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28 August 2018

the complete visitor's guide to stoke-on-trent

stoke on trent is the uk's home of the potteries, and is officially recognised as the world capital of ceramics, too. it's known around the world for the tableware and ceramic houses and firms that began in stoke, and the items made in stoke can be found in homes, hotels and airlines all over the globe. in 2016 stoke even hosted the series "the great british throwdown" as a nod to all the amateur potters in that part of the country. for real, the pottery heritage is strong, there. my last trip to stoke was a whirlwind adventure of visiting as many of the famous potteries as possible before heading back to london, and in those two days it became very obvious to me that i was going to need more time to explore everything else, not related to pottery. so a few weekends back now, i headed up again for a few more day in the land of bottle kiln, to see just what else there is to see and do (and eat) in industrial england.

get there by train

usually from euston if you're heading up from london, but there are also direct trains to stoke from birmingham, manchester and edinburgh, so it's on one of those great mainlines that makes it easy to get to from most parts of the country. i say "usually" from euston, because the day i went up, euston was shut for maintenence so i had to go from marylebone. via birmingham moor street and new street. because, welcome to sundays in the uk.

discover the potteries

there are still six factories in operation, so you definitely have to go and see them. the last time i visited, i was shuttled straight to middleport pottery, home of homeware brand burleigh. i loved middleport, and hearing about the regeneration plan in place thanks to a grant from one of prince charles' trusts, and so it was incredible to be back in time to see the poppies appear for the weeping window exhibition. paul cummins and tim piper's free-flowing installation will be available to see until mid september, and the tickets for them are totally free too. if you want to check out the rest of middleport, that'll set you back only a few quid.

weeping window is a cascade of several thousand handmade ceramic poppies, pouring from the top of one of middleport's disused bottle kilns to the ground below. the sculpture originated at the tower of london back in the summer of 2014, when the ceramic poppies were planted by volunteers in memory of every soldier lost at the front during the first world war. they are a must-see in stoke, so make sure you do. and while you're at middleport, check out the secret garden, the boat cake barge, and make sure you stop for a cuppa too, before heading on to check out the other potteries and factory tours in stoke. my highly recommended tours are the world of wedgwood, moorcroft pottery, emma bridgewater, and gladstone. you can try throwing your own piece to take home at the latter, but can decorate your own at the former. whatever you choose to do, you won't be bored - trust me!

sunday lunch in congleton

congleton is technically not in stoke, but it's not far, and worth the trip. it's about a fifteen minute drive away from middleport, and it's super cute and colourful, so it's worth a stop in. especially if you're hungry, because let me tell you about rueben's. on a sunday, they do one dish, and one dish good: american roast. what does that mean? well, for £12 you basically get a platter of bbq pork and rotisserie chicken, filled with thin fries and served with mac and cheese, peas and corn, pickled cabbage, and a portion of beans, and the best part? it's all you can eat. once you're through with your first serve, you can ask for more of all the sides (including the chips and gravy) to keep you topped up, but trust me: you won't need to. alongside their milkshakes and sundaes and other insane american desserts, you'll be full when you leave, which is a shame, because down the road is rumba - and you won't want to miss rumba.

drinks at rumba

rumba is a tiki bar with a smattering of cultural appropriation from the south americas, with toucans on the outside of the building, next door to a historical tudor house. it's very that. and once you're inside, the fun doesn't stop: flamingos and sharks and confusing decor greet you from every angle, and it's hard to know where to start; the colourful bar stools invite you to sit down for a tall drink, but if you wander through, you'll find yourself sat in a caravan-shaped booth, complete with speakers built in and surround-sound ambient noise from the amazon. or, hawaii. or, mexico. i'm not sure they're sure where they think tiki bars originate, but whatever the sitch, it was a greeeeat spot for a photo shoot and quick rum-based cocktail (and churros - again, confusing!) before heading back out into the day. deffo recommend heading in!

visit the cultural quarter in hanley

there are six towns in stoke-on-trent, and the main one is hanley. that's where the shops are, that's where the food is, that's where all the hotels are too. from the best western moat house i stayed in, the centre of hanley was about a ten minute walk (down hill, too!), and in hanley i found some great little boutique cafes and charity shops, and some amazing street art too. it's not very big, but it has everything you need for an hour or so, or a bite to eat in a great little spot. rawr came highly recommended to me, and the food was good too - maybe i'm used to london prices, but i was impressed to get an avocado, tomato and agave bagel, iced coffee and a lemonade for less than a tenner. just me? maybe.

wander around trentham estate

i visited trentham estate the last time i was in stoke, but didn't have enough time there to truly see all it had to offer. from the beautifully curated italian gardens, to the impressively easy-to-walk lake trail, to the the award nominated show gardens from the chelsea flower show, and the fairy trail, there was plenty to look at, and even more to photograph, and if you know me at all you'll know those are two of my favourite things. the bluebell field i remember from the last time was all but cooked away from this long, hot summer, but in its place now lives the most pretty and picturesque wildflower meadow i've ever seen, and that, readers, is enough of a reason to visit these stunning gardens as you'll need, in my opinion. entry is about £12 for an adult, but you can easily spend a couple of hours wandering through the stunning acres of wildlife and colour - i certainly did.

meet a monkey

another place i didn't get time to visit last time i adventured up to stoke, was the monkey forest. just within the trentham estate is a woodland trail that leads to the entrance of the park, and from there, a secret forest of tall trees and plants looms above you. beyond the trees is an open space where dozens of rescued macaque monkeys roam as free as they like, in their new home. trails within the park allow visitors to walk among them, while getting an in depth insight into the lives of these re-homed monkeys. you can watch them swing from the branches above, and stick around for feeding time when they flock to the centre of the park and put on somewhat of a show for their guests. i was there less than an hour, which could be considered a bit rich considering the £8.50 (£1 discount with a trentham gardens ticket) entry fee, but i had a train to catch!

catch a show at the new vic theatre

the new victoria theatre is the first purpose-built theatre-in-the-round in europe, built in 1986 because of the 25-year petition started by the people of stafford to have a suitable place for the victoria theatre company to perform their original and unique shows - that were always delivered "in the round". on the night we went along, though, we were not treated to something timeless and classic, no. on the night we went along, we were there to see local comedic character "uncle eric" take on the russians in a very odd, but very funny adaption of a bond storyline, with all the dad jokes you could expect from a show aimed at the over fifties. i'm not sure i've laughed that hard in years, or felt that awkward and cringey from some of the jokes either. there's a range of shows on at any given time, from productions to music, and even a circus show i was highly recommended too. it was a £3.86 uber ride from my hotel in hanley, so, you know.. treat yourself!

leave town happy

that's two more nights and three more days, and i just now think i've captured all the amazing things to see and do in stoke-on-trent. between the last time and this, i've managed to visit all of the operational ceramic factories, taken the tours, thrown the pots, painted the pieces, shopped the outlets, walked the gardens, fed the monkeys, eaten the oat cakes, drank the coffee, seen the shows, met the locals, and genuinely, i would go back and do it all again tomorrow. i often think the brits are guilty of taking their backyards for granted, refusing to visit towns and cities that maybe once had a bit of a bad rep, but, haven't they all? that doesn't stop people visiting london, or liverpool, or edinburgh - and it should not stop people visiting stoke. because trust me, my dudes. it's one of the better ones!

*i was a guest of visit stoke for the weekend, but all words and pictures are my own!