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25 October 2016

five reasons to visit stoke-on-trent

you might remember that a few weeks back i headed to kingston-upon-hull to see exactly why it has been named the uk's city of culture for 2017. on the weekend there i just happened to get talking to a representative from another tourist board about how much i love discovering the awesomeness of the most underrated of uk cities, and chatted about my 12-in-12 mission. it turned out he was from "the potteries". what are the potteries, i asked him with that cocked-ear look on my face. "you haven't heard of the potteries? we must rectify that at once!" he replied.

and so it was that last weekend, i was lucky enough to be whisked away by visit stoke to the home of "the potteries" - stoke-on-trent. which, coincidentally, is also putting a bid in to be named the uk's city of culture fir 2021. it was a whistle-stop tour for sure, but i definitely got a taste for the city in my time there, and wanted to share my top five reasons that i think you should visit there too.

go potty with local produce

stoke-on-trent is famous all over the world for the tableware and ceramics hand made by locals, and has been for centuries. the products made here can be found all over the world, on aeroplanes, in hotel dining halls, in palaces, at your nanna's house, and of course: in your cupboards, used only "for best". and, in 2015, middleport pottery hosted the crew and stars of a brand new bbc tv show which went in search for britain's best amateur potter; the great british throwdown. this is not a joke.

it makes sense to host this program in a town that at one point had over 4000 bottle kilns in regular production. even after the clean air act was introduced in the 50s, more than 47 still remain  - as does production of pottery in six of the world's most well-known pottery houses. and thanks to the prince's regeneration trust, middleport recently reopened to the public (about three quid entry!) as an all-singing, all-dancing hub of arts, craft, and local history; after an £8.5 million restoration project, the site continues to produce burleigh pottery as it has always done, as well as host a range of local, independent traders' wares too.

bonus reason: at gladstone pottery museum - the only complete victorian pottery factory from the days when coal still made china, you can see traditional skills, original workshops, and the huge bottle kilns that take you right back to a time when all production stopped work on a sunday so all the washing could be done on a monday. you can even have a go throwing your own pot (an extra £3 on top of the £7.50 entry fee) on the potter's wheel, which is a lot damn harder than it looks. hat's off to the potters of this world.

the secret garden

at the emma bridgewater factory you can choose to do a host of things, none more glorious than discovering the secret walled garden beyond the beautiful tea rooms - and for free, no less. the owners have turned a piece of derelict land into an urban garden bursting with flowers, vegetables, and even some ducks! duck ducks, not stokey ducks (yarite duck?). the stylish and tranquil gardens are maintained by the factory's gardener and florist, arthur, who keeps a regular update on the state of his garden on the factory's blog. what a babe.

not only is there a spectacular garden, but there's also an adorable tea room complete with it's own emma bridgewater printed aga, and not one, but two shops on site. one of which is upto 50% off. yes, you read that right; it may be factory seconds, but i can tell you that from experience, the marks and scuffs these pieces are marked down for are totally minimal, and no-one would even notice. and when we're talking that much of a discount, who even cares - amiright?

bonus reason: oh my gosh, they have a decorating studio, where you can buy an un-fired piece of pottery (from as little as a fiver) and decorate it yourself in any print or pattern of your choosing! there's stencils and sponges and a range of coloured paints to help you along, and they will then fire it and finish it for you before sending it on to you at home. i let my inner pre-schooler run free with mine, and when it arrived last week, i couldn't help but laugh. i showed my mum and she responded with "looks familiar to something you made at school... when you were six". haha, some things never change. would be great for a hen do or girls weekend, for something a bit... sobering.

visit trentham estate

within the city's historic estate lay a number of notable points. first and foremost, the garden that was recently reinvigourated by chelsea flower show gold winners tom stuart smith and piet oudolf - who is also responsible for new york city's high line garden. the trentham gardens are in the top five most visited paid-for garden attractions in the uk, and it's not hard to see why; the daily telegraph named it the "garden makeover of the decade" just last year. the sky was blue and the clouds were fluffy and white when i visited, and sitting and people watching seemed to be a favourite activity of all those who visited. and dogs. there were lots of dogs.

