Name dropping at a Middleport mooring
Trace the history of the English canals and you’ll soon appreciate the link between industry and the transport of goods (china clay, coal and pottery). The Trent and Mersey Canal, 97 miles long, stretches between Shardlow in the East Midlands and Preston Brook in the north west. Its very first sod was cut by Josiah Wedgewood in 1766 at the area now known as Westport Lake (besides which Cleddau was moored on Wednesday night). Ceramics enthusiasts will certainly know the name of Josiah Wedgewood, whose passion for his business made him realise that transporting pots smoothly by water would drastically reduce the number of breakages and therefore be better for profits. (Maybe potholes in the mid 1700s were even worse than they are now!)
At the height of its pottery production Stoke-on-Trent had up to 4,000 bottle kilns; now there are about 43 left. (See some stunning photos here). Travelling by boat through Stoke the brick built kilns are obvious – as is Middleport Pottery.
There are mooring rings outside Middleport Pottery now, just three, and visitors can tie up there to explore the factory site. So (heritage celebrity names coming up) the Cleddau crew had arrived smoothly in pottery land via the Harecastle Tunnel, engineered by Thomas Telford, along the waterway planned by James Brindley and promoted by industrialist Josiah Wedgewood.
Via the wonders of television Middleport Pottery has become widely recognisable as the location where The Great Pottery Throw Down is filmed. It’s a popular BBC2 programme in which budding potters compete for the champion’s title. The Prince of Wales is a huge fan of Middleport Pottery too, having made four visits in recent years (more on that later).
The Captain and Boatwif tied up at Middleport mid-morning and strolled round to the entrance on Port Street. A pre-booked factory tour was about to depart from the Victorian General Office. (“Nowadays,”explained the guide, “we’d call this an industrial estate, then it was a model potbank.”)
Visitors in the group now numbered 11, too many for the tight spaces in some parts of the factory so the services of a second volunteer guide were recruited (a minor detail but significant in what was shortly to happen). Off went the first tour group, followed ten minutes later by the second smaller group. It was while crossing the cobbles just yards from the canal that Rob Jones, our tour guide, was politely interrupted while in full articulate flow. This was to be semi-final night for The Great Pottery Throw Down (filmed in the upper storey) – and Radio Stoke was broadcasting live from the Middleport site. Here then is the interview,
Rob Jones (“from Gwent, taught in Kent, ended up on-Trent”) speaking first, the Cleddaus interviewed next… ( Also accessible via BBC iPlayer, BBC Radio Stoke, on Thursday 16th March, starting at 1323.15, ending at 1328:30).
The tour resumed, a factory trail to track how the raw material was treated and transformed to finished packaged pot.
There was a steam engine, restored to glory now, which used to power the machines that delivered and agitated the slip (used for hollow pots like jugs and mugs). There are certain roles carried out by single operators,
Objects are smoothed for a finer finish before the hand decoration, achieved by wrap on transfers or by a printed ink cigarette paper which impresses the pattern on the biscuit fired pots. Pot decoration is a highly skilled business and some well-known upmarket customers include Fortnum and Mason, Highgrove and John Lewis.
Throughout the tour Rob enthused about the processes and products, the skills of the workforce and the heritage buildings. “Ooh, just let me show you this,” he would say, guiding his charges to yet another artefact or point of interest. It was a totally fascinating visit – and yet there was still more to see. There was the Mould Store (shelves and shelves stacked high with past designs) and chance to go right inside the bottle kiln, which is an oven inside a brick external shell.
There are artist studios on site, a tearoom, a Factory Shop, plans for a Clay College and much more. The place buzzes with pride and optimism, a pottery that has an unbroken history of nearly 130 years of continuous production. Throughout the tour (two actually, courtesy of Rob’s unbounded enthusiasm and detailed knowledge) anecdotes were regaled of the frequent visits by the Patron, the Prince of Wales. Somehow visitors will quite understand why the Prince regards it as such an important and special place – and somehow there is a niggling feeling that the next time Cleddau passes this way another visit must be made…
So where did Cleddau and crew end up for the night? Right opposite the James Brindley statue at Etruria. Neat, eh!
Miles 2.5; locks 0