I am just mildly excited. After watching the BBC2’s series, The Great Pottery Throw-Down, I realise I can visit Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent, when I’m on my research trip to the UK.
Actually mildly excited is an understatement: the visit is not negotiable.
Maybe it’s not a must-see in most people’s UK travel itinerary, but for a ceramic artist, Stoke-on-Trent is the home of pottery in the UK and Middleport Pottery is the film location of the television series. It is my Ramsay Street. My Neighbours set. (The English are obsessed with Neighbours, not sure why…)
The series, judged by famous English potters Kate Malone and Keith Brymer-Jones, showcases 10 amateur potters who slug it out in all aspects of ceramic craft. I’m in awe. Just throwing in public would send me into an absolute melt-down; I’m absolutely in the baby stages and not confident. My own pottery is either slab-formed or slip cast. For a start, I would fail miserably in the pressure-cooker situation of throwing a masterpiece in front of master potters, let alone millions of telly critics.
But visiting the pottery where it all happens? Well that’s a different thing. I want to feel the atmosphere, feel the ghosts.
Visiting there will feed a covert fantasy of mine; not just for the love of pottery and its process, but the history of England’s industrial revolution.
For my pilgrimage, I’m travelling with Sophie, and this is the first stop for us over a short road trip from Yorkshire to Shropshire.
Referred to as simply ‘Stoke’ — like many other industrial centres, Stoke-on-Trent has undergone an unceremonious slump after the closure of many factories over the years. All the bursting, burgeoning brilliance of the industrial revolution, reduced to hollow, cavernous spaces and vacant shops, with darkened windows and chipped paintwork. Sophie says to me, ‘Stoke’s not the prettiest part of England.’
But that said, I remind her that plenty of parts of Australia not that inspiring either. I find Stoke sill has an infectious grittiness; the kind of dust layers and darkened surfaces that make my fingers itch to create. I’ve always loved industrial spaces and I’m entranced by the bulk of the Victorian factories, which still hold raw charm – great big brick edifices with huge paned windows and industrial pendants – the kind I want to nab and bring back to Australia and hang in my studio. Maybe I was born in the wrong time, but I’ve always dreamed of owning a factory: a glorious extraordinarily industrious creative space making beautiful things, with happy and clever people in it. Is that too much of a dream? Could industrial spaces every be considered ‘happy’?
In the modern day it would seem so. Stoke has undergone a resurgence, thanks mainly to the demand for artisan products and ceramics, the Prince of Wales Trust for saving Middleport Pottery, the Great Pottery Throw-Down television series for highlighting it and the seemingly endless success here of Emma Bridgewater.
Middleport still has an extraordinary feeling about it – centuries of toil and the ghosts I’m looking for—of workers— in almost in every room. We are led on a long tour (perhaps a little too long) by an amiable guide but I’m fascinated by the process; the flow of workspaces, the technical methods and the last remaining biscuit kiln standing out of seven — yes seven massive kilns that took days to fire.
I also become increasingly aware of the miracle of my little studio and the fact that I undertake every stage in producing my pottery – and I’m not sure why I don’t think of it until now – but I consider that producing ceramic pieces has changed very little of the years with the exception of some brilliant time-saving devices and vast electric kilns served by huge dolly trolleys of identical ceramic forms.
Over the course of the tour there’s very little they tell me that I don’t already know. This comes as a complete surprise and it dawns on me how hard I’ve worked over the past few years to learn my craft and I feel a bit emotional. When you live so far away from the centre of places that created these industries, you sometimes feel as though what you know is not good enough. I felt immensely satisfied, I really understood – both the terminology and the practise.
The potter’s craft, the potter’s pride and the potter’s dedication – is universal.