For those unfamiliar with Stoke-on-Trent, this city in the West Midlands of England is best known for an export that is a household name across the world. I am, of course, referring to the enigmatic and effervescent Robbie Williams.
However, despite the local pride to have birthed one of the UK’s biggest pop stars, there’s something that the oft-overlooked Stoke can share as a more deserved claim to fame than the Take That star. For 300 years, Stoke-on-Trent and its surrounds have been known worldwide as the Potteries. This is due to the abundance of clay and coal in the area and the impressive pottery industry that thrived here. Wedgwood, Burleigh, Spode: these iconic names of British craft still get murmurs of approval in certain in-the-know circles.
Despite this reputation for craft, a rich heritage for pottery and a proximity outside the smog of Britian’s larger cities, Stoke struggles economically. The decline of the pottery industry has a lot to do with this. In 2008, many of the staff at Spode were unceremoniously fired and since the 1970s, the number of people in the region employed by the industry dropped from 62,000 to just 7,000. Many have never returned to the now-defunct pottery works, still feeling the sting of the dismissal and the decline of the ceramics industry.
However, I for one, believe that Stoke-on-Trent makes for an unexpectedly great British weekend away. For anyone that appreciates British craft, sees value in supporting one of the UK’s most struggling economies and wants to learn a lesser-known part of British history, this area is fascinating.
British Ceramics Biennial
Launched in 2009 to celebrate and showcase contemporary ceramics, the British Ceramics Biennial sees Stoke-on-Trent’s pottery venues transformed into art galleries. It was fascinating to see the level of creativity, skill and respect for craft.
You can follow the festival at many of the area’s most iconic ceramics venues (all the venues I list below are included); there’s even a free shuttlebus service running between locations, so you can easily see almost everything in one day.
What I really respect about this festival is its support for an industry that’s slipping away. What the festival does is drive regeneration, create a platform for innovation and offer a chance to pass on hundreds of years of knowledge to younger generations. This initiative is attempting to do a lot for the local community and the ceramics craft itself.
World of Wedgwood
Even those without any knowledge of ceramics may well have heard of Wedgwood, a benchmark in British quality. World of Wedgwood is pretty much a mecca for those interested in pottery. I’ve never even considered purchasing high-quality china before, but I found myself longing for a charming tea set to call my own by the end of my visit.
The complex is very well set up for visitors, complete with a cosy tea room, restaurant and shop. The on-site museum tells the complete story of how Josiah Wedgwood built up this iconic English brand. What’s more, you can even try your hand at throwing clay yourself. I don’t think Kasha or myself will give up our day jobs, but there is something special about making something with your bare hands. When we’d recieved our small clay pots in the post a few weeks later, we were glowing with pride.
For those that are particularly interested, there’s also a guided factory tour on weekdays so you can see the skilled craftspeople at work.
China Hall Old Spode Works
The Spode factory, which was built by Josiah Spode and operated for 241 years, is no longer in use. However, a year after its closure, the first British Ceramics Biennial took place and filled the cavernous halls with pottery once more.
The vast open space felt much more like an art gallery, with creative displays, workshops and guides offering tours that gave a background to each artwork. Every single display was made using ceramics, with many choosing to showcase just how versatile the material is through a variety of innovative techniques.
Middleport Pottery is where Burleigh pottery has its roots. The site here dates back to 1888 and contains Europe’s largest collection of ceramic moulds. The factory was a powerhouse in the world of pottery and the site still contains one of the original bottle kilns. Of the many thousands of bottle kilns that once stood in the industry hayday, there are only 46 left in the area.
You can explore Middleport on a self-guided tour to see the steam engine house and the various preserved Victorian offices. The cosy tea room here serves a delicious local specialty called oatcakes – which are essentially savoury pancakes made with oats (get one with cheese!). If you want to pick up a souvenir, you can also explore the giant Burleigh shop or wander the charming Middleport Studios – a series of independent crafts shops.
The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery
If you haven’t learned enough about ceramics, The Potteries Museum features an exaustive permanent collection of ceramics through the ages. However, the museum’s reach extends far beyond Staffordshire ceramics.
On 5th July 2019, Terry Hurbert, an amatuer treasure hunter, was exploring a particularly unnoteworthy field near Hammerwich when he struck gold – literally. The extraordinary find was dubbed the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found. The gold made Terry and the famer who owned the field instant millionares and the £3.2-million treasure is now on display at the Potteries Museum.
The skill of the craftsmanship and the value of the materials means that the hoard could only have been the property of Anglo-Saxon kings and princes. Hilt decorations, cheek plates and a recreation of the helmet make this exhibition well worth a visit. The only thing it doesn’t do is shed any light on the mystery of why the hoard was buried there in the first place…
The Trentham Estate is Stoke’s hidden treasure. A mile-long pond, designed by the iconic Capability Brown, is the centrepiece to Trentham’s lush gardens. The lakeside walk and pictursque Italian garden make for a perfect Sunday activity. Families will also love spotting the unique fairy sculptures dotted throughout the park.
The estate was once built around one of the grandest houses in England, Trentham Hall, which is sadly now a ruin. But watch this space. Redevelopment of the house is approved though, with a price tag in the millions, it may take a while.
Trentham Monkey Forest
I love monkeys. I love watching them interact, seeing how social groups behave and watching their grooming habits – albeit with a slight longing that my wife would also groom me for hours on end. However in most zoos, watching all this through a cage means you can’t get close to the monkeys.
This is why the Trentham Monkey Forest was such a great experience. 140 Barbary macaques roam freely across a vast forest enclosure that visitors can wander through. Due to loss of habitat, these endangered monkeys have found a new home here until they can be released back into the wild.
The monkeys are pretty chill about having humans around, being more concerned about getting fed, grooming and keeping the status quo of social hierarchy in their groups. We did see a scuffle break out between two females, which drew in pretty much every monkey in the park. It was fascinating to watch the dominanant monkeys hold their ground and assert their control.
Where to eat in Stoke-on-Trent
If you’re in town and fancy a bite, I can definitely recommend Klay Pizzeria. This cool spot located in Stoke-on-Trent’s Cultural Quarter features a wood-fired clay oven and a mean selection of rum cocktails. My personal tip would be the Stavros, with fresh avo, feta, olives and a balsamic glaze.
Just across the road, I wholeheartedly recommend Bottle Craft for those seeking their craft beer fix. They stock 200 bottled and cans from across the world with 10 keg and two cask lines to delve into. Another great reason to visit is that unlike London prices, craft beer here is easy on the wallet – result!
I loved our trip to Stoke. The city is so often overlooked and bypassed for prettier or better known parts of the UK. The history here, however, is deeply fascinating.
The British ceramics industry was once the envy of the world, employing a staggering 100,000 people back in the 19th century. Even today, Stoke-made wares are percieved by the US and Japan to be the highest quality in the world. Thanks to inituatives such as the British Ceramics Biennial, we can support a revival in this dying industry and shine a light on the skilled craftspeople still handmaking ceramics the same way they have done for hundreds of years.
We were guests of Visit Stoke during our stay. As always though, all thought and opinions were my own.