Sue Parslow spent a day immersed in a world of clay, pots and plates to find out what groups can expect on a trip to Middleport Pottery
It may sound like an odd proposition to go and watch other people work, but who isn’t curious about how the things we buy are made? Combined with the opportunity to purchase the products at the very place that they are created – often at a discounted price – what’s not to like?
Potteries in Stoke-on-Trent are coming back to life and drawing visitors in to learn about the creative process. This is also attributed to the screening of a certain BBC game show – The Great Pottery Throw Down!
The UK’s last surviving working Victorian pottery; Middleport offers the visitor a perfect package combining a guided tour of a working factory, a museum, a cosy café and a retail opportunity. What makes it unique is the fact that it is very much a real factory and the building itself a living piece of history.
You get a sense of the scale of the original factory from a scale model in the visitor centre (general office) and learn about the then innovative design for a pottery works on the bank of a newly opened transport canal in the 1800s. It’s fascinating to learn about the location, the lives of the workers and how it all linked with other parts of Britain in its industrial heyday, as to an extent, it still does.
I was lucky enough to be taken on a guided tour in a small group and after a quick health and safety briefing (GTW recommends wearing flat, sturdy shoes); we set off to explore the factory site. We were led through the stages of production, observing close up beside men and women who seemed to take being watched in their stride, fielding random queries and having their photos taken.
In a room seemingly coated throughout in a thin layer of clay, men carried out tasks little changed for a century to a soundtrack of constant clunks and grunts from metal monsters keeping the source of the pottery alive – the light brown liquid clay that could be heard swirling beneath us in a vast tank.
Close by were piles of long sausage-shapes of clay, ready for the craftspeople in adjacent rooms to mould and shape, bake and decorate. We watched the ‘fetlers’ and ‘spongers’ use brushes and sponges to smooth imperfections in the brittle clay shapes that will become beautiful treasured vases or mugs and tea pots. Our guide Jan’s explanations were animated and detailed. There’s a pottery vocabulary to take in as you learn the names of different aspects of the process.
Although there is some mechanisation, much of the work is done by bare hands and relies on a careful eye and the benefit of many years of practice. There is real skill in adding the distinctive Burleigh floral pattern. You’ll be amazed at how it is transferred to flat plates. It will certainly give you an appreciation of what goes into creating bowls and plates that you might take for granted at home. In fact, it is estimated that 25 different pairs of hands handle each piece!
A visit to Middleport Pottery will take you back in time and have you imagining what it would have been like in days gone by when Monday had to be wash day in the town because the rest of the week the air was dark and smoky as the many bottle kilns fired up their pots. One of the most appealing factors about this place is that it still has much to give. A steam engine is in the process of being restored and an old bathhouse will, in time, be renovated.
School children and art students will be inspired by a visit here just as much as adults, and although I would heartily recommend booking a guided tour to get a really good look around, it is possible to have a self-guided visit. You can stand inside the last remaining bottle oven and imagine the effort it took to fill it and keep it at an intense heat. Information panels and videos explain how it was done.
Plan Your Visit
The free visitor centre is open seven days a week. A range of packages are offered for groups of all sizes. The café serves drinks, cakes and regionally inspired hot dishes – sit inside by the fire or outside beside the canal.
The huge shop (ground floor for seconds, top floor for best) is open 0900hrs to 1700hrs weekdays and 1000hrs to 1600hrs on Sundays.
For further information on seasonal events and to book a tour, call 01782 499766 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information visit www.middleportpottery.co.uk (check out the pottery shop at www.burleigh.co.uk).
When In Stoke…
Stoke on Trent has many visitor centres, museums, authentic factory tours, and over 25 pottery factory shops – see www.visitstoke.co.uk.
The World of Wedgwood has an award-winning visitor experience with a factory tour, museum and shop. Groups are catered for with discounted admission, café menus and more. For more information visit www.worldofwedgwood.com.