in the most northern point of the estate is the uk's only free-range monkey forest. monkey! forest! it's home to more than 140 barbary macaques, who live in total freedom; a woodland trail allows visitors to walk amongst them and take in their adventurous antics as they swing from tree to tree. how. fricken. cool. is that! save yourself a trip to thailand where they're probably not terribly well looked after, and just go to stoke instead. it's heaps closer, and you don't need any shots to go there.

bonus reason: rumour has it that there is a family of fairies living inside trentham gardens. the fairy trail features fourteen beautifully sculptured ethereal creatures, and is included in the price of the entry fee (about a tenner for adults, but you could easily spend a day here). the latest fairy to join the family is named "spring", and can be found jumping from one giant dandelion to another. and is a total babe, obviously. her quote: dreams do come true.

discover a world of wedgwood

the world of wedgwood is a unique visitor experience that celebrates the very best in british industrial, design, and cultural heritage. you can take a factory tour (£10) and watch the skilled craftsmen and women at work, as they tediously and spectacularly create some of the worlds best (and most expensive) tableware, as they have done for the last 250 years. in the museum (£7.50, or combined experience for £15) you can trace the brand's history of ground breaking design and production back to josiah wedgwood's internship with his brother in the potteries, through to the current day pieces that continue to be made today.

and then there's the afternoon tea (an additional £16 on any ticket price). you can enjoy the ultimate tea experience in the incredible tea rooms, where you can choose from over 50 varieties of loose teas, and four different types of finger sandwiches. and, it's all served on the finest of wedgwood china, of course. while i wasn't the biggest fan of the salmon and cream cheese or coronation chicken sarnies, the ham and mustard and duck egg and cress were biiiig winners in my book. but the highlight? the fruitless scones. i mean, you just cannot go wrong with a good cream tea really, can you. oh, i had the english breakfast because i was overwhelmed with choice. i suggest you try something less boring than me.

bonus reason: they too have a decorating studio, but a muuuuuch fancier one. in the master craft studio and decorating centre, visitors are encouraged to throw a pot of their own (from £10), or decorate a yet-to-be thrown plate (from £17.50 including a factory tour). their decorating studio includes a light box, and some preeeeetty special template stencils for visitors to trace and colour in at will. at least this way your piece won't turn out like some primary school art class piece. well, i hope. my plate should arrive any day now... eeep!

local specialities

whenever i told anyone i was going to stoke, the first thing they said is "why, don't do that", and the second thing was, "make sure you have oat cakes". what the hell are oatcakes, i wondered aloud, while everyone smirked and told me i'd love them. not thinking to research in any way, i assumed they were a sort of take on a rice cake. you know, with ham and avocado on top type thing, which is fine, but like - why are you so dead proud of that? 

anyway, on my first day, i ordered them. and... they're nothing like what i was expecting! they're basically a savoury pancake, about the same consistency of a crepe, with some totally deliiiiicious fillings. i had mine with cheese and bacon as it seemed the safest and most sensible option, and good lord, it was tasty. and pretty damn fancy too, considering it was served on some beautiful burleigh china. what more could you want from some local grub, eh?

so, there you have it; five extremely legitimate reasons that you too should visit stoke-on-trent. i was there not even 48 hours, and managed to fit all of that (and more) in, and on the second day, with a raging hangover thanks to experiencing some more local fare (cocktails) with some fab stokey lasses (terri and charl). a massive thank you to visit stoke for putting together a wonderful itinerary for me and making sure i got to make the most of my stay, and to best western moat house for being wonderful hosts and feeding me some of the best hotel food i've ever had.

are you interested in visiting the potteries yourself? i'd love to hear what you think!

*i was a guest of visit stoke, but all thoughts are my own!*