Look around in most British department stores, and you can’t fail to notice the distinctive designs of Emma Bridgewater, mainly in pottery, but also in other homewares. Following on the design traditions of the Staffordshire Potteries, Emma Bridgewater and her husband Matthew Rice have created a brand that is quintessentially British. Their factory is in Stoke-on-Trent, at the heart of the Staffordshire Potteries, and I recently spent a day there. And actually a day’s not long to visit the site, have a factory tour, and then spend time in the decorating studio, creating your own piece of pottery. Come with me on my Emma Bridgewater Factory visit.
Please be aware that this is not a sponsored post, and that I incurred the costs of the visit personally.
Getting to the Emma Bridgewater Factory
The factory is in Stoke-on-Trent, about halfway between Birmingham and Manchester. You can take a train direct from London Euston, Manchester Picadilly or Birmingham New Street to Stoke-on-Trent station. It’s then a short taxi or bus ride from the station. If you’re travelling by car, you’ll find Stoke and its potteries signposted from the M6 motorway. Look out for the brown heritage sign featuring a large pot.
Arriving on the Factory Site
The factory is in Hanley, one of the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent. From the centre of Hanley, you approach the factory down a steep hill, and you’ll spot the classic brickwork from high up on the bank. When you walk into the courtyard, you’ll see all of the areas of the site clearly signposted in classic Emma Bridgewater style. There’s a cafe, a factory shop and the decorating studio all close together. Factory tours leave from the factory shop.
I started out in the cafe, where I had just enough time for lunch. Although it was busy, I have a big hat tip to the team there, who sorted me out a gluten and milk free lunch without any fuss whatsoever. And very good it was too: a well-stuffed sandwich with a big salad and crisps, carefully checked out for me. All the crockery used in the cafe is, of course, Emma Bridgewater design, and the whole place feels colourful and cheerful because of it.
I’d been lucky enough to meet some visitors from Germany earlier that morning, so I had company over lunch. It shows how cosmopolitan and compelling a destination the factory is for pottery lovers across the world.
You can have afternoon tea in the cafe if booked in advance. There is also a walled garden to relax in, but sadly, I didn’t have time to check it out on this visit.
The Emma Bridgewater Factory: Facts and Figures
At the factory, about 33,000 pieces are made each week, ranging from small mugs to large jugs and animal figures. I was surprised to learn that there are over 300 staff on site. Each piece of pottery made there is touched by 30 pairs of hands (and some may have been touched very carefully by a 31st – mine – on my visit). I discovered that many of the team also have family members working on site.
You may have seen some of the iconic designs before, including Black Toast, Polka Dot (much in evidence on the factory site), Union Jack, Pink Hearts and Starry Skies.
The Emma Bridgewater Factory Tour
Factory tours take about an hour, and you are asked to arrive 15 minutes early. Walk into the factory shop, and you’ll find a lectern to the left of the till with some visitor badges hanging from it. There’s a big squidgy bench on which to wait. For health and safety reason, there is a maximum of ten people per tour. That’s actually brilliant for visitors too, as it meant we could see everything clearly and get a chance to ask any questions.
Our cheery tour guide knew the factory inside out, as well she should; she’d worked in production for many years before taking the tour guide role. She introduced us to the team working in the factory, and understood the different stages of production, so could answer all our questions.
We followed the journey that pottery takes around the factory. Firstly we looked at the moulds where the slip is poured to create anything made in a vessel shape: mugs, jugs, moulded animal figures. The slip arrives by pipe to the benches, and we saw a lot of pieces under production. We did not, by the way, meet the saggar maker’s bottom knocker, and if you want to know more about that, you’ll have to pop over to read about the Staffordshire Potteries here.
Flatter pieces like plates and bowls are moulded using open forms, and we saw how the clay is used here, rather than slip. Our guide gamely volunteered to show us the height from which the clay needs to be dropped onto the mould. No need for much gym time on the arms for the team working in this section!
Taking The Biscuit
All the products of the moulds, whether slipware or clay, are then off to the kilns for biscuit firing. We saw everything lined up at the kiln, which was gorgeously toasty on the chilly day of our visit.
After biscuit firing, the pieces are ready for decoration. Many of the pieces here are spongeware, meaning that the decoration is applied by hand using carefully cut sponges in a variety of shapes. Such is the level of production that there is also a small team whose job is to cut the sponges for the decorators to use.
