Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire lies about half way between Birmingham and Manchester to the west side of England. It’s the home of the Staffordshire Potteries. They flourished in the six towns of Hanley, Burslem, Stoke, Tunstall, Fenton and Longton at the start of the seventeenth century. Plenty of clay, salt, lead and coal saw the industry boom. Now the area is rich in industrial and artistic heritage, has lots to offer the visitor, and is sometimes overlooked. Come with us and take a look at the fascinating things to do in the Stoke Potteries.
Getting to the Staffordshire Potteries
There are direct trains from London, Birmingham and Manchester, all running regularly throughout the day. The fastest train from London takes an hour and a half, and it’s less than an hour from either Birmingham or Manchester to Stoke-on-Trent. This mainline station is situated in the town of Stoke. If you are taking the train, I’d suggest you book in advance if possible. These are busy train services and booking will ensure you have a seat (free reservations). You can book just a couple of days in advance to secure a reservation, and you can find more about affordable public transport in the UK here.
To get around the Potteries, there is a network of frequent bus services. FirstBus, which runs local services, has a handy ticket app available. You can purchase your ticket in advance, download it to your phone, and activate it on the day of travel, when you scan the QR code on the buses of your choice.
If you are driving to the Potteries, you’ll find Stoke-on-Trent and the Potteries clearly signposted off the M6 motorway with a brown heritage sign featuring a large pot. Most of the places mentioned in the list of things to do have their own parking, and much of it is free. In Hanley, which is the centre of the city of Stoke-on-Trent, you may need to pay to use a public carpark.
Things to Do In A Day In the Staffordshire Potteries
All of these suggestions are either in the area of the Staffordshire Potteries, or within half an hour’s drive. Some focus on the history and art of the area, others on its industrial heritage, and there are options to get active and outdoors. Whatever you choose to do here, there is more than enough to fill a day, so you may want to stay awhile to enjoy all the Potteries has to offer.
Meet Ollie the Owl, a famous Staffordshire resident discovered on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow. His head is a beaker for the jug that is his body.
Understand what makes a Saggar Maker’s Bottom Knocker
This particularly British piece of terminology was made infamous by the television show What’s My Line. Here a panel would try to guess the occupation of a guest. The aforementioned role was the job we Brits have remembered most over time. So…what exactly does the Saggar Maker’s Bottom Knocker do? The saggar itself was the case that protected and shaped pottery during the biscuit firing stage in a bottle kiln. Each saggar lasted around 40 firings, so there was always work for the Saggar Maker.
The Saggar Maker had two tradespeople working to support the production of saggars. The Frame Maker beat out the clay onto a flat surface, using a metal mallet. And possibly felt disgruntled for many years at the relative fame afforded his colleague, the Bottom Knocker, who constructed the round bottom of the saggar using a mould. The expert Saggar Maker joined the bottom and sides together, and paid his two assistants out of his wages.
What comes out of the saggar – slip cast vessels
You can find out more about the active process of pottery making at the Gladstone Pottery Museum. Here you can also get your hands in the clay and make a pot, create a pottery flower or test out your pottery painting skills.
Take the Stoke-on-Trent Sculpture Trail
In addition to its rich heritage in ceramics, the Potteries has a brilliant collection of sculpture. The Trail itself covers all kinds of works. It includes tributes to great people whose influence extended beyond the local area, along with nods to local history and beautiful inspirations.
Josiah Wedgwood in Stoke
People depicted in the trail include the engineer and canal builder James Brindley (at Etruria Locks beside the Industrial Museum), Josiah Wedgwood (opposite the mainline station) and Sir Stanley Matthews (outside Stoke City FC). You’ll also find the Staffordshire Saxon, inspired by the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.
Watch out for stealth parts of the Sculpture Trail where you’d least expect them. On my way to the Spode Heritage Centre, I spotted some pretty mirrored ribbons on the underpass for the A500 main road. This is called Ribbons of Light, by Liz Lemon, and includes a reinterpretation of the Staffordshire Knot.
Head to the Spode Museum Trust Heritage Centre
If you’re arriving in The Potteries by train, this is very close to Stoke-on-Trent station. As you come out of the station from its main entrance, you’re immediately greeted by the statue of Josiah Wedgwood, making it clear that you’re in a land of clay and kilns. A five minute walk away, in the wonderfully named Elenora Street, is the Spode Museum Trust and Heritage Centre.
