The Staffordshire potteries attract more visitors than Shakespeare's birthplace. Andy Farquarson finds out why.
The Potteries - five towns or six? Most people would say five. But they overlook Fenton; add Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke and Longton and you have the six towns which form the city of Stoke-on-Trent.
Pottery has been made in north Staffordshire for centuries. The area is rich in appropriate raw materials - clay, coal and water - with sources of salt and lead not far away. Originally a cottage industry, by the late 18th century a combination of natural resources, local skills and industrialisation had made the six towns the ceramics centre of the British Empire.
The industry and its ancillary trades once employed up to half the total workforce of men, women and children. Today that proportion has dropped dramatically but ceramics still accounts for much of the area's wealth. And Stoke welcomes more tourists each year than Stratford-upon-Avon, thanks mainly to its heritage.
Pottery manufacture used to be a hazardous industry. Sulphurous air pollution from the smoking ovens, the hot and dusty working conditions and the toxicity of the materials all took their toll. Some jobs were more dangerous than others - of those who emptied the red-hot ovens, one former worked noted, "barely one of 'em lived past 40". Heart disease, lead poisoning and silicosis (known as potters' rot) were the biggest killers.
Trade unionism and legislation led to improvements throughout the 20th century and today clean, modern factories have replaced the hundreds of traditional "potbanks" - small pottery factories which once competed with household names such as Wedgewood, Royal Doulton and Spode.
One of the most visible changes followed the post-war clean air legislation - gas and electric kilns ousted coal-fired bottle ovens. Until the early 1960s, the city's skyline was dominated by thousands of these istinctive brickbuilt structures. Today a mere 47 remain, five of them preserved at Gladstone Pottery in Longton.
Like most industries, the ceramics trade had a unique jargon. The argot, opaque to outsiders, was crystal clear to tradesmen such as jiggerers, jolliers and sagger-maker's bottom-knockers.
Gladstone Pottery, run by the city council to present the area's industrial heritage, is a typical "potbank". Its complex of mellow brick buildings is ranged around a central cobbled yard and dominated by four towering bottle ovens and a smaller enamel oven.
Gladstone's themes include the potters' way of life, the industry's skills and crafts, and the development of ceramics in north Staffordshire. As well as museum exhibits, a working engine and audio-visual presentations, working potters demonstrate skills such as wheel-throwing, slip casting, ceramic painting and the art of making china flowers by hand.
The pottery is popular with primary and middle schools. It also caters to secondary schools and sixth-form NVQ students.
"We take three groups to Gladstone Pottery every year," says Theresa Leahy, head of Year 6 at Hugh Sexey middle school, Somerset. "As well as key stage 2 work on Victorian history, our visit covers art, English and science. The kids love it - there's so much to engage them. And being in a former working pottery, they get a great sense of the industry's past and working conditions."
* Gladstone Pottery Museum, Uttoxeter Road, Longton, Stoke-on-Trent ST3 1PQ.
Tel: 01782 319232.
www.stoke.gov.ukgladstone e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org Open daily from 10am-5pm.
Guided tour pound;2.50 per pupil; teachers and assistants free.
Contact Joy Mckenna. Teacher's pack and resource materials available. Support for key stages 1, 2 and 3 and curriculum work in science, technology, art, GCSE history.
Practical workshops for 10-18 pupils cost pound;2.50 per head.