STOKE-ON-TRENT, England — Looking for the quintessential English gift to take home; something classy, classic and history laced? After living in London for several years, I was in the same position. Having exhausted the usual tea-related gifts, I was searching for something new for the holidays. The obvious solution: a trip to Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire.
Stoke-on-Trent is the center of the Staffordshire pottery-making industry that produces almost all of Britain's world-famous ceramics. A visit there last fall provided not just a shopping experience, but an introduction to some of England's finest pottery.
It was in Stoke-on-Trent, during the mid-18th Century, that Josiah Wedgwood created the process for a new form of cream-colored earthenware that replaced expensive porcelain and black pottery as the first light-colored ceramics affordable to the English middle class. Prior to that, porcelain--which was developed by the Chinese and, centuries later, mastered by the Germans--had been available but at prices so high that only the wealthy could afford it.
The Staffordshire area was also home to other pioneers in the pottery industry, including Josiah Spode, who is credited with creating bone china (porcelain made with bone) in about 1799. And so it is that in Stoke-on-Trent almost all forms of ceramics--including porcelain, earthenware, bone china and fine china--were either created, perfected or amplified, and are manufactured and sold today in varying forms.
The county of Staffordshire is rich with industrial heritage and little has changed in its villages for hundreds of years. Filled with Victorian architecture and surrounded by beautiful countryside, each of its towns has a distinct identity and character, yet all share one common theme: pottery.
The potteries are contained within six different villages that are incorporated into the town of Stoke-on-Trent, along the River Trent. The villages of Burslem, Stoke, Hanley, Fenton, Longton and Barlaston are about a 3 1/2-hour drive northwest of London, or a two-hour ride by train. Taking the train is a viable option for travelers since threading through each village is China Link, a privately owned bus service that picks up travelers at the Stoke Railway Station, tours many of the china attractions and allows visitors to stop, shop and board the next bus when they wish. Buses run from village to village, manufacturer to manufacturer during business hours, Monday through Saturday, except on holidays. Tickets cost about $6.50 for a day pass and can be purchased on the buses.
The potteries of Stoke-on-Trent offer great bargains. Although individual shops vary greatly, most sell items 30% to 50% less than retail shops in London and are stocked with patterns and styles not seen in the United States. The shops contain everything from perfect-quality china to end-of-the-line close-outs to discontinued lines and seconds (imperfect pieces). Although discounts on perfect items are slight, excellent bargains can be found among discontinued lines and seconds. To search the shops is to take a lesson in history, as well as in design.
The factories don't look impressive. They are mostly block-long brick buildings with, perhaps, a glass-fronted factory showroom. I noticed the characteristic brick bottle-shaped ovens at many, although most kilns are now fired by gas and electricity and the ovens are slowly disappearing.
Some of the factories have showrooms, brightly lit and neat; others seem less professional, more factory-like and are set up so that visitors need to rummage for treasures. We liked those the best.
Most conduct their own tours, demonstrating working methods and skills, and usually they take about two hours. This means that a day is really not enough time to visit all of the factories, museums and visitor centers, although we made it work as a shopping expedition. Were I to do it again, however, I would plan two or three days to explore the manufacturers, learn about the craft and shop at leisure.
A friend and I loaded up the car with a nice picnic lunch and embarked on a great shopping experience.
Following an early morning drive along easily navigated highways surrounded by farms, villages and tree-studded countryside, we arrived at our first stop, Burslem, birthplace of Josiah Wedgwood and--on site of his first factory--one of the first successful pottery towns. On Sandbach Road, east of the city center, we found Moorcroft Potters. Well-known among aficionados for its method of production and hand-painting, which involves putting the decoration on before the first firing, the pottery is still a family business. Moorcroft produces a special powder-blue china and the shop sells a variety of items including handmade pottery, bowls and plates that are all quite beautiful.