The Spode Works reproduced in miniature in clay
Here you’ll find some of the most knowledgeable and welcoming volunteers to grace a visitor centre, a fascinating miniature of the original site and more Spode than your eyes can hope to feast on. There are plenty of opportunities to see demonstrations of hand-painting, transfer-printing and raised-paste gilding. You can also see a full room of the iconic patterns in the Blue Room Collection.
See the Staffordshire Hoard
You have probably read the story of how the Staffordshire Hoard was discovered in a field not far from the cathedral city of Lichfield. It is made up of around 4,000 items, mostly martial. This is the largest collection of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver metalwork found anywhere in the world. At this point, I should manage your expectations and say that you should not expect room after room of large exhibits from the Hoard. I remember reading that the volume of all the pieces found is such that they would fit into a shopping trolley. So be prepared to be fascinated, but in miniature.
The findings from the Hoard are kept at more than one site, mainly at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent and at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. I visited both before writing this piece, and was delighted to find plenty to explore. The finds may be small in stature, but they’re massive in impact.
Where your Anglo-Saxon warrior would stop off after a day of battle to share stories over the mead: this replica Mead Hall is next to the Staffordshire Hoard exhibit at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery
The Staffordshire Hoard is made up of 5 kilos of gold, 1.4 kilos of silver, and 3,500 garnets in cloisonné settings. Most of the artefacts are decorative items from weapons, mostly from the handles of swards and knives. Many have garnet inlays or filigree designs of animals. They are dated from the 6th and 7th centuries, making them part of the Kingdom of Mercia. The Stoke-on-Trent display at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery includes a replica mead hall, which looks like a rather fine place to have discussed matters Mercian over some light refreshments.
‘One warrior stripped the other, looted Ongentheow’s iron mail-coat, his hard sword-hilt, his helmet too, and carried graith to King Hygelac; he accepted the prize, promised fairly that reward would come, and kept his word. They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, gold under gravel, gone to earth, as useless to men now as it ever was.’ Beowulf
Try the Heritage Canoe Trail
You’ll find special markers along this 20 mile canal trail, created for paddlers of any ability. Along the way, you’ll see a variety of water features and historical landmarks. I’m a not-so-secret lover of the canals crossing the country. This is a beautiful way to appreciate the quiet beauty of these sometimes hidden waterways. You can do as much or as little of the trail as you like, and the guide has sections with distances carefully marked.
Narrowboat traffic on the canal at Stoke, Stoke-on-Trent, The Potteries
Josiah Wedgwood was a keen supporter of the canals, and broke the soil some 250 years ago for the biggest development of the waterways in the Potteries. James Brindley, the renowned engineer, then cracked on with the business of creating the arteries that served the beating heart of industry in the area.
There’s plenty of safety guidance on using the canals alongside narrowboats offered in the trail guide. If you’re more used to river paddling, that could be useful to you. Canoes can be hired at City Adventures, and there’s tuition available at Potteries Paddlers or Trentham Canoe Club.
Investigate the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery
The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery is well worth a visit aside from the Staffordshire Hoard. It has a lot of fascinating collections, including beautiful and intriguing sculpture. Plus, as you would imagine, it’s a rich resource for anyone interested in china and pottery. I roamed the collections covering everything from frog mugs to cow creamers and some of the most elaborate fantastical creations of the nearby factories.
Part of the collection in the pottery section at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, where there were lots of frogs and cows
This is also somewhere that children will find plenty of exhibits to interest them. There are lots of opportunities to interact with and think about the exhibits, plus some definite conversation starters in areas such as the Spitfire room. There’s even a small tea setting at a table in the pottery rooms.
Afternoon tea served in miniature at the Potteries Art Gallery and Museum
Decorate Your Own Pottery at the Emma Bridgewater Decorating Studio
Over at the Emma Bridgewater Factory site, you can have a go at making your own creations. Choose from a series of biscuit fired shapes – from jugs to mugs and plates and bowls to hens and pitchers. Once you’ve chosen your blank canvas, the helpful team will sit you down for a quick briefing. Then it’s over to you to create your masterpiece. And don’t worry, there are sponges to help you create patterns and lettering, and it is possible to rub out mistakes and start over. I know: I had to! Your work is then glazed, fired and posted out to you around three weeks later.
