Stoke and Staffordshire: so much to potter around

The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke, home of the Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire Hoard.

Building up an itinerary for a visit to Stoke-on-Trent and surrounding Staffordshire is one of those pleasurable challenges that group organisers have to grapple with from time to time. For the area offers a diverse and closely-located range of attractions that makes it a very rewarding destination for many types of groups, as well as the perfect base for a longer stay – with a wide variety of hotels for every budget. Some themes are ever-popular – like the area’s unique china and ceramics heritage – but there are complementing natural and activity attractions too.

Fame in the city
Stoke-on-Trent is internationally famous for its ceramics, a connection that has resulted in the urban area’s unique designation as simply ‘The Potteries’. There have been literally dozens of famous-name factories established here.
There’s no better place to start a visit than the award-winning Wedgwood Museum, part of the company’s visitor centre complex at the factory site just south of the city. The museum, which re-opened just over three years ago after a £10 million pound refurbishment, tells the Wedgwood story in an inspiring way, weaving together the history of the family alongside the ceramics and details of production techniques. The modern presentation takes in many thousands of items including paintings by George Stubbs – who collaborated with founder Josiah Wedgwood – and it appeals equally as much to the casual visitor as the connoisseur. Production continues here and visits can include entry to the demonstration area where groups can talk to Wedgwood’s master artists and try out various skills, from throwing a pot to jewellery making. Optional tours of the working factory are available at an extra charge. Retail therapy is not overlooked, and as well as collections exclusive to the centre, there’s a well-stocked shop and a factory outlet for end of line bargains. Contact the centre for details of opening times (these vary during the year) and to arrange tours to suit your specific requirements. Group discounts, free parking and bookable refreshment options in the delightful restaurant are all available.
Learn about the wider industry at The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery – home to the finest collection of Staffordshire ceramics in the world – or at the Gladstone Pottery Museum complete with its distinctive bottle kilns and demonstrations of traditional processes. The Gladstone visit includes ‘Flushed with Pride’ – an exhibition tracing the development of sanitary ware – a tile gallery, bookable ceramic workshops and a cafe. Lifts and ramps ease access to many areas but organisers should be aware that it is an original 19th century building with a cobbled courtyard. If in doubt, the museum staff will be only too happy to provide more information and help organise your visit.

Creating Designs at Emma Bridgewater.

More hands-on experiences are available elsewhere in the city – at both Royal Stafford and Emma Bridgewater, visitors can create their own designs on a plate or cup and saucer, and take their work of art home. At Emma Bridgewater, this is by employing the same sponging technique that is used to create many of the company’s popular designs – learn more about these on a factory tour.
But it’s yet another decorative process, tube lining (which uses a cone to create richly-coloured waves on pottery), that’s explained during a tour of Moorcroft Pottery. Moorcroft celebrates its centenary at its current site in 2013 so check with the Heritage Visitor Centre for details of special events. Do call ahead for tours to reserve places and to discuss group needs.

Products at Churchill China.

All these factories offer great shopping opportunities as do the city’s other famous names such as Portmeirion, Royal Doulton, Churchill China, Aynsley China and the Denby Factory Outlet at Freeport – indeed they are all part of the area’s unique shopping trail aptly named the ‘China Experience’!
Autumn 2013 will see the return of the British Ceramics Biennial – a festival lasting throughout October, aimed at celebrating both the heritage of the area and the best of contemporary design. And looking even further ahead to early summer 2014 – the extensive renovations at the Middleport Pottery, now owned by the Princes Regeneration Trust, should be complete. Burleigh Ware is still made within this extraordinary Victorian building and, once the restoration is finished, this will be a ‘must do’ stop with a cafe, gallery and heritage visitor centre. As it is, the factory shop is still open and gives an authentic glimpse of a vibrant past.

Splendid vistas
All this ceramic knowhow might leave you needing a breather. Then perhaps an afternoon spent wandering in beautiful gardens is the perfect pick me up! Again, Stoke-on-Trent offers a good choice.
Just a mile from Wedgwood is the famous Trentham Estate. For decades, this has been the playground for the potters who’d visit it during their annual holidays – the wakes weeks – or for a Sunday trip. Now restored to all its former glory and more, it’s a haven for horticulturalists. The Italian Gardens bloom with striking perennials planted by designers Tom Stuart-Smith and Piet Oudolf, and there are woodland and lake walks to revive the senses. There’s also a programme of specialised activities for groups ranging from gardening workshops and tours to boat trips on the 42-seater Miss Elizabeth. There are incentives for organisers and coach drivers, and group organisers are invited to contact the Estate for a complimentary familiarisation visit. A fabulous new tea room is the perfect refuelling point and, for ‘afters’, there’s a wonderful shopping village to explore with fashion, food, beauty, ceramic and glass boutiques and a variety of restaurants and cafes. Wedgwood and Trentham Estate offer a combined discounted visit called ‘Pots & Perennials’ – contact either attraction for more details.
If you prefer fauna to flora, then visit the Trentham Monkey Forest on the same site – home to around 140 Barbary macaques. Wander the winding path through the monkeys’ home, see feeding time (hourly) and chat to the guides to learn more about their habitat and life style. Discounts are available for groups of 20+ and, as this visit does not have to be pre-booked, it’s a great one to include at the last minute if time allows.
North of the city, The National Trust-owned Biddulph Grange Garden is perfect for garden enthusiasts. Created in the mid 19th century by James Bateman as a series of small themed gardens for his collection of international plants, it takes inspiration from China, Egypt, the Himalayas and Italy. Steps and tunnels link the gardens with their rare and exotic plants, a stumpery and upside down trees. There’s free parking and groups get discounted entry. Braille guides, induction loops and a sensory experience are available but, because of narrow gravel paths and steep steps, some visitors may require assistance from their companions. Make contact for more information and to organise personalised tours.
Slightly further afield, Staffordshire offers the exceptional Dorothy Clive Garden (on the A51 west and with seasonal opening), plus nature reserves and many varied walking trails with easy and hard grades ranging from the picturesque Churnet Valley in the Staffordshire Peak District to the wilder Cannock Chase, with its commemorative war cemeteries. The Cannock Chase War Cemetery was established during the First World War, when a large military camp and prisoner-of-war hospital were based here, whilst the German Military Cemetery was opened in 1967 to accommodate German nationals who lost their lives in the UK during both world wars. Also on the theme of remembrance, the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas, East Staffordshire, offers guided tours for group bookings.

