrage when VAT was imposed on hot takeaway food in the 1980s. And potatoes once you have them produce a big yield in a small space so they make a cheap and effective filler for limited budgets.

    Oh, and with a big Catholic element to the workforce I’d imagine the fish and chips would have replaced meat pies on Friday.

    I just had to stop myself from writing a whole new article as a comment, so that’s something that will have to wait for another day.

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 31 Jul 2011 #

    Mark – Have you read ‘The Flounder’ by Gunter Grass? Amongst other things it’s a culinary history – and the arrival of the potato after the discovery of ‘the new world’ is portrayed as a hugely significant change

  4. 4

    oh! i own it but only started it and got distracted, i will try properly this time f i can find where i filed it

  5. 5
    Rosalind Mitchell on 31 Jul 2011 #

    Er, in the bookcase? Under Grass, G?

  6. 6


    It was actually in one of the “meant to be being finished” piles. Now it will be.

  7. 7
    Cumbrian on 2 Aug 2011 #

    Just back from Sheffield, where I had one of the best pies I have ever had I reckon. We were up on a stag do and had booked a brewery tour at the Sheffield Brewery Company (a top microbrewery actually and an interesting tour). As part of the deal, food was included – a massive meat and potato pie (good quality minced meat – potato in chunks) with gravy under the crust too – cut into slabs for each portion.

    Being the only northerner there, it was gratifying to hear the appreciation from my southern friends, who’d pretty much been oblivious to this sort of thing. Meat and potato pies were a staple when I was growing up, particularly in the winter, when it would be a warm, filling lunch. We had a local bakery up the road – a Routledges – that would do a pretty decent pie. Similar to Green’s by the sounds of things (though the potato was mash rather than slices) in that the seasoning produced a peppery flavour. Routledges is more of a local chain though (or at least it was when I was living in Cumbria), so I suspect Green’s might well top it – as the pies are more likely to be mass produced somewhere central and warmed up at the bakery (which looked like it was focused more on bread in my local shop).

    Excellent article. I could go for a pie right now actually.

  8. 8
    Rick on 15 Aug 2011 #

    I’m quite partial to the pies proffered by the Hovis shop on Cheltenham Street and when one ventures out to Dalton the Desperate Dan style pies of the Tudor Cafe are superlatively palatable.

  9. 9
    weej on 2 Mar 2015 #

    The debate continues…

  10. 10
    enitharmon on 3 Mar 2015 #

    @9 As far as I’m concerned a pie is not a pie if you can’t hold it in your hand to eat it. Otherwise it defeats the object.

    Barrow pies still in the news today http://www.nwemail.co.uk/news/barrow-top-pie-town-in-britain-1.1196104

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