The big idea

Stoke-on-Trent is unique. There is no other city quite like it in the country. To start with, unlike any other British city, Stoke-on-Trent is actually made up of six separate towns – with each one having its own speciality – which are known collectively as The Potteries.

It should be no surprise then that The Potteries – which recently celebrated 300 years as the home of British ceramics – is home to the world’s greatest pottery manufacturers and was recently confirmed as the World Capital of Ceramics.

But there’s more to Stoke-on-Trent than ceramics – add in its proximity to some of the country’s most spectacular gardens and attractions, and you get a very interesting proposition.

So, if you have a creative bent, and want to experience great design, be it pottery, landscapes or attractions; or a thrill-seeker’s bent, and want to experience some of the best adrenaline-highs in the country, you could do worse than pay this one-off city a visit.

Sixes and sevens

The six towns that make up the city each have their own character or speciality – Tunstall specialised in tiles; Burslem in teapots; Longton in bone china. Stoke, after which the city was named, was the administration centre for the others as it was on the main railway line, while Hanley developed into the main shopping area, and is now the city centre. And Fenton - sometimes referred to as the forgotten town after local novelist Arnold Bennett referred to the city as the ‘city of five towns’ – was home to the Coalport factory. And you can experience the unique nature of this special city by visiting some of the ‘magnificent seven’ heritage sites.

First up is the £10 million Wedgwood Museum, which opened in 2008 and houses the majority of the Wedgwood ceramic archive and art collection. In the city centre is the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, home to the world’s largest selection of Staffordshire ceramics and the Staffordshire Hoard, the most valuable collection of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever found; while the Gladstone Pottery Museum, with its cobbled yard and towering bottle oven – once such a staple on the landscape – is like stepping back to a bygone era.

The Etruria Industrial Museum, at the junction of the Trent and Mersey and Caldon canals, is pretty much where the whole thing started, so it’s worth a visit (even if it’s just to find out how they put the ‘bone’ in bone china), while The Moorcroft Heritage Visitor Centre  is home to a quite distinctive style of art pottery. The Dudson Museum chronicles the history of the oldest surviving family business in ceramic tablewares, and, finally, for a taste of the Stuart times check out the 17th-century Ford Green Hall.

But if buying the wares of modern-day world-renowned designers is more your thing, this place is definitely for you. There are simply so many pottery factory shops and outlets; you can buy designs by world-famous contemporary designers such as Vera Wang, Jasper Conran and Paul Costelloe or simply snap up some collections by world-renowned chefs such as Gordon Ramsey and Jamie Oliver.

And Stoke-on-Trent’s dedication to good design doesn’t end there. Staffordshire University bestowed an honorary degree to James Dyson (he of the bagless vacuum fame) in 1996 and carries on Stoke’s fine potted history by offering an MA in ceramics. And if we’re talking about creativity, some of Stoke’s famous sons (and daughters) include Robbie Williams, Nick Hancock, JC Bamford (founder of JCB diggers), Slash from Guns n’ Roses and, er, Anthea Turner.

This is clearly a city famed for its design and creative skills.

Designers of landscapes

If you want to see beautiful design of a different type, head for what’s been described as ‘the most exciting garden and parkland restoration project in the UK’ at The Trentham Estate. Trentham has an interesting history – the original house was designed by the same architect who worked on the Houses of Parliament (sadly the building was demolished in 1911, but it does have the distinction of being one of the few demolished buildings to be given a full description in the works of Pevsner), and The Bank of England was relocated here during the war.

Or maybe take a miniature tour of the world at the unique Biddulph Grange Garden, with its formal Italian terraces, peaceful Chinese gardens and Egyptian court. The Dorothy Clive Garden has the most spectacular rhododendron displays, while the Stapeley Water Gardens is just like visiting a tropical rainforest with its dazzling floral displays, exotic plants and intriguing animals, such as meerkat, piranhas and toucans.

Oh, and if you want to be really dazzled, remember that Stoke-on-Trent is the nearest city to Alton Towers Resort, the country’s top theme park. 

The Essence

There’s a simple phrase which sums up the soul or essence of Stoke-on-Trent: Nature’s designers in action

Who’s it for/how it can make you feel

It can quite simply make you feel alive with possibilities. It’s perfect for home builders – anyone with a creative bent who wants ideas for kitting out an idyllic home and garden should come here. And for thrill seekers there’s a serious amount of choice in the vicinity.

Interesting bits in the history

The name ‘Stoke’ means ‘place’, usually a holy place, which suggests that the area would have been a holy site: indeed remains of a Saxon cross were found here, giving the name some credence (these can be seen in the grounds of Stoke Minster). And although evidence exists for an earlier settlement (Bronze Age burials have been discovered in nearby Thor’s cave, for example), we know that the Romans arrived in the region in AD 46 to set up a settlement to protect nearby salt mining.

In mediaeval times the area was sparsely populated with extensive woodlands and maybe a little livestock farming (the heavy clay in the area would have made it unsuitable for arable farming). The Norman Conquest in 1066 and the scorched earth policy that ensued would have affected this part of Staffordshire; indeed there are no significant remains from the post-Conquest era in the Stoke boundary. At about this time the big religious houses of the day cleared a lot of woodland to build their estates, notably the Augustinian Priory founded at Trentham in 1150, and Hulton Abbey in 1218, one of the last Cisterian houses to be built in Britain.

Wool became an important industry in the region, with both Trentham Priory and Hulton Abbey deriving significant income from it. And, because of the abundance of coal in the North Staffordshire region, coal and iron mining were also in strong growth.

