Great Weekends by Train: The Potteries, Stoke-on-Trent
The fourth installment of our series of posts about easy weekend breaks by train from London sees VisitEngland’s editor Emma Field head to Stoke-on-Trent to find out more about the city’s pottery heritage.
I probably shouldn’t admit this, but before I went on this trip, my knowledge of Stoke-on-Trent was limited to it being the hometown of Robbie Williams. A quick bit of research, however, and I learnt that Stoke is the world capital of ceramics, made up of six towns collectively and affectionately known as ‘The Potteries’. Aside from Robbie, Stoke has given us Wedgwood, Portmeirion, Royal Doulton and Emma Bridgewater. It’s also very easy to get to Stoke by train, at only an hour and a half from London Euston, a little over half an hour from Manchester and not much longer from Birmingham.
Upon arrival, my first stop was the Moorcroft Heritage Visitor Centre (bus 20 from city centre bus station to Waterloo Road, then a 20-minute walk). At the risk of peaking too soon, it was, for me, the highlight of the trip. I’d never heard of Moorcroft before, so I took a factory tour and learnt about the painstaking process behind each piece of highly collectible art pottery made here. Behind the scenes, a handful of skilled workers design intricate patterns and turn lathes, before applying liquefied clay to outline the elaborate patterns, painting each section with a wash of colour and finally adding the glaze. The pottery is then fired twice – apparently the trick behind the bright colours that make Moorcroft stand out. If you want to find out more about the pottery making process (almost exactly the same as that created by William Moorcroft in 1897), you can check out a video of the Moorcroft Heritage centre here.
Having fallen in love with the pottery, I would have dearly loved to take a piece home with me, but after browsing the many beautiful objects on display in the shop, I realised it would be impossible to decide, and headed on to the Moorcroft Museum. Here, some of the finest pieces from the company’s 100 years are on display, from originals made by William Moorcroft himself to more recent additions created to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the 2012 Olympics.
From Moorcroft to ‘the father of English potters’: Wedgwood. I took a light lunch (served on Wedgwood fine bone china, of course) in the Wedgwood Visitor Centre (reachable by baker bus X1 from Stoke Rail Station, then a 10-minute walk from Barlastone Old Road) in Etruria, on the same site bought and established by Josiah Wedgwood 250 years ago. Feeling revitalised, I was ready to learn more about the man himself, as well as discover his greatest works.
Wedgwood needs little introduction. His pale blue jasperware pieces, decorated with porcelain cameos, are instantly recognisable. Instead of opting for the factory tour, I had a look around the award-winning museum, which traces the development of the brand, and then decided to have a go at throwing a pot myself. Whilst it turned out not to be as easy as the potters make it look, I did manage to raise a passable pot that now holds a flower or two on my windowsill - created under the tuition of an expert, of course. So far though, no-one has asked me whether or not it’s a genuine Wedgwood.
There’s only so much pottery a girl can take in one day, so it was time for a change of pace. Trentham Monkey Forest (X1 baker bus from Stoke Station to Poachers Cottage) is exactly what it says on the tin: in the forest, 140 Barbary Macaques roam freely, doing as they please. In fact, the one thing that they don’t do is beg for food, or steal your sunglasses; feeding the monkeys is strictly prohibited, so these creatures are very well-behaved. The babies were particularly enchanting, scampering from tree to tree and chasing each other along branches.
That evening, I had dinner in what must be one of the most surprising locations for a restaurant that I have ever come across. Situated next to a flyover, the approach to The Old Plough Inn is somewhat unprepossessing, however oncee you step inside you'll find yourself in a country pub covered in bric-a-brac from bygone years, from old family portraits to a gramophone. As for the food, I plumped for the Hartington Double Dekka, a fillet steak sliced, filled and topped with stilton, and cooked red and bloody. I’m something of a chip connoisseur – for me the success of a meal rests on the chips – and The Plough’s fresh, skin-on chips were cooked to perfection. Owner Rob Ward prides himself on the inn’s great reputation for friendly hospitality and, despite the restaurant being full to bursting, he found time to check that I had enjoyed my meal before I walked home to the Stoke-on-Trent Moat House Hotel, which is almost next door.
It came as a relief to walk off the steak in the morning; and all the attractions I visited were all within walking distance of each other. In the town centre is the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, home to the Staffordshire Hoard. Found in a field near Lichfield in 2009, the grandeur of the collection is astonishing: over 1,500 Anglo-Saxon martial items of finely worked gold and silver, inlaid with garnet and other precious stones of a quality so high that they could only have belonged to contemporary royalty. Also home to the world’s largest collection of Staffordshire ceramics and most comprehensive collection of British 20th century studio ceramics, the museum is probably the best place to get an overview of the area's long relationship with pottery.
Perhaps the name the most commonly associated with pottery in this country is Emma Bridgewater. Her factory, outlet shop and café are about a ten minute walk from the Potteries Museum. The factory tour doesn’t operate on weekends, so after a jacket potato lunch next to the world’s largest polka dot AGA in the Kitchen Café, I settled myself into a seat in the Design Studio to try my hand at designing my very own mug. Looking around, there were people of all ages letting their imaginations run wild with anima, spot and heart-shaped sponges painted in a variety of colours; recreating Bridgewater’s famous spot design to their own specifications; or putting baby hand-prints on plates for gifts. Ignoring the sponge printers, I opted to go freestyle and drew the outline of a whale spouting. Inside, I drew the fluke of a whale diving into my tea. Satisfied with my work, I wandered through to the factory outlet store and picked up no fewer than six cut-price mugs for a bargain price.
The final stop was the Gladstone Pottery Museum (bus 26A from Church Street Stoke to Longton, followed by a short walk), a factory preserved entirely as it functioned in the Victorian era. It isn't hard to imagine when, inside the huge bottle kilns, men would have carried stacks of plates up ladders in searing heat. The doctor’s room offers an insight into the diseases associated with working in the pottery industry, such as potter’s rot (or silicosis); while upstairs artists hand-decorated the plates made in the factories below.
The museum also celebrates one of the ceramic world’s less pretty but more functional achievements, with the ‘Flushed with Pride’ exhibition - a history of, and tribute to, the lavatory (Twyford and Armitage Shanks are also from the area). After a weekend both entertaining and educational, I think I can make a fair guess that we’ve all got a little bit of Stoke in our lives, whether that’s in our kitchen cupboards, or in our bathrooms.
>> Find more cultural weekend breaks in England.