THE worst weather is wet snow. It saps the spirit and soaks through to the shoulders. When it whips off a river on an easterly wind it stings and sucks life from fingers and feet. Just as well we’re searching for a pie and mash shop . . .
Pie, mash and liquor is a London delicacy for which it’s worth treading the streets. And these streets of London are like no others because something old, something new, and something fascinating lies around nearly every corner. Ralph McTell sang about them, Orwell lived on them, William Henry Davies tramped them endlessly with bobbins in his pocket and poetry in his head. I feel I’m a bit of an upstart because I’m just looking for a pie and mash shop.
Pie and mash. That’s minced beef in a cold-water pastry, served with mashed potato and a liquor – or gravy – made from parsley and the stew retained from the process of cooking eels. The pie and mash shop we are searching for also sells jellied eels – another London delicacy, so we’ve been told.
I’ve never eaten jellied eels but today I intend to. I have even familiarised myself with some local phrases in order to create an authentic ambience. Gor blimey; watcha mate; knees up mavver Braahn; leave it ahht – all uttered in an impeccable Barrow accent.
This certain pie and mash shop is also a temple to a world almost lost beneath concrete and re-enforced glass, a shrine of green and white tiles where the decor has not altered in a hundred years. In an establishment like this, jellied eels raise their eyes from the dish with a look of meek humility and plead to be eaten. Is it possible to resist them? (Update: My wife tells me jellied eels do not have eyes, poor things)
We emerge from London Bridge tube station into a wet blizzard that’s funnelled between buildings. It blows us under a railway viaduct into the embracing crowds of Borough Market. Everything smells of cooked sausages and toasting cheese. Rick Stein does his shopping here, according to my wife. We don’t catch a glimpse of Rick Stein, but we do see hundreds of people pressed together like anchovies in a flat tin. But that’s the charm of good markets. Empty markets are sad places, especially if wet snow is whipping off the river. (Click on images for high-res versions)
Southwark Cathedral offers peace, warmth and sanctuary. It’s a place to unfurl scarves and allow wet gloves to drop to the tiles with an audible slap. Today there’s a choir practising, and we’re invited – during a short and unexpected service – to join in the Lord’s Prayer. This is all for free. My advice to anyone who baulks at the extortionate and unchristian entrance fee to Westminster Abbey (£18) is to shoulder his or her pack and make a pilgrimage to Southwark. The tea’s good too, but you have to pay for that.
Back on the riverfront the snow’s still swirling in from the sea. Sweet Thames might well flow softly, but on the north bank the glass and metal fortresses of capitalism remind we cold and scuttling creatures that Britain is a land divided between the many who have little and the few who have nearly everything and intend to grab what’s left. Not that we need reminding. So long as the grasping, lard-faced, doughy-palmed, cherry-cheeked, compassionless, merciless, godless, guffawing, chortling, snorting, sneering, bum-baring tossers don’t eat all the pie and mash.
At Tower Bridge we are blown south by a ferocious wind along Tower Bridge Road. We’re staring into swirling snow with pink eyes searching for the pie and mash shop. We walk for ages, pausing occasionally at pelican crossings where the green man appears to have perished from hypothermia, before continuing hopefully into the weather. We see betting shops, Italian restaurants, a couple of pubs, convenience stores, more pelican crossings, two irate motorist having an argument, an old man trying to chat up a young bit of stuff in a lounge doorway, a blue plaque commemorating someone we’ve never heard of, and lots of people pulling suitcases with wheels on – but we don’t see the pie and mash shop. So we give up and turn around.
And we stumble across a pub called the Anchor Tap down a backstreet in the shadow of Tower Bridge (or it would be in the shadow if the sun was shining and it shared an alignment with the North Star) where they do meals. And we order bangers and mash, another London delicacy – as in “givvus a bash at the bangers an’ mash me mavver used ter make.” Peter Sellers and Sophia Loren, if I’m not mistaken.
This is the end of the quest. This is failure. The coal fire in the bar of the Anchor Tap draws us towards its embers and the Sam Smiths bitter (a favourite of mine since the 1970s when it used to be served in the Scafell bar, Borrowdale) is a welcome reminder that some things don’t change. No jellied eels, though. Perhaps that’s not a bad thing.
FOR a stonking good read, have a look at this Daily Telegraph story from December 2006: Curious incident in the night leaves Bishop of Southwark with black eye and sore head