Enjoying decorating my own piece in the Decorating Studio at the Emma Bridgewater Factory, Hanley. It’s now ready for glazing and firing, which will intensify all those colours.
You can book your decorating session online. The cost of your biscuitware is payable direct on the day, and is dependent on what you choose to decorate.
Go Kiln Spotting
If you like industrial heritage, then you’ll love the sight of the kilns and chimneys that punctuate the skyline of the potteries. Kilns came in varied shapes and sizes, and it is believed that at one point there were around 4,000 to be seen in the Potteries. The Clean Air Act and changes to the industry mean that just 47 remain, all of which are listed buildings. If you’d like to see some of these memories of the busiest times in the Potteries, I recommend you check out this painstaking labour of love. It details much of the history of the Potteries. You can check what can be seen where, from bottle kilns to calcinating kilns.
The skyline is scattered with chimneys and kilns, this one at Spode Works, Stoke, The Potteries
Try A Staffordshire Oatcake
This is not an oatcake as you know it. Traditional Staffordshire oatcakes are like flat pancakes, made from an oat batter cooked on a griddle. They are filled with all kinds of savoury goodies, often involving cheese. They were traditionally sold from house windows directly onto the street. The last producer working in this way – the legendary Hole in the Wall – sadly closed in 2012. But you can still find oatcakes in Stoke-on-Trent’s cafes, and sometimes in batches to take away to eat at home.
Originally a kind of fast food for factory workers, oatcakes fueled much of my audit career in the area in the 1990s. Fillings including bacon, sausage, egg, tomato, cheese and mushroom were available, and proved great to hold body and soul together through a cold day examining someone’s quality standards. If you get the chance, do enjoy a proper Staffordshire oatcake while you can. I’d say its nearest relative is the French galette, and the fillings are pretty similar too.
Take a Steam Train
There are two steam railways within easy distance of the Potteries. Towards Blythe Bridge, you have the Foxfield Steam Railway, and near Leek and Rudyard Lake, the Leek and Rudyard Steam Railway.
The Foxfield Steam Railway offers a 5 mile trip through the Staffordshire countryside, where it’s been chuffing its way for more than 50 years. There’s a place for lunch beforehand, and the chance of a brew at the beautifully named One Legged Shunter, where you can taste local offerings of proper beer from Titanic, Burton Bridge, Townhouse, Peakstones and Blythe Brewery.
The line for the Leek and Rudyard Railway runs alongside Rudyard Lake. Its group of engines includes three relocated from the Isle of Mull Railway: Frances, Victoria and Glen Audlyn. The Platform 2 café serves refreshments in an iconic British station building. You can book to enjoy a train driving experience here too.
Meet Arnold Bennett, the writer whose novels were based in the Potteries
The writer and playwright was born in Hanley in the Potteries. The six towns of Stoke-on-Trent are transformed into the Five Towns in Bennett’s books. Anna of the Five Towns was his first novel about life in the Potteries (adapted for television by the BBC), followed by The Clayhanger Family and The Old Wives’ Tale. Hanley is Hanbridge in these novels, and other parts of the Potteries have similar and usually easy to decipher names.
“Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by drawbacks and discomforts.” Arnold Bennett
Bennett died of typhoid in his Baker Street home in London, having, against the advice of a waiter, drunk tap water in Paris. Today his statue stands outside the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery and you can wander the towns that inspired his work.
Arnold Bennett settling in for a good read
Take a Factory Tour at Emma Bridgewater
The pottery business of Emma Bridgewater and Matthew Rice has seen enormous success. Their bold collectable designs can be seen in all stages of production on the factory tour at their Lichfield Street works in Hanley. The tours are in small groups of around ten people and last about an hour. We wandered the factory with our entertaining guide, who used to work in the factory itself and was knowledgeable about all the processes. We saw mugs and chickens in slip moulds, plates being made, and painstaking spongeware decorations being applied before enjoying a warm next to the kiln. It’s an informal, informative and friendly tour, and well-recommended. You might even meet the saggar maker…
Some of the classic designs under production at the Emma Bridgewater Factory, Hanley
Did you know that:
- The factory makes about 33,000 pieces a week
- There are over 300 factory staff and each piece of pottery is touched by 30 pairs of hands (maybe a very careful 31st pair on a factory tour)
- Many of the team have family members also working in the business
- Designs include Black Toast, Polka Dot, Union Jack, Pink Hearts and Starry Skies
Factory Tours should be booked in advance via the website. The cost is redeemable against purchases in the shop onsite.