The lovely team adding the sponge decorations patiently answered our questions as we saw them skillfully and methodically creating a collection of pieces. When I tried this myself later, I realised how much care is needed to make this flawless.
After decorating, the pottery is fired again, making the colour transform from the pastel tones we saw in the at the decorating stage to the bright and vibrant colours of the finished pottery.
Factory Tour Information
Tours last just under an hour and leave from the factory shop. They must be booked via the Factory website here. The charge is £2.50, which can be redeemed against any shop purchase of £12.95 or more.
Be aware that you’ll be standing for the hour, so wear something comfortable on your feet. And although the factory environment is very clean, also remember that you’re in a place where clay is handled, and there’s a certain amount of dust in the air.
There is a number to call on the website to make arrangements for any accessibility issues. The site is wheelchair accessible, and more details of access arrangements are available as a download.
The Decorating Studio
I had also booked in for pottery painting on the day of my visit. Again, this is something to book via the website to secure your place. The cost is £2.95 for the studio fee. There will be further costs on the day, when you select and pay for the piece of biscuit-fired ware that you wish to decorate. I chose a mug and a large plate for my afternoon session.
Once you’ve chosen and paid for your biscuitware, one of the friendly team will come over to get you started. You have a selection of paints, all neatly stored in a colour wheel. The final colours after firing are illustrated on a finished piece of pottery, so you can see what magic each colour is going to bring you once it’s fired. Before firing, everything is very pastel, and is much more vibrant once it emerges from the kiln.
You also get pencils and rulers, which are helpful to space out your design, and these pencil marks disappear in the firing process. A special pencil can be used – which doesn’t disappear when fired – so you can sign or dedicate your piece.
Finally, you’re shown how to use the sponges – damp but dry. Two bookshelves have a large range of containers which hold all the sponges available. You’ve got numbers, letters, and classic Emma Bridgewater themes: hearts, stars, sea life, animals. Each container is illustrated with the picture of the sponges inside, so you can see what the end image will look like on your piece. And don’t worry if you make a mistake; it’s easy to rub it out and start over.
I’d arrived with a vague idea for one piece based on my favourite quote from a novel, but had to expand that to think up something for the mug as well. All around me, people were busy – friends, family groups – sponging away and chatting. You can order some refreshments while you’re working, which is a great idea.
It takes longer than you’d think and it’s great fun. I’d imagined that I would just measure up and sponge away. But by the time you’ve chosen your colours, found your sponges, chatted to your neighbours and one of the nice team has found an elusive letter “v” for you, it can fill your session time easily.
Once You’ve Finished Decorating
When you’ve finished, you take your pieces to the counter, where they are handed over for firing. It will be around two weeks before they are out of the kiln. At that point, you can either collect them or have them sent to you for a flat £5 postage fee.
My item actually arrived more quickly. You’ll note that I say item, and that’s because one of my pieces didn’t survive the kiln, and I had a call to explain that from one of the team. I now get to return and paint again, which is a great solution. You should be aware that this can happen as part of the kiln firing process, but it’s fairly uncommon. It was dealt with very well by the team. My mug arrived quickly and beautifully packaged.
There is, as you would imagine, a factory shop on site, selling a wide selection of crockery and homewares at discounted prices. I bought a mug marked as seconds. All seconds have removable marks to show you the nature of the problem, and to be honest, without that I’d have struggled to find the fault.
The Day’s Experience at The Emma Bridgewater Factory
You can find out more about the Emma Bridgewater Factory here.
I’d highly recommend this experience if you are interested in art and design. The factory tour is fascinating, and the team are both informative and funny; my overarching memory is of laughing my way around the building. Once I’d tried out the decorating for myself, I had a real appreciation of the skill and consistency it takes to make pottery.
I saw lots of friends and family groups enjoying the afternoon in the decorating studio. This would be a great opportunity to have time together while creating something to act as a memory of the day.
There were lots of international visitors too; I mentioned that I had met up with some German friends who had made the journey specially. Their feedback was that they’d had a fantastic time.
Exploring more of the Midlands
If you are travelling to the Potteries, then you might like to look at other things to do in Staffordshire. Also nearby, we’ve explored Birmingham, Britain’s second city, Worcestershire, and Shakespeare’s home turf in the Forest of Arden.
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