I’m just back from my hols from work, which mostly consisted of abortive DIY and collecting things to do the do it yourself myself, if you see what I mean. On Sunday we took a trip up to Stockport to collect some doors. Whilst there we set off seeking some history of my own – when I was a wee one in the 1980s we used to take holidays to Bredbury to stay with my Uncle Frank, all that way on the train. But we searched and couldn’t work out where his house was – if indeed, the road is still anything like it was. We saw plenty of canals that could have been the one we walked over (the Peak Forest runs through Bredbury), but no horse-field next door to Frank and Ena’s terrace. Ah well.
On the way back we topped up on mountains via the Peaks (my great-grandfather was a walker here – he participated in the Kinder Scout mass trespass in 1932) before stopping off in Stoke-on-Trent for a visit to some factory outlets. Now, I don’t really know what I was expecting from here – possibly a monstrous approximation of a new town, which swelled to incorporate the Five/Six towns of the industrial potteries; possibly something recollecting the modern-day Black Country landscape with its industrial archeology barely hidden under its newer outer garments. Like most people, I’d guess, the only things I associate with Stoke (besides pottery) are Robbie Williams, Slash and Port Vale – it’s one of those odd places (like Telford or Swindon) that fill up a lot of space and house a lot of people without really making an impact on popular consciousness.
Our first stop seemed to explain exactly why that is. We headed to the Royal Doulton and Wedgwood factory shop in the hope of some cheapy presents and some interesting looking factory. If there’s a bigger name than Wedgwood in the pottery world, it’s not occurring to me – Josiah Wedgwood, born in Burslem, member of the Lunar Society, grandfather of Charles Darwin, first ceramic industrialist, set up his factory in the delightfully-named Etruria. He was a major backer of the Trent & Mersey canal which runs through Stoke, much better to transport his fine porcelain with than the pitted roads and turnpikes of the day. I was hoping for at least some sort of nod to the grand heritage of the town, but I should have done my research – this bland outlet was not the place to be inspired. It makes Etruria seem to be one big road and shop complex, and Stoke just another oddly-planned modernist’s dream.
We made one more hopeful stab though and found exactly what we were hoping for at the Burleigh factory in Middleport. We only realised afterwards that this factory has just undergone a £9million restoration and was opened the previous month by Prince Charles, who arrived on the very same canal that flowed past Wedgwood’s works. Everything is present here, from the cobbled paths to the giant brick kiln – it’s a truly beautiful place. Yes there’s a factory shop, but more importantly, a rather nice canalside cafe as well. To get to the factory one has to come off the newer roads of 1960s Stoke and onto the back streets, past chimneys and heaps of rubble to Port Street. As my wife commented, take away a few cars and it probably looks the same as it did 100 years ago. That’s what I thought too, but looking at Street View – are these actually new builds, or tarted up old ones?
As usual, I’ll refer to old maps to check this out, and from those it seems that Port Street had appeared by the 1890s, but only half built – the opposite end from the Middleport Pottery. It’s not til the 1924 OS map that Port Street exists as it does today, a row of identical terraces in the Northern style (with back alley running along the row), facing the looming wall of the pottery. These houses must have been having a facelift in conjunction with the pottery regeneration then, in which case they’ve done a thoroughly excellent job, I’m happy to say.
Before that, you find quite a different scene: here’s Middleport in 1879, the canalside site occupied by Sagger Manufactory, and not much else.
It turns out that a regeneration project is exactly what it is, along with fist-pumping flyers and community consultations. Somewhat connected are the famous £1 houses in Stoke, on the adjacent Harper Street – a scheme with some sort of aspirational mindset behind it (read, hopes for gentrification), but in effect the archetype of the property mess caused by the recent recession. Beautiful though the pottery is (it’s certain of a revisit from us), it’s likely to be some time before Middleport becomes the new Barnsbury.