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Give us today our daily barm cakes

Give us today our daily barm cakes

Hannah Rich reflects on food banks, lunch clubs and shared meals on a recent visit to Fleetwood as part of the ongoing GRA:CE Project. 18/09/2018

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The tale of Fleetwood is not an unfamiliar story: a town where the high street is slowly shutting down and being boarded up, and institutions like the hospital and police station are being moved one by one along the coast to Blackpool. Marks and Spencer recently announced that it is quitting the out–of–town shopping centre.

The fishing industry, once a thriving source of employment, has declined over the years, although the Fisherman’s Friend factory is still going strong. Many of the grand Victorian houses which were once prized by ship captains have now been carved up into flats for the rental market. A couple next to me on the tram from Blackpool turned around half way and headed home upon being told by the conductor that the indoor market in Fleetwood was closed that day. The North Euston Hotel on the seafront was named hopefully by a local businessman in the 19th century, anticipating the arrival of a train line from London which never quite made it this far up the peninsula.

Pick any indicator of deprivation – unemployment, child poverty, drug use – and it’s likely you’ll find Fleetwood performing significantly worse than its football club, which is improbably riding high in League One currently. Pharos ward, named for the lighthouse, is in the most deprived 1% of council wards in the country. It even has the good grace to be raining as I arrive to meet Father John Hall, parish priest of St Peter’s and St David’s Church in the town.

Down a side street teeming with people heading to the market, there is a queue outside one particular shop. The Mustard Seed shop is an outreach project from St Peter and St David’s. It receives donations from local shops and supermarkets and opens three mornings a week to provide food to all those who need it. Letters from the DWP are the currency with which people do their grocery shopping here; there are stories of how, over the summer holidays, volunteers noticed that all the children had started to look the same and found that mothers were borrowing each other’s offspring in order to boost their supply of microwave dinners.

Each customer is allowed three tins, enough ready meals for their whole household, a handful of fresh vegetables, half a box of eggs and some bread. There is a whole freezer full of portions of fried chicken given by KFC. The day I visit, the top of the chest freezer is piled high with dozens of packs of bread rolls delivered by a local bakery.

We’ve got more barm cakes than we know what to do with,” one of the volunteers says despairingly, while trying to convince a customer to take a second packet. “You can have as much bread as you like today.”

On Monday nights, St Peter’s Church in the town centre opens its doors for a community meal where all are welcome.

When I came, I realised that everything closes up in the evenings here, except the pubs. It can be a very lonely place. If you’ve got no money, you’re struggling. If you’ve got addiction problems, you’re struggling… So I opened up the church for a bowl of soup and a roll.”

It started with five or six people and now we get around forty most weeks, more if it’s near the end of the month,” Father John tells me as we fill a shopping trolley with mince for the spaghetti Bolognese he is planning to cook for all those who pile into the church. He has already arranged for a volunteer to buy enough jam doughnuts to go round afterwards, which he will later chastise some of the guests for eating with sugary fingers rather than a fork. There are barm cakes, too, for mopping up the last of the spaghetti sauce.

The following day, I find myself eating another community meal. The Breaking Bread lunch club for elderly people meets at St David’s Church on the other side of the parish. It begins with morning prayer followed by a meal served by children from the local primary school, who fight it out over whose turn it is this week because it is such a treat to spend lunchtime at the church.

The new building at St David’s has only been open for a matter of weeks following a renovation project. There are glass doors across the sanctuary at the front of the building, which used to be the church hall, so that the space can be used for other activities while still clearly being a church. The vestry cupboards and some of the woodwork were made by a group of unemployed local people who meet at the church on a Friday morning to learn joinery skills. They also make bird tables which are for sale in the Mustard Seed shop in town.

As with the Monday night dinner, we are served plates of cottage pie and vegetables, ginger sponge and banana custard, restaurant style at tables which are already set when people arrive. There is no queueing at the hatch, something Fr John says is deliberate in order to make people feel like individuals rather than numbers. He tells me about a vicar he knew as a child, whose parishioners complained about the time he spent in the local working men’s club.

But he knew he’d get more stories and learn more about what was going on in people’s lives from an hour there than in a whole day of door knocking and parish visiting.” This inspired his vision for the community meals that his parish hosts; there is the same buzz of chatter and conversation over lunch at St David’s as there was over dinner at St Peter’s the previous night. People share snippets of their week, both the struggles and the joys, and it feels natural to do so. In the space of half an hour, I learn the life story of the retired couple across the table from me, without having to ask more than a couple of questions.

After lunch, I join Fr John for his shift driving the minibus which ferries people from across town to and from St David’s. The lunch club hasn’t met for several months because of the building work, and there is an impromptu moment of silence in the back of the bus as they list those of their number who have since passed away.

Pop in for a hot meal and a bit of chit chat. You don’t have to be homeless, or religious, all are welcome. You don’t have to have problems or be lonely,” reads the sign in the churchyard outside St Peter’s during the Monday night dinner. As the tram trundles away from Fleetwood, it strikes me that might be true of the church in a wider sense. You don’t have to be homeless, religious, lonely or heavy–laden with problems to join in the breaking of bread here either, especially if there are barm cakes involved.

 Image by Hannah Rich. 

Hannah Rich

Hannah Rich

Hannah joined Theos in 2017. She is a senior researcher working on theology and economic inequality. She is the author of ‘A Torn Safety Net’ (2022).

Watch, listen to or read more from Hannah Rich

Posted 18 September 2018

Churches, Communities, GRA:CE Project, Social Action


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