The blue-painted pub in Bromley, London, has been there for a while. Since 1848, some sources say. The Widow’s Son used to be a house, the story goes, where a widow lived with her son. When the son wanted to join the navy, the grieving mother told him that she would wait for him. Every year on Good Friday, she promised, she’d make a fresh hot cross bun.
Unfortunately, her son never got his hot cross bun: he was lost at sea. Still, the mother made a hot cross bun every year and set it aside for him. She didn’t throw out the old buns, so they piled up higher and higher. When the widow died, a pub went up on the site of her house. But, curiously, sailors started appearing every Good Friday to hang a bun above the bar.
Soon, there was quite a collection. In 1921, Leopold Wagner, author of A New Book about London: A Quaint and Curious Volume of Forgotten Lore, counted 84 buns in a net above the bar. That was enough to date the custom back to 1837—and perhaps to the widow herself.
It’s unclear whether the legend is true. But hanging hot cross buns has a long history in the United Kingdom. In ancient times, worshippers ate sweet buns marked with a cross to honor Eostre, the goddess of the dawn. When “Eostre” became “Easter,” the buns stuck around. By the 18th century, British Christians associated the spiced rolls with Good Friday, the day said to commemorate Jesus’s crucifixion. Hot cross buns baked on Good Friday, legend had it, would never decay. When nailed or hung off walls, they could ward away evil and fire.
Unfortunately, it didn’t work that way at the Widow’s Son. Twenty years ago, a fire in the pub half-destroyed the buns. In a more recent turn of bad luck, the pub closed and was put up for sale in 2016. The proprietors took the remaining buns with them. Distraught locals and sailors, including many who had attended bun ceremonies for decades, held Bun Day at another nearby pub.
But in 2017, the pub’s new owners revived Bun Day. A delegation from the H.M.S. President arrived on Good Friday. A massive hot cross bun, which was emblazoned with the traditional cross and the year, awaited them. (Publicist Tas Tarafdar says the pub will also embalm all their buns in preservative glaze to keep them from crumbling on customers’ heads, which they have in the past.) Following tradition, one of the sailors was lifted by his mates to deposit the bun in a hammock above the bar. In the past, hot cross buns were handed out to anyone who wanted them. That’s still the case, but Bun Day is also now celebrated with drink specials and a DJ.
For a year, a single lonely bun has hung above the bar. When I spoke to Tarafdar, she told me that the Widow’s Son is trying to get the old ones back from the pub’s previous owners. Then I received an email. “Good news, the old buns have been returned to the Widow’s Son.” If the widow’s son ever returns from the sea, the buns made for him will be waiting. But after seeing the moldy, charred-looking loaves, he might settle for a pint instead.
Gastro Obscura covers the world’s most wondrous food and drink.
Sign up for our weekly email.