Sweeney pies: use or lose our business heritage

The news that Sweeney & Todd’s pie shop and restaurant is up for sale sent a shudder down the spine to all of us who still look upon a Sweeney pie as a treat and a Reading food icon.

A large bloke in the pub told me last week that buying a pie for dinner and getting it home to the top of Tilehurst without eating it on the way was still difficult for him. Sweeney’s is famous throughout the land and beyond. It wasn’t long ago named the fourth best pie shop in England and was eulogised by Matthew Fort on the BBC and in the Guardian.

Shelves at Sweeney and Todd’s

It is a regular haunt of performers at the Hexagon, and a former Reading MP Martin Salter still visits weekly. The late Irish poet Seamus Heaney was said to enjoy a Sweeney pie, although unfortunately I can’t find a reference to it in his otherwise magnificent body of work.

Let’s hope someone with drive and vitality takes over the restaurant and can continue all the good things we love about Sweeney’s, and maybe tastefully modernise while raising standards too.

Friesian frieze at the Reading cattle market

Reading may have been a nineteenth and twentieth century industrial and railway hub, but at its heart was a rural town surrounded by big country estates. Millwall fans still sang “milking time” to us at Elm Park into the 80s, and in the same decade livestock were still being driven to the cattle market. When Sweeney’s opened in the 70s, it was already a throwback to our rural past with the emphasis on game and locally shot ingredients with memory traces of the poacher, keeper and the squire. It was a joy to find lead shot in a five-game pie and the associated warnings were revered as a local quirk. For anyone who has traces of the Reading accent (if you say Fursdee you are one), the spoken word pies tends to sound if you just put a p in the front of eyes.

There was a furore when Sweeney’s suppliers, butchers Wm Vicars and Sons, closed in 2014, and everyone was blamed apart from the customers who didn’t come and use it any more. The truth was that people had started buying cheaper meat from supermarkets and had stopped going to West Street, even though Vicars’ customer service was second to none. Businesses can’t exist on nostalgia alone; they need steady use and feedback to keep standards high. Ultimately they need to be very good. Anyone who has attended the monthly general auction at Great Knollys Street can see the debris of failed catering businesses.

Reading history websites don’t help sometimes by promoting the past at the expense of the present. There were hundreds of posts about Vicars the butchers, but hardly any said they still used the place. No amount of rose-tinted nostalgia and harrumphing will save a business in trouble. A recent and enthusiastically supported Facebook post suggested that the streets of 70s Reading were litter free; anyone growing up in Reading at that time will know this is absolute rubbish!

Reading consumers have been guilty of a sort of Jackson’s Corner syndrome that I would define as local people decrying the demise of places they no longer visit. I think “use it or lose it” is a pretty good maxim if you want to keep a favoured business alive. As I write, I’m still not sure why Tutti Frutti, the brilliant independent coffee and ice cream shop at the railway station, closed so suddenly, but they often had empty seats when other chain places were full, and new coffee shops were opening nearby.

Imagine if we all took matters into our own hands and made sure we had a weekly pint or two in a local redbrick pub. Maybe also take in a local show, play or gig at a Reading venue and had regular pie, cake or meal at an independent place in town. It may have been Kierkegaard who said “life can only be understood backwards but it must be lived forwards” and our business heritage and the places we love can only be saved by our present and future patronage.

Author Matthew Farrall at the Reading farmers’ market, modelling his splendid ‘Katesgrove’ bag, available from whitleypump.uk@gmail.com.

Matthew Farrall, the author of this article, died on 20 April 2018.
We are grateful to his family for allowing us to continue to display his work online.

  1. Sweeney and Todd’s
  2. Katesgrove bags now available
  3. The Reading Accent
  4. Reading’s top 10 budget eateries (The Guardian , 2012)
  5. Vicars butcher’s shop closing down after 128 years (Get Reading, 2014)
  6. Shock at Reading Station as independent ice cream shop closes (Get Reading, 2017)
  7. Jacksons Corner department store has closed after 138 years (BBC, 2013)
  8. Thames Valley farmers’ markets
  9. Thimbleby and Shorland auctions at Reading

2 thoughts on “Sweeney pies: use or lose our business heritage

  1. As Dr Heinz Kiosk used to say in Peter Simple, “we are all guilty”. I certainly used Vicars regularly but moved over to one-stop shopping. Interesting point though about Reading having no litter in the 70s, well I wasn’t here then but certainly in the 80s the streets were filthy. In 1988, about to be out of a job, I saw an advert for a Reading Borough Council marketing manager, applied and was on a short-list of three, one of whom didn’t appear for the interview. As part of the process, we had to give ways in which Reading could improve its image and I remember saying that the town was drowned in litter, which deterred tourists from visiting it and something should be done about it. Well, the job went to the other candidate but lo and behold a few months later those little litter munchers appeared in the streets (do they call them scarabs?) and Reading did become tidier (thanks to me, I like to think!!).

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