Travel through ceramic country at Stoke-on-Trent

An icy drizzle peppers my raincoat as I step off the train at Stoke-on-Trent. The neo-Jacobean station with a stone arch — dedicated to the men of the Staffordshire Railway who fell in the Great War — opens into a small square. Lording over it is a statue of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the Wedgwood company that pioneered the industrialisation of pottery, and grandfather of biologist Charles Darwin. Wedgwood’s beautiful designs that he pushed into mass production led to the six towns of Stoke becoming the Potteries and the city being named a manufacturing hub of the Industrial Revolution.

A century ago, fuelled by the wealth of Empire, the Potteries employed nearly a lakh workers. Over time, with work being outsourced overseas and tea-sets a thing of nostalgia, many of the factories closed down, well-known companies such as Doulton were acquired and moved on to manufacture tableware for the hospitality industry, or, in the case of Johnson, tiles.

Ceramics to the fore

Beyond Stoke’s bottle kilns and once smoke-darkened skyline is a story of social history, reinvention and UNESCO-listed treasures that draws visitors by the thousands every year. The city still insists on calling itself the ‘ceramics capital of the world’ by continuing to manufacture crockery, and, lately, bathroom fittings and surgical implants. It has turned the spotlight on itself by hosting the British Ceramics Biennial (BCB), and opened a range of museums and activity centres that have kept alive curiosity for fine ceramics.

The BCB is considered Britain’s foremost contemporary ceramics festival, with the current edition concluding on October 13. It invites artists from around the globe to present new forms of expression with clay. Among them, is Indian artist-in-residence Shirley Bhatnagar, whose project Beyond White Mughals revisits cultural linkages between India, Britain and their shared colonial past.

Barney Hare Duke, artistic director, BCB, says, “The British Ceramics Biennial is about people, place and clay. As we mark our 10th anniversary, we work to create an ambitious thought-provoking programme — one that celebrates the heritage and cultural riches of this extraordinary city.”

With its unvarnished walls, China Hall in the former Spode factory site is the festival hub. Other sites also involve a heritage background — Middleport Pottery, Burslem, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, Hanley, and World of Wedgwood in Barlaston.

How to get there
  • Stoke-on-Trent is located less than an hour from Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool and one-and-a-half hours from London Euston by train.

While relatively newer firms such as the 1985-founded Emma Bridgewater encourage shoppers to indulge in its newer patterns and brighter colours, old names such as Wedgwood take intrepid tourists and connoisseurs on a journey through the English Enlightenment, the French Revolution and the growth of Empire through its rare and well-documented ceramics collection.

“Contemporary ceramics have helped keep the industry alive. It is experiencing a renaissance driven by demand for quality design. The throw-away culture is shifting to a ‘buy fewer but better’ one, increasing sustainability. People enjoy visiting factories to see a mix of traditional and modern manufacturing processes,” says Julie Woodward, marketing specialist, World of Wedgwood (WoW).

Filled to the brim

A visit to WoW, set in a wooded countryside, is a full-day affair that travels through the factory, museum and shop, flagship store and factory outlet, courtyard garden and estate, tea emporium, tea room and dining hall. “We have thousands of visitors each year — individuals, tourist and private groups, and educational groups from the UK and overseas,” says Woodward.

Fortified by hot chocolate at the dining room, we are met by Leo the exuberant guide at the foyer. He tells us to sheath our cameras and watch up-front the incredible journey of clay as it is fired in kilns, glazed, hand-decorated and stacked as finished products. Under the factory’s vaulted roof, men and women in blue smocks — Romantic poet William Blake was an engraver for Wedgwood — work shifts to produce tea and dinner sets, breakfast services and commemorative plates. Installations tell the story of temperatures, old machines and older ovens that cast treasures such as the Russian Empress Catherine II’s Frog Service, a hand-painted dinner and dessert set comprising 944 pieces in 1774. We are allowed to touch a priceless teapot being readied for the Saudi royal family that has just been etched in gold.

Things to do
  • Shops such as Royal Stafford and Portmeirion offer rare and individual ceramics for sale. The Dudson Museum is housed in an original Grade II listed bottle oven.
  • Try a North Staffordshire oatcake with melted cheese, bacon and brown sauce.
  • Walk with the Barbary macaques at Trentham Monkey Forest.
  • Paddle along the Heritage Canoe Trail.
  • The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery is also home to the Staffordshire Hoard, the largest and most valuable Anglo-Saxon treasure ever found.
  • Visit Flushed with Pride at Gladstone Pottery Museum to discover a gallery dedicated to the history of the toilet. It lifts the lid on the role that potters played in the story of the WC from the time of Queen Elizabeth I through to the toilet of the future.

“Buyers span a very wide spectrum — from royal palaces (Wedgwood has held a royal warrant since 1766) to individuals purchasing an item online,” says Woodward.

The factory tour ends with the option of throwing a pot at the wheel with the help of an expert. Children squeal in delight and adults groan while the wheel turns, shaping squiggly structures that are honed to perfection by the expert’s hand. The clay vase is labelled by name and awaits its turn at the kiln. Six weeks later, it arrives miraculously unbroken, having journeyed thousands of miles to India.

At the museum, travel faster than HG Wells through 260 years of design and production. “The V&A Collection exhibits approximately 3,000 objects. It is one of the most important industrial collections in the world,” says Woodward. In room after room, in vitrines are exhibited a mind-boggling array of ceramics from the 18th to the 21st centuries. Perhaps, the most beautiful are the First Day Vases thrown by Josiah Wedgwood in 1769, made of black basalt, and the 1786 blue jasper Apotheosis of Homer Vase, whose bas relief was designed by John Flaxman Jr. The 19th Century sees blue painted botanicals on plates, while the 20th sees plenty of bone china. Designers Jasper Conran and Vera Wang have influenced current lines. The Wonderlust Collection is housed in a cheery red train.

Round off the visit with afternoon tea at the tea room. Scones, cakes and short-eats jostle for space on the curate stand. Tea flows like liquid gold from a pot into a beautiful cup. The staff talks in whispers. The sound of tinkling china and the aroma of bergamot from the Earl Grey fill the air — reminders that gracious living still has not gone to pot.

(The writer was in Stoke-on-Trent at the invitation of Marketing Manchester and VisitBritain)

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Printable version | Sep 23, 2021 3:15:58 AM |

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