The Creative County
You may or may not be aware that Staffordshire “official” nickname is the Creative County, which you’ll see on road signs welcoming you to the area. Particularly in the north of the county, this creativity has often been expressed through the world-famous ceramics industry based in Stoke-on-Trent, also known as the Potteries. You can learn all about the importance the industry and the materials at its heart at the new LoveClay visitor experience, which is open on weekdays at the Fenton headquarters of Valentine Clays. With a contemporary gallery, exhibition space and regular workshops and courses, the centre aims to help people see ceramics – something they use every day – in a new light.
Middleport Pottery in Burslem combines the past, present and future of the industry. You can see one of just 47 remaining bottle kilns, thousands of which once dotted the landscape of the Potteries, and explore the cobbled maze of buildings containing historic machinery, archives and collections in every corner, as well as workshops where contemporary craftspeople make and sell their wares. It’s been the home of Burleigh Pottery since 1889 and was the filming location for the BBC’s popular series The Great Pottery Throw Down. And in 2018 Middleport played host to the national tour of the poignant “Weeping Window” section of the impressive art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, which had seen 888,246 ceramic red poppies pouring into the moat at the Tower of London, around half of which were hand-made in Staffordshire using traditional methods at Johnson Tiles in Tunstall.
If you feel inspired you can get hands-on experience at Gladstone Pottery Museum in Longton, where you can visit a complete Victorian pottery factory, typical of hundreds in the area which produced everyday ceramic items for the mass market. You can try your hand at throwing a pot, making a bone china flower or decorating a piece a pottery to take home. There’s also the Dudson Museum in Hanley which is housed inside an original Grade 2-listed bottle oven, and the Spode Works visitor centre on the former factory site in Stoke, to name just two others.
Although Stoke-on-Trent was unsuccessful in its bid to become the 2021 City of Culture, its future is full of exciting artistic and cultural opportunities. Celebrating the work of the UK’s leading contemporary ceramic artists, the British Ceramics Biennial takes place every two years and will be held for the sixth time from 28th September to 10th November 2019. While its main base is at the Spode China Hall in Stoke, special events and new exhibitions pop up across the city and aim to introduce people to new ideas and artists. Among the modern day designers taking up the mantle of celebrated Stoke-on-Trent ceramic artists Clarice Cliff, Susie Cooper and Charlotte Rhead – whose early 20th-century works are all highly collectable – is Emma Bridgewater, whose eponymous Victorian factory in Hanley is home to the annual Stoke-on-Trent Literary Festival. Dubbed the “Festival in a Factory”, this three-day event takes place every June and welcomes a diverse range of authors and performers who discuss their latest releases and the creative process. Featuring everything from history, poetry and fiction to politics, environmentalism and food, in 2018 some of the biggest names on the bill included Michael Morpurgo, Jonathan Dimbleby, Jenni Murray and Simon Mayo.
If you feel inspired you can get hands-on experience at Gladstone Pottery Museum in Longton, where you can visit a complete Victorian pottery factory, typical of hundreds in the area which produced everyday ceramic items for the mass market
Also taking place each June is a huge celebration of circus skills, which is held in Newcastle-under-Lyme, the hometown of the father of the modern circus, 18th-century showman Philip Astley. Called The Homecoming in Astley’s honour, the festival welcomes performers from around the world who astound audiences with daring acrobatics, impossible feats of juggling, inventive performance art and dazzling magic shows. It takes place at different locations around the town and it’s not unusual to be confronted by a flock of half-bird half-human creatures, an explorer furiously peddling a flying machine or a man rowing a boat along the street under a raincloud.
Homecoming is just one of the extravaganzas which comes under the umbrella of arts organisation Appetite, whose outdoor spectacles aim to inspire and engage people with the arts. Previous productions include Water Fools, performed entirely on the lake at Central Forest Park in Hanley, which saw performers walking on water, floating cars, original music and a stunning fireworks display, and The Enchanted Chandelier, which featured trapeze artists, bell ringers, singers, percussionists and acrobats hoisted slowly up to 50 metres above the same park. You certainly won’t forget their events in a hurry if you’re lucky enough to catch one while you’re here.
Calendars at the ready! If you find yourself in the region on Wakes Monday, “the day after the first Sunday after 4th September” – Monday 9th September in 2019 – you can witness an unforgettable rural custom dating back to 1226. In the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance, 12 dancers – six carrying huge reindeer antlers, others dressed as characters including Maid Marian, the Fool and the Hobby Horse – set out from St Nicholas Church at 8am and dance at set points around the village and local area throughout the day.
A great place to watch the dance is at Blithfield Hall around noon, but you can find them performing outside the many village pubs in the afternoon before they finish on the village green at 8pm. The heavy horns – which are said to date back to 11th century Scandinavia – are kept on display in St Nicholas Church so even if you miss Wakes Monday you can still take a look, and imagine…
Not far from Abbots Bromley in East Staffordshire, Uttoxeter is home to a charming museum which will fully reopen in 2019 after a complete refurbishment thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Housed in the 400-year-old Redfern’s Cottage, the Museum of Uttoxeter Life will include seven interactive galleries exploring topics like domestic life, the civil war, religious dissent and the making of the modern town.
