Stoke-on-Trent doesn’t always spring to mind for a short break in the U.K. but reading about its industrial heritage as the world capital of ceramics tempted us to spend a few days exploring the city. Stoke is located midway between Manchester and Birmingham and has direct rail services to London taking only 90 minutes. In 1910 the six towns that came together to form Stoke were known collectively as The Potteries and comprise Hanley, Tunstall, Burslem, Longton, Fenton and Stoke. Although one might expect Stoke to be the actual city centre it is usually regarded as Hanley.
We made an early start and arrived in Hanley at 12.00 noon following brown tourist signs to its cultural quarter. After finding a parking space we walked the short distance to the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery to learn about the history of ceramics in the city. The museum is free of charge, open daily and also incorporates the tourist information centre. Our self guided tour began with a look at the 17th century when pottery started to be produced in the area due to its abundance of coal and clay. The ceramics industry flourished with Wedgwood, Spode and Royal Doulton establishing factories in the city. Glass cabinets contained examples of fine china and porcelain with further displays of tools and machinery used over the years.
My favourite part of the museum was the walk through ‘Street of Life in Stoke’ where we could envisage life in the past. We looked in an old chemist’s shop with its wooden drawers filled with pills and potions, saw a fish and chip shop range, a potter’s cottage and the interior of a village pub.
In addition to pottery, the museum also contains some artefacts from the Staffordshire Hoard which were interesting to view. This was the largest ever find of Anglo-Saxon gold, silver and jewels in Britain and was discovered by an amateur metal detector enthusiast buried beneath a farmer’s field in Staffordshire in July 2009. The collection dates back to the 7th century and is valued at £3.85 million.
Stoke-on-Trent is home to the Spitfire, the most famous WW2 aeroplane and a symbol of national victory in the Battle of Britain. It’s original designer Reginald Mitchell was born in Stoke and the museum usually displays an aircraft. At the time of our visit the Spitfire was currently being restored off-site and in its place was this full size sculpture.
After leaving the museum it was a ten minute walk to the Dudson Museum which we were intrigued to visit as it is located inside an original bottle kiln. Stepping inside the brick lined bottle oven we discovered that Dudson’s is the oldest surviving family business in the ceramic tableware industry and still supplies catering ware to the hospitality industry. The small museum traces the company’s history from 1800 to the present day and contains a selection of pottery items manufactured over the years, photographs and other memorabilia.
Although Stoke-on-Trent is famous for its ceramics, it boasts other visitor attractions nearby so returning to our car we drove five miles to the Trentham Monkey Forest. I have come across monkeys in their natural habitat whilst visiting Malaysia and Singapore but my friend who was accompanying me on this trip had only seen them in zoos, so we thought the attraction would be pleasant for an afternoon walk.
The Monkey Forest has a large car park and is open daily with adult admission costing £8.50. It is set in 60 acres of Staffordshire woodland and is home to 140 Barbary Macaque monkeys. It was lovely strolling along the winding forest paths and spotting the monkeys roaming through the forest as they would do in the wild without cages. The 1 km pathway is the only one of it’s kind in the U.K. and the monkeys seemed to be used to people walking through the park and didn’t try to jump up on us. There are useful information boards and quiz boards at regular intervals with friendly, knowledgeable staff on hand to answer any questions visitors might have.
Hourly feeding takes place in two areas of the forest with a live commentary explaining the monkeys’ antics as they occur. The looped trail can be repeated and to keep children happy there are also adventure playgrounds, a picnic area and Banana Cafe. The Monkey Forest car park provides access to the south entrance of Trentham Gardens, but we decided to drive along the road to its main entrance and park there.
Located just outside the entrance to the gardens is the Trentham Shopping Village where we found over 70 attractively laid out timber lodges housing restaurants, cafes and shops including the tableware of Portmeirion, Royal Worcester and Spode. As the gardens were open much later than the shopping village, it made sense for us to visit there first although the main reason for visiting was to explore the gardens.
During the long days of summer, the gardens stay open until 9.00 p.m. which must be lovely for people living locally who are annual ticket holders. Adult admission costs £12 but I noticed various offers on-line so it’s worth checking before visiting. Leaving the visitor centre, we studied our plan of the gardens and walked over the raised bridge spanning the River Trent, deciding to take the two mile circular lakeside walk. This well maintained path taking in the stunning views of the Capability Brown designed Trentham Lake was an absolute delight.
A miniature railway known as the Trentham Fern which is popular with young children operates along this side of the lake and chugged past us as we strolled along. On our way we passed a bird hide and admired fields of blossoming wild flowers.
After spotting monkeys earlier, we turned our attention to the Trentham fairies which are statues dotted around the beautiful lakeside, woodland and gardens sitting on benches and tucked away in trees. To reach the southern end of the lake we crossed the cascading weir and from the lakeside cafe terrace we enjoyed watching the local canoe club taking to the water.
Miss Elizabeth, an electrically powered 42 seat catamaran operates regular services between each end of the lake taking 20 minutes with tickets costing £2. Although we would have enjoyed a boat trip, we preferred to explore on foot and work up an appetite for our dinner later.
The path along the far side of the lake was through shady woodland with short side trails along boardwalks to the waters edge. Along here we found woodcarvings of diving otters, stag beetles and huge cedar cones which added interest to our walk.
At the top of the lake we found another large cafe and outdoor stage next to the Italian Gardens. These gardens are undoubtedly Trentham’s showpiece especially in summer when so much is in bloom. The planting has been designed within the historic framework of Sir Charles Barry’s original Italianate Garden of the 19th century.
More recently, Tom Stuart-Smith a renowned Chelsea Flower Show gold medalist was commissioned to revive the gardens with one of the largest contemporary plantings in Europe. The Italianate Garden features 80,000 perennials in over 400 different varieties in 70 flower beds and was absolutely stunning with the most amazing displays of roses, sweet peas, delphiniums and other plants.
It was hard tearing ourselves away from the gardens but time was ticking on so we returned to the car and travelled to the Trentham Travelodge just over a mile away where we had reserved a room for two nights. It was a nice small Travelodge with only 31 rooms and our first floor room was light and airy and a perfect base for our short break.
After a little rest and a reviving cup of tea with some chocolate biscuits we felt ready to go out again. Chatting to the receptionist, she suggested the Arnold Machin pub in Newcastle-under-Lyme where we enjoyed a leisurely meal to round off a lovely day in the Stoke area of Staffordshire.
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