Day out:Stoke-on-Trent Ah, the Potteries, an industrial/urban cluster near the source of the River Trent, lying approximately halfway between Manchester and Birmingham. Yes, obviously I'd go there for a day trip. It's only 135 miles from London, or 2¼ hours sat on a train, so it's not beyond the realms of possibility. It's currently possible to buy a return ticket for £20, which is a bargain, as part of London Midland's Great Escape promotion (you can go anywhere - I chose Stoke). And there's plenty to do there, as befits Britain's ceramic capital, so I crammed lots into my 5½ hour visit yesterday. You should have come, although my guess is you wouldn't have put up with the eleven mile walk.
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The city of Stoke-on-Trent
Let's sort out the geography first. What the rest of the country knows as Stoke-on-Trent is actually six towns, amalgamated in 1910 and awarded city status in 1925. Individually they are Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton and Longton, with Stoke getting top billing by and large because it had the main railway station. The commercial centre is in Hanley - all the big shops and that - so by rights the place ought to be called Hanley-on-Trent. But it's not, it's just a schizophrenic conurbation, and home to quarter of a million people.
And the history. It was the conjunction of two natural resources, coal and clay, that brought the pottery trade to North Staffordshire. That and the entrepreneurial talents of Josiah Wedgwood and friends, who in the late 18th century transformed a cottage industry into an economic powerhouse. Hundreds of chimneys arose, and the Wedgwood factory was soon joined by the well-known names of Royal Doulton, Spode and Minton. Hence The Potteries. More recently the industrial mix hereabouts has faced irreversible decline, and the city looks to a more uncertain future. There, that should do for now, let's go for that walk...
I was expecting thrillinger from the town centre the whole place is named after, but no. The Minster's nice, and has 7th century roots, but the shops are dull, and the Spode Pottery closed down in 2008 after 200+ years leaving an economic hole at the heart of the community. A lonely looking Visitor Centre sits among the mothballed buildings (reopening for the 2015 season at the end of March), but until then I had to make do with grinning at the company logo minus one letter on a warehouse wall. So my top tip would be, if you arrive at Stoke-on-Trent station, don't hang around.
The commercial heart of the Potteries sits on a low hill, half an hour's walk up from the station. I walked up via Hanley Park, a terraced beauty, which has a canal running through the middle of it and a main pavilion in desperate need of repair. The shopping centre sits within a whirling ring road, with shops along a variety of labyrinthine streets, and bigger stores inside the ridiculously named intu Potteries mall. I noted the presence of the next level of austerity catering, namely Poundbakery, inside which lunchgoers queued patiently for cheap multibuy comestibles (only four of the chain's outlets lie further south). And in the estate agent's window, five-figure properties in abundance, should you ever be thinking of moving out of London for somewhere quieter. Potteries Museum & Art Gallery: Opened in 1981 by Prince Charles, this three-floor box houses some of the treasures of the Potteries. Most recently this includes part of the Staffordshire Hoard, a trove of intricate Anglo-Saxon metalwork uncovered in 2009, and now split between Birmingham and a central gallery here. The largest room in the building houses a full-size Spitfire, the iconic plane having been designed by local boy Reginald J. Mitchell (after whom the nearby Wetherspoons is also named). Upstairs is a very broad and excellent collection of Stoke-on-Trent pottery, from early Wedgwood to 20th century ceramics, which might just get you fired up. I stayed an hour, admission free. Central Forest Park: Above Hanley, on land high enough to still have traces of snow, this extensive public park has some fine views across the city. Beyond Europe's largest skate park and an icy lake, two suspiciously conical hills rise to a point - both slag heaps left over from mining and colonised by vegetation. I stopped off at the park's kiosk for lunch, attracted by the very low prices and by the appearance of oatcakes, the localdelicacy, on the menu. I had to wait for the lady in front to get her 70p coffee, and smiled as she confirmed every Stoke stereotype by saying "thankyou duck" on departure. My £1.30 Cheese and Sausage Oatcake took only a couple of minutes to griddle, and included a choice of 'red or brown sauce' inserted during production. The aftertaste reminded me of porridge, and the contents were high on the unhealthy side, but by golly it was delicious.
To the north of Central Forest Park, the town of Burslem is where most of the Potteries' pottering started out. And is dying out. Walking into town I passed an enormous demolished space, and was surprised and saddened to spot clues in the wall revealing that this was once Royal Doulton's HQ and manufacturing base. Only the shuttered factory shop and some rusting gates remain, the company's work now outsourced elsewhere. The town centre has seen better days, indeed Burslem has just topped a national survey to find the most boarded-up high street in the country, and was bustling only because an army of football fans was marching through to watch Port Vale's imminent home game. Ceramica, a millennium-funded attraction, has recently folded having suffered cripplingly low visitor numbers, and the old town hall awaits a redevelopment that may never come. I fear it's too late for a Robbie Williams heritage trail. Moorcroft Heritage Visitor Centre: Several Stoke potteries remain open as museums, or as going concerns with a visitor attraction attached. Moorcroft combine the two, with a shop and small museum in their original works in Cobridge. Their pottery is vibrant and gorgeous, mostly the output of a father and son design team, but with a price tag within reach only of the serious collector. Nevertheless it was good to look around, and to take the opportunity to stand inside a traditional brick bottle oven, of which there were once 2000 across the city. Eschewing an expensive vase or teaset, I instead splashed out on a couple of 50p plates in the Royal Stafford factory shop clearance sale back in Burslem - bargain.
Remember National Garden Festivals? Stoke-on-Trent hosted the second back in 1986, landscaping the site of a former steelworks above the Trent and Mersey Canal. A decade later the site was reestablished as forested parkland, with the car park transformed into a trading estate, and an out-of-town retail park along the opposite flank. Another 20 years hence and the former tourist attraction is eerily deserted. Various sculptures dot the hillside, including a stone circle nicknamed Stokehenge, and crumbling steps ascend former rockeries on the way to horticultural exhibits long since vanished. I enjoyed crossing the central ravine by footbridge, and following the former tracks of the 1-summer-only 2ft gauge railway. And OK, so it's February, but I walked the length of this extensive woodland without meeting a soul, bar two boyracers out buzzing the trails on a noisy motorbike. I guess the Morrisons shoppers, bet365 employees and Odeon-goers down below have no interest in a muddy uphill diversion, but their loss.
If the name sounds odd, it's because Josiah Wedgwood named his industrial quarter after an artistic district of Italy. His processes were revolutionary for the time, creating a belching oven cluster at the point where two canals meet for optimal transport access. One chimney survives, the whole operation having moved out of town in 1950 (and where a brand new Wedgwood visitor attraction opens in April). Today the site is home to the Etruria Industrial Museum, which boasts several pottery exhibits, a mill forge, a canal warehouse and a working steam engine. The interior only opens around half a dozen timesa year, generally on the first weekend of the month, so I narrowly missed out on a look inside a drained lock last week. But the complex looked highly atmospheric from the towpath, which I then followed (again, not a soul) for the mile-long walk back to the station. All in all, a fascinating if somewhat melancholic day out.