Potteries' Finest Served On A Plate

Stoke-on-Trent is still the centre of the ceramics world, as an upcoming festival will reveal. Ian White reports
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Do you know what a saggar maker's bottom knocker is? How about the origin of the term "pothole"? OK, they're not up there with life's biggest questions but the answers are easier to come by. To find out what a saggar is and why it needs its bottom knocking, go to Stoke-on-Trent over the weekend of 13-15 October to see the ceramics festival.

That this is only the city's second such festival is surprising for a location that owes its very existence to pottery, is regarded as the ceramics centre of the Western world and, indeed, is referred to as "the Potteries". "We should have done it a long time ago," admits Andrew Watts, ceramic development officer at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley. "We've been producing pottery here for 300 years. We took the idea from China and exported it back to China." And the rest of the world.

So successful was Stoke-on-Trent that in the 19th century its skies were black from the smoke of thousands of towering bottle ovens firing countless ceramic pieces from bone-china dinner services to electrical insulators. All the big names had factories here - Wedgwood, Spode, Twyford, Royal Doulton, Aynsley, Adams, Minton. There were some 1,500 manufacturers in all.

Stoke-on-Trent is where the great and the good in British ceramics produced their best work. In 1780, Thomas Minton perfected his Chinese-inspired Willow-pattern tableware here and Josiah Wedgwood, perhaps the best-known name in ceramics, developed his Wedgwood blue ware in 1774, with its distinctive high relief white jasper ornamentation. Later, Tunstall-born Clarice Cliff designed the bold and bright Bizarre Ware, which is as popular now as it was in the 1930s.

Most of the potteries are gone now, though there are notable exceptions such as Moorcroft, which is more than 100 years old and has been producing its distinctive, richly coloured and highly decorated pieces in Burslem since 1912. Liberty, the London department store, was its first big customer and its output is highly collectable.

The attractions at this year's festival range from fun events such as street theatre and a competition in which celebrities throw pots, to scholarly talks by ceramics experts such as Michelle Erickson, celebrated artists such as Russell Coates, and leading studio potters such as Walter Keeler. Ceramics historian and Antiques Roadshow regular Paul Atterbury is patron of the festival and will be in attendance with fellow broadcasters Eric Knowles and Henry Sandon.

But, if you're looking for a little less talk and a little more action, make a bee-line for Gladstone Pottery Museum in Longton. The museum, which is housed in a working Victorian pottery factory, is packed with interesting exhibits and fun things to do. From its cobbled yard to its four 80ft-tall bottle ovens, Gladstone often gets used as a set for period film and TV dramas. Here, you can see demonstrations from skilled staff who have spent most of their lives working in the local pottery industry.

After you have watched a bone-china flower being made or a pot being thrown on a wheel, you can have a go yourself. You can make a pot for £3 and a flower for £2 - and the best part is you get to take them home. During the festival, for £10, make, glaze and fire your own pot using a Japanese technique called Raku. And you can pay £5 for a bowl of soup and then walk off with the handmade bowl. If you want some bargains rather than making them, trawl the local factory shops, which offer discounts of up to 25 per cent.

At The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley you can discover how Stoke-on-Trent is six separate towns - Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton and Longton. They began in the mid-17th century as small communities of potters spread out along an eight-mile, roughly L-shaped vein of coal and clay. The demand for local clay was such that early potters took to digging holes in the roads - the first potholes.

The museum has recently opened a new Studio Ceramics Gallery and will be the venue for a Ceramic Arts Fair, which has attracted more than 20 studio potters and "design-focused" manufacturers. It is holding two free exhibitions - Islamic Ceramics, with pieces from Iran, Turkey and Spain, which runs until 21 October, and Ceramic Futures, which shows the work of Staffordshire University graduates.

As the only commercial manufacturer in the area still making hand-turned and decorated pieces on a large scale, Moorcroft is opening its doors on 14 October, when visitors are invited to bring in their Moorcroft pieces to be valued by Eric Knowles. The company's six full-time designers, including Rachel Bishop and Emma Bossens, who are well-known to Moorcroft collectors, will be on hand to sign visitors' purchases. You can pre-book a two-hour masterclass in either tube-lining (drawing an outline with liquid clay) a piece or painting a plate and take the result away.

At Burslem's old town hall Ceramica offers interactive displays and activities based on pottery-making and local society. Take the chance to "leg" a narrowboat through a canal tunnel, and dig for evidence of the past with Channel 4's Time Team.

After the celebrities have thrown their pots outside Hanley Town Hall (from 10.30am to noon), you can have a go. Or you may want to "paint your own pot" at the Potteries Shopping Centre. For £2.50, you can paint your design on a white plate, mug or egg-cup and take it home to bake in the oven where it will become a dishwasher-proof memento of a great day out.

For information about the festival and about local factory shops contact Stoke-on-Trent Tourist Information (01782 236000; visitstoke.co.uk; stokeceramicsfestival.co.uk)

Comments