Grand tours: On top of old smoky

Great writers and their adventures in literature.
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The Independent Travel

Arnold Bennett was born in Hanley, Staffordshire, in 1867. In 1893 he became assistant editor and then editor of the weekly magazine 'Woman'. 'Anna of the Five Towns', from which this extract is taken, was published in 1902 and was the first of his books to use the Potteries as a setting. He died in 1931.

The Park rose in terraces from the railway station to a street of small villas almost on the ridge of the hill. From its gilded gates to its smallest geranium-slips it was brand-new, and most of it was red. The keeper's house, the bandstand, the kiosks, the balustrades the shelters – all these assailed the eye with a uniform redness of brick and tile which nullified the pallid greens of the turf and the frail trees.

The immense crowd, in order to circulate, moved along in tight processions, inspecting one after another the various features of which they had read full descriptions in the Staffordshire Signal – waterfall, grotto, lake, swans, boat, seats, faience, statues – and scanning with interest the names of the donors so clearly inscribed on such objects of art and craft as from divers motives had been presented to the town by its citizens.

Mynors, as he manoeuvred a way for the two girls through the main avenue up to the topmost terrace, gravely judged each thing upon its merits, approving this, condemning that. In deciding that under all the circumstances the Park made a very creditable appearance, he only reflected the best local opinion. The town was proud of its achievement, and it had the right to be; for, though this narrow pleasaunce was in itself unlovely, it symbolised the first faint renascence of the longing for beauty in a district long given up to unredeemed ugliness.

At length, Mynors having encountered many acquaintances, they got past the bandstand and stood on the highest terrace, which was almost deserted. Beneath them, in front, stretched a maze of roofs, dominated by the gold angel of the Town Hall spire. Bursley, the ancient home of the potter, has an antiquity of a thousand years. It lies towards the north end of an extensive valley, which must have been one of the fairest spots in Alfred's England, but which is now defaced by the activities of a quarter of a million people.

Five contiguous towns – Turnhill, Bursley, Handbridge, Knype and Longshaw – united by a single winding thoroughfare some eight miles in length, have inundated the valley like a succession of great lakes. Of these five Bursley is the mother, but Hanbridge is the largest. They are mean and forbidding of aspect – sombre, hard-featured, uncouth; and the vaporous poison of their ovens and chimneys has soiled and shrivelled the surrounding country till there is no village lane within a league but what offers a gaunt and ludicrous travesty of rural charms.

Nothing could be more prosaic than the huddled, red-brown streets; nothing more seemingly remote from romance. Yet be it said that romance is here – the romance which, for those who have an eye to perceive it, ever dwells amid the seats of industrial manufacture, softening the coarseness, transfiguring the squalor, of these mighty alchemic operations.

The china trail

Visit the Gladstone Pottery Museum (01782 319232, www.stoke.gov.uk/gladstone; open Mon-Sun, 10am-5pm; adults: £4.95, concessions: £3.95, children £3.50), housed in an original pot works. Or tour one of the famous chinaworks. For further information contact Stoke-on-Trent Tourist Information Centre (01782 236000) or visit www.staffordshire.gov. uk/leisure/factory.htm.

Visit the Five Towns

Tour the five (or rather six) towns by car. From Junction 16 of the M6, follow the A500 to Stoke-on-Trent to get to Burslem (Bursley) and Tunstall (Turnhill). Continue on the A50 to Hanley (Hanbridge) and Stoke (Knype) and join the A5007 to Longton (Longshaw), via the town he missed out, Fenton.

Omelette Arnold Bennett

This dish was created at the Savoy Hotel for the writer. It's still on the menu at the Savoy Grill (020-7420 2065).

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