Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Lost City.

Partly inspired by an excellent BBC documentary on the history of ceramics Eleanor and I stopped off in the lost city of Stoke on Trent en route for another couple of days Coast to Coast walking. It's a fascinating place which, possibly because of the large number of service stations on the M6 between Birmingham and Manchester, few people turn off to visit.

And first impressions are of slow decline. Sentinel chimneys standing idle, a canal with no traffic and streaks of rust running down redundant iron pipes that have long since stopped carrying the water needed by the factories. We parked the car and walked across James Brindley's revolutionary canal interchange which links the Mersey to the Trent to the old Etruria works where a young entrepreneur Josiah Wedgewood based his burgeoning business and placed the potteries firmly on the map as the world renowned centre for ceramic production with endorsements from all the crowned heads of Europe and commissions across the globe. The canal was championed by Wedgewood to ensure his pots could be transported smoothly. Too many were broken on the bumpy eighteenth century roads. The site is chained and remarkably quiet now.

After lunch we went to search out signs of industry and took a advantage of a free tour around Emma Bridgewater's factory, half a mile south of the city centre. It was quite inspiring. Whatever you think of her stuff, and I find it a little twee and nouveau nostalgic, she has certainly done the town a great service by resurrecting a pottery works here. All of her stuff is produced in the factory and 200 local craftsmen and women are employed to turn out over 30,000 pieces a week. From small beginnings 25 years ago the turnover is several million pounds a year. Mood in the factory was good, the royal wedding and the diamond jubilee have provided a couple boom years, which everybody hopes will stay.

'Whatever else the recession makes us forfeit,' said our amiable guide, 'people will always needs cups and plates.'

Bridgewater's firm feels the right size. It's working at capacity, but there are no plans to expand and threaten the familial feel of the enterprise. It's a very British brand in a very British setting. Stoke though could do with one or two other returns. I was surprised to learn, given the morning stroll past derelict buildings, that more pottery is manufactured in the region than anywhere else in the world. Still the unemployment figures are dangerously high and the skills that have sustained Stoke for over two hundred years lie, for the main part, dormant, waiting for a renaissance.


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