Stoke on Trent
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Stoke on Trent
By Lucy Corne

The first time I visited the Gladstone Pottery Museum I was a giddy seven-year-old on a school trip. To this day my mum still reminds me of how I raved about this homage to all things ceramic for several weeks afterwards. A lot has happened since, most notably the inevitable onset of adult cynicism, and I must admit that for many years I was far from being the biggest fan of my hometown. In fact I wasn’t that thrilled with my home country if I’m honest.

Activities for England

Disenchanted by Britain’s perpetual rain, extortionate prices and bored of a culture I couldn’t seem to appreciate, I left the UK almost a decade ago to see what else the world had to offer. But on my return this year I found that things had changed. It was still expensive and still raining, but suddenly the excellent English ales seemed worth paying for and the rain just made for a gloriously green backdrop. The people were friendlier, the food tastier, the history richer and the pubs cosier than I had remembered.  

And in my hometown I found a forward-looking community determined not to give in to the credit crunch. Stoke-on-Trent had suffered more than its fair share of woe over the past couple of decades. Once world famous for its superlative ceramics, the pottery factories have closed one by one, culminating in the devastating sale of the mighty Wedgwood earlier this year. The coal mines that once powered the kilns have long since shut down, leaving Stoke with blissfully cleaner skies, but along with them sky-high unemployment levels.

Not exactly the perfect spot for a summer break, I’m sure you’re thinking. But when I returned I found that both locals and tourism officials had made an all out effort to regenerate the city, embrace the culture and turn disused factories into a chain of visitor attractions. Many would agree that this is the best time ever to visit the Potteries, as Stoke-on-Trent’s six towns are known.

My desire to explore my heritage began at the place I’d loved so much as an easy-to-please grade two student on a school excursion - Gladstone Pottery Museum. Expectations were high and I doubted that the exhibits could impress as they had over 20 years ago, but I soon found myself championing the former pot bank-turned-museum all over again.

Production ceased here back in the 1960s and a decade later it was transformed into a museum highlighting every step of the pottery process, from transporting the clay to firing the finished article in the city’s emblematic bottle kilns. These massive ovens used to dominate the skyline, billowing out choking black smoke that made this one of the least healthy places in Britain. Today only a smattering of the kilns (none still in use) remain, giving Stoke a unique panorama and Potters (as locals are known) a source of pride.

Stepping inside the massive kilns is a highlight of the museum, as is learning that ‘saggar maker’s bottom knocker’ was once a valid job title in the pottery industry, but Gladstone’s real gem is its interactive demonstrations. With limited time, we opted out of making the delicate bone china flowers or decorating plates or tiles, instead heading straight for the potter’s wheel. For me, it was a huge flashback to the wobbly pots I made in elementary school (pretty much every school in Stoke has a wheel and a kiln), while for my Canadian companion ‘throwing a pot’ was another of those enjoyable firsts that travel constantly hurls at you.

Next: page 2 of Stoke on Trent - Leaving with our freshly made bowl and vase, I started to look at Stoke in a different light. I was suddenly keen to see the city through a tourist’s eyes.

 
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