Stories from the past
Staffordshire’s rich history is explained at many different attractions. The Staffordshire Hoard, valued at £3.3 million, is the largest and most valuable discovery of Anglo-Saxon treasure. It now forms a major exhibition – ‘Dark Age Discovery’ – at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery until 1st September 2013.
The exhibition numbers some 200 conserved and cleaned items selected from around 3,500 mainly gold and bejewelled pieces that form the Hoard. Experts have sorted through the disparate pieces revealing how individual parts fit together and were used to decorate swords, shields and helmets.
The exhibition puts the Hoard in its historical context and a life-size model of an Anglo-Saxon shows how warriors of the period were typically dressed and armed. A section of the display includes updates from a research project recording what’s happened to the Hoard since its discovery by Terry Herbert in 2009 and suggesting why it was buried in a field in Staffordshire. Visitors are invited to add their own contribution to this debate. Admission is free but groups should pre-book.

The Ancient High House in Stafford.

The medieval Cathedral with its three spires is the highlight of the beautiful ancient city of Lichfield, and is just one of several ecclesiastical buildings of interest in the county including the Pugin-designed St Giles in Cheadle. Tamworth and Stafford Castles played their part in early English history as did the families in stately homes such as Shugborough and Weston Park. All venues welcome group visits with special rates, free parking and customised tours, but do check opening times as these can be seasonal. Catch up with Elizabethan history in the centre of Stafford where the Ancient High House, built in 1595, is said to be the largest timber-framed town house of the period surviving in England – admission is free.

Beer and fun!
Burton-on-Trent is home to the National Brewery Centre. The museum celebrates the social history of the brewery industry and experienced guides describe the brewing process and the fascinating roles that the steam engines and vintage vehicles on show played. The William Worthington micro-brewery brings the tour up to the present day with the chance to sample some great local ales brewed on site!  Specialised group tours including refreshment options are available too.
Brewing is one of the aspects of the annual Stone Food & Drink Festival. Cookery demonstrations, gourmet marquees, real ale trails and a farmer’s market take place during this three-day event celebrating gastronomy and the market town’s historic food links, including Hovis bread and Joules beer.  The next festival is planned for 4th to 6th October 2013.
Staffordshire also has its share of adventurous attractions, ranging from theme parks at Alton Towers and Drayton Manor Park to Aerial Extreme with its zip wires and high level walkways at the Trentham Estate. Sporting groups will head for Waterworld, the international standard Stoke Skate Plaza or the Snowdome, and there’s always a day at Uttoxeter Races to consider. Check with each attraction for opening times and group rates.

Stoke’s popular Regent Theatre.

Stoke on Trent’s theatres and concert halls are worth including in an itinerary, especially if you are making an overnight stay. Choose from the New Vic with its ‘in the round’ format and its regular Alan Ayckbourn plays to the more traditional Regent Theatre or the Victoria Hall for concerts ranging from classic to rock and performances from comedians. Group rates are available at all venues.

Incentives to visit Stoke and Staffordshire
Many individual attractions offer incentives for coach drivers and group travel organisers and there’s also a city-wide passport scheme. Five stamps equates to a £10 gift voucher that can be redeemed at any participating venue but for full terms and a copy of the Group Travel Guide contact Stoke-on-Trent Tourism. Ten percent Discount Cards for each member of a group, valid for purchases over £30 in participating shops, can also be requested by organisers prior to a visit.

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION
Stoke-on-Trent Tourism,
Tourist Information Centre, Victoria Hall, Cultural Quarter, Stoke-on-Trent City Centre ST1 3AD
Tel: 01782 236084 Email: tourism@stoke.gov.uk
Web: www.visitstoke.co.uk

Destination Staffordshire,
Stafford Visitor Information Centre, Gatehouse Theatre, Eastgate Street, Stafford ST16 2LT
Tel: 01785 277336 Email: karina.harvey@staffordshire.gov.uk
Web: www.enjoystaffordshire.com