Despite this, it was glass making which emerged first as a major industry in the county, and by Tudor and Stuart times the staple industry was pottery, founded on the abundance of clay, coal for firing kilns and salt and lead for glazing. As an interesting aside, have you ever wondered why potholes are so-called? Many of the potters took clay from the old Roman roads, leaving large holes in them...

At this time, though, the six towns that now make up Stoke-on-Trent were still villages, and were very much in competition with each other. Burslem was the largest and already had a reputation for the best pottery, Hanley was effectively two villages about half a mile apart, and Tunstall was one of the smallest. It was actually the arrival of the canals that would help to transform them into booming towns as they linked manufacturers with their markets and sources of raw materials and lowered transport costs. The Trent and Mersey Canal was the first to open, in 1777; it was on the banks of this canal that Josiah Wedgwood (grandfather of Charles Darwin – obviously a high-achieving, creative streak running in the family) had opened his famous Etruria works, one of the country’s first large factories, and an early inspiration for Cadbury’s Bournville village.

It was the work of Wedgwood, along with other famous 18thand 19thcentury Staffordshire potters such as Spode, Minton and the Wood family that made the area synonymous with ceramics. They were helped further by Josiah Spode II, who developed the hugely successful fine bone china factory. In its heyday it’s believed there were up to 4,000 of the iconic bottle kilns dotted on the Stoke skyline: a surreal sight indeed.

But there was a down side to all this industry: massive noise pollution and a black, smoky living environment. And that’s why open spaces and parks were deemed so important for the Potteries workers, with Trentham Gardens being one of the earliest stately homes to be opened to the public.

By the turn of 20thcentury the movement to bring the six towns together was gaining momentum, and in 1910 the county borough of Stoke-on-Trent was created. Some 15 years later it was raised to the status of a city, although the character of each of the individual towns remains.

How to experience what’s different/get under the skin of

Start off south of the city at the Wedgwood Visitor Centre and Museum. As well as housing the largest Wedgwood collection in the world, the museum also has a collection of rare 17th-century slipware – the pieces are huge, and you’ve also got the visitor centre, a number of retail outlets, and a film theatre. It’s a great way to get under the skin of this iconic English luxury brand and to get a better understanding of the man himself through pattern books and notes of his experiments. Pop over the road and you’ll find Portmeirion Potteries and factory shops with pieces by Spode and Royal Worcester.

Next, pop along to the Trentham Estate, but be warned, this is a big place with a lot of attractions. The centrepiece is the garden itself: award-winning and lovingly restored, it features a circular lake walk, the UK’s first ‘barefoot walk’, a growing collection of themed show gardens and the ‘hide and speak’ hedge maze. There’s also one of the country’s largest garden centres, with restaurants, cafes and a shopping village.

You’ll find Aerial Extreme here, an awesome adventure rope course, and the Trentham Monkey Forest – the only place in Britain where you can walk among 140 Barbary Macaques roaming free in beautiful forests. In fact, given its proximity to Alton Towers Resort and everything else the city has to offer, the main problem will be deciding what not to do on a visit here.

After the visual delights and smells that make up Trentham, pop round the A50 to Longton where you’ll find the Gladstone Pottery Museum. On the way you’ll pass the Britannia Stadium, home to Stoke City FC (pop by and check out the statue to the famous Sir Stanley Matthews, who is regarded as one of the best English football players ever and remains the only one to be knighted while still playing). This museum does a great job of telling the story of The Potteries in one unique experience: it offers great surroundings, the chance to throw a pot yourself and even the ‘Flushing with Pride’ exhibition about the history of the toilet.

After this, it’s off to the Etruria Industrial Museum, the last working steam-powered potter’s mill in the country, situated on the Trent and Mersey Canal; look out for the Harecastle Tunnel on the canal – when it opened in the 18thcentury, it was the largest engineering project in Britain and described as the ‘eighth wonder of the world’.

Before heading into the city follow the canal around and you’ll reach Emma Bridgewater’s place on Lichfield Street, where you can do a factory tour, visit the shop and create your own designs in the decorating studio.

Once in the city head to the cultural quarter, where you’ll find The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery on Bethesda Street (incidentally, as you’re travelling around, you’ll notice the lack of any tall buildings, very few were built because of potential damage to the topography). The entire ceramics collection here is a Designated Collection of National Importance and the foyer houses the ‘Made in England’ mosaic wall, the first part of a three-part project (the other parts are located on the London Underground and in China). Once inside, look up and admire the Reginald Mitchell World War II Spitfire (another famous son of Stoke). When you’re done, turn right up Piccadilly and you’ll soon see The Potteries Shopping Centre, housing about 100 high street shops and eateries.

Nearby, up Hope Street, is the Dudson Museum – the oldest-surviving family business in ceramic tableware – which offers the unique opportunity to step inside a Grade II-listed bottle oven. And just up the road is the fiercely independent Moorcroft Heritage Visitor centre. Both are well worth a visit.

 Just a stone’s throw away is Central Forest Park, where you can relax, go for a stroll and maybe even catch sight of the great crested grebes at the lakes. For something a bit more energetic, head for the skate plaza, the largest of its kind in Europe.

And last, but by no means least, head on to Alton Towers Resort, the UK’s biggest theme park, incorporating two hotels a water park and a spa and for good-old family fun and the hair-raising rides that are Nemesis, Oblivion, Air and Thi3teen, among others (and if those names mean nothing to you, you’re in for a big surprise...).

When to visit

City pics