There are lots of other factory tours that I couldn’t squeeze into my time during my visit. Be aware that factory tours are understandably not available during factory holidays, and you should check the dates before travelling. Most factory shops remain open when the factories are closed.
Get Active at the Trentham Estate
This large site houses all kinds of activities and entertainment. From visiting Barbary macacques in a 60 acre forest to tackling an assault course (I’m afraid that I passed that one up) and the contemporary revival of a historic garden, this location has an incredible amount to offer. If you’re in search of things arty, there are some incredible sculpted wire fairies in a garden trail by local artist Robin Wight. You can read more about his work at Fantasywire here. The Shopping Village houses over 50 shops and 17 cafes, so you won’t be short of things to see, eat and do.
Check Out The Potteries Factory Shops
It wouldn’t be The Potteries without the opportunity to buy ceramics at discounted rates. We’ve done the leg work for you, and put together this list of all the places to find your china, pottery and ceramics at bargain prices. You’ll see that some manufacturers have more than one outlet. These are some of the pottery firms in Stoke-on-Trent you can visit to shop.
Sutherland Road, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent ST3 1HZ
Unit 5, Trentham Shopping Village, Trentham Estate, ST4 8AX
Intu Potteries Centre, Quadrant Road, City Centre, Stoke-on-Trent ST1 1PS
Middleport Pottery, Port Street, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent ST6 3PE
No 1 Marlborough Way, Tunstall, Stoke-on-Trent ST6 5NZ
50 High Street, Stone, Staffordshire ST15 8AU
Lichfield Street Hanley Stoke-on-Trent ST1 3EJ
Heritage Visitor Centre: Sandbach Road, Burslem, Stoke-on-Trent ST6 2DQ
Factory Shop: Phoenix Works, Nile Street, Cobridge, Stoke-on-Trent ST6 2BH
Kiosk 1, Trentham Shopping Village, Stone Road, Trentham, Stoke-onTrent ST4 8JG
Units 1 & 2, Phoenix Works, 500 King Street, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent ST3 1EZ
London Road, Stoke, Stoke-on-Trent ST4 7QQ
Unit 230, Trentham Shopping Village, Trentham Estate, Stoke-on-Trent ST4 8AX
Events and festivals in the staffordshire Potteries
The Potteries has a busy calendar with plenty to tempt you. Here’s our selection of events throughout the year which you might enjoy:
- Appetite’s annual programme, including the Big Feast outdoor arts festival and the pop-up theatre Roundabout
- The British Ceramics Biennial (odd years), a free festival of contemporary ceramics
- Festival Stoke for the Big Weekend music and arts festival and outdoor art displays throughout the year
- Stoke Literary Festival
- Stoke Whisky Festival
Accommodation In to the Potteries
If you’ve come to the conclusion that you’ll need more than a day in the Staffordshire Potteries, there are plenty of accommodation choices for you. From chain hotels to independents and a whole range of other choices from guesthouses to cottages, there are lots of options. You can investigate a full range of choices at Booking.com. Much of Staffordshire is very reasonably priced in comparison to average costs across the UK, so your pound should stretch further here. Don’t forget to consider the options in the Staffordshire countryside too; the area between Stoke and the famous canal town of Stone is just one of the possibilities.
Beautiful street art in the centre of Hanley
More Information on the Potteries
More British Beauties to Visit
If you’re interested in exploring more of Britain, there is plenty else to see nearby. Birmingham, the nation’s second city, is vibrant and exciting. You might also want to visit some of the smaller towns in and around the Midlands. Royal Leamington Spa is full of Regency charm and absolutely bursting with independent shops and food. You should check out Ludlow on the Welsh borders, also renowned for its food and with a castle dating back to William the Conqueror.
If you enjoyed reading about the Staffordshire Potteries, pin Ollie for later!