Also taking place each June is a huge celebration of circus skills, which is held in Newcastle-under-Lyme, the hometown of the father of the modern circus, 18th-century showman Philip Astley
Museums and monuments
Fans of social history will also want to call in to the quirky Beamhurst Museum, a privately owned museum packed to the gills with antiques and memorabilia, much of it relating to nearby Uttoxeter. It’s free to visit but only open on selected weekend dates. Further south, Lichfield offers a wealth of cultural experiences. Its Cathedral regularly teams up with collaborative artists Luxmuralis to become the canvas for astonishing art, music and light shows projected onto its walls. Led by the cathedral’s artist-in-residence sculptor Peter Walker, the stunning son et lumière displays have transformed the cathedral’s Gothic interior into the earth, sea and sky, and have projected a host of festive angels onto the external facade.
Lichfield is also home to the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. You can learn more about the esteemed lexicographer’s life in the setting of his family home, where his father ran a bookshop on the ground floor. Johnson lived in this Grade 1-listed building on the city’s Market Square for most of the first 27 years of his life before leaving for London, and the reconstructed rooms in the museum include personal items like his armchair, tea set and writing desk as well as early and rare editions of his works. Lichfield has a strong intellectual history – it was also the birthplace of antiquarian and alchemist Elias Ashmole, founder of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum – and you can visit the home of 18th-century poet, inventor and physician Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of evolutionary biologist Charles.
This Grade 1-listed Georgian House is just a stone’s throw from the cathedral in Beacon Street and is accompanied by a wonderfully fragrant herb garden, divided into Dr Darwin’s medicinal plants and the ones his wife would have used for cooking. You can view a copy of his commonplace book full of his own inventions and musings on subjects as wide-ranging as chemistry, botany, music and meteorology, and think a few deep thoughts of your own in the room where the prominent intellectuals and industrialists of the day, who made up the Lunar Society – fellows like entrepreneur Josiah Wedgwood, engineer James Watt and manufacturer Matthew Boulton – once met.
Fans of another great Staffordshire-born mind can download a self-guided Arnold Bennett trail, which takes readers around the real life locations in Burslem which inspired the town of Bursley in his works. The prolific chronicler of life in Stoke-on-Trent is also commemorated with a two-metre high bronze statue outside the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley, which was unveiled in 2017 to mark the 150th anniversary of his birth.
Lichfield is also home to the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum. You can learn more about the esteemed lexicographer’s life in the setting of his family home, where his father ran a bookshop on the ground floor
Contemporary and ceramic art
One of that museum’s big draws – an iconic Spitfire aircraft, designed by Staffordshire’s very own Reginald Mitchell – will be coming home to form the centrepiece of a new display in 2019, having been removed in early 2018 to be restored to its former glory. A spectacular Spitfire sculpture created by local engineering apprentices can be seen in its place until its return, and the museum is packed with other treasures covering archaeology, local history, natural sciences, fine art and ceramics. Don’t miss items from the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found, or the impressive collections of cow creamer jugs and frog mugs.
A contemporary artist known for his affectionate depiction of life in the Potteries is Sid Kirkham, who died in 2018. His original paintings and limited edition prints are available to view and buy at Theartbay in Fenton – incidentally the sixth Stoke-on-Trent town omitted by Arnold Bennett in his “Five Towns” works. Sid Kirkham’s works focus on the everyday comings and goings in the city in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, and feature children playing out in the street, Stoke City and Port Vale fans ready for the game and workers heading out for their shifts at the pot banks. As well as the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery – where you’ll find works by Picasso, Durer, Degas and Grayson Perry as well as by British surrealists and members of the Bloomsbury Group – you’ll find many smaller galleries in towns across the county. Try the Foxlowe Art Centre in Leek, Barewall in Burslem, AirSpace in Hanley or Trent Art in Newcastle to find works by a quirky mix of local, national and international artists available to buy or view.
Watch out particularly for works by Staffordshire artists Arthur Berry, Reginald George Haggar or Philip Hardaker, whose art is formed from ceramic shards, if you’re looking to take home a souvenir from the “Creative County” for your walls. Speaking of walls, the downloadable Trail and Error leaflet will lead you on an hour-long walk through Hanley and Stoke, taking in street art by local urban artist Doddz, formerly known as ProPig. With names like “Yes We Can-Can” and “Self-Belief”, the artworks are intended to make you think about achieving your dreams. And while you’re in the mood for outdoor art, there is a trail of 40 sculptures around Stoke-on-Trent which includes statues of the city’s famous figures, like Sir Stanley Matthews, Josiah Wedgwood, and the designer of the Spitfire Reginald Mitchell, as well as monuments and memorials linked to the history and heritage of The Potteries.
Don’t miss the striking Golden (The Flame That Never Dies) by Wolfgang Buttress, a 21-metre-high flame-shaped sculpture installed in the Chatterley Valley, on the site of the former Goldendale Ironworks on the outskirts of Tunstall. There are 1,000 hand-blown glass prisms attached to the steel column of the artwork, each one containing a memory or wish written on hand-made paper by hundreds of local people. It’s a perfect combination of looking back and looking forward which symbolises the cultural life of Staffordshire, just waiting for you to discover it.
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