Mention “The Potteries” and ceramics lovers will instantly know you’re talking about Stoke-on-Trent, that beloved Staffordshire city where Britain’s ceramics industry was born. Join them there later this month, when the British Ceramics Biennale (BCB) sweeps in. For six weeks, from 23 September through 5 November, you’ll find inspiring exhibitions, installations, and events, kicking off from the new festival hub at All Saints Church in Hanley (just a 3 minute cab ride from Stoke-on-Trent station, which is 1.5 hours north of London by train from Euston station). The church itself is a destination to see—a historic Arts & Crafts structure that was built “by the potters, for the potters.” Within it, you’ll find new pieces by 10 groundbreaking ceramic artists and 25 emerging artists from the UK and Ireland, as part of the BCB’s Award and Fresh exhibitions.
One such artist is 85-year-old Elspeth Owen, whose work ‘Beyond Repair’ explores sustainability and waste and will be made almost exclusively of broken ceramic fragments. She is inviting donations so if you would like to contribute your own leftover shards to the project, you can post them to her before 10 Sept for inclusion in the installation. Click here for details. We’re also looking forward to seeing Dan Kelly’s wheel thrown stoneware, left, and 2021’s Award winner, Stephen Dixon, who is creating a large scale tile mural depicting an allegorical scene of Renaissance Italy for this year’s show.
If you’re a fan of Emma Bridgewater pottery, her factory, centre, is within walking distance from All Saints Church, on the banks of the Cauldon Canal. It’s quite an impressive operation (nearly 300 people strong!) and the factory tour is brilliant—one of Balineum founder, Sarah Watson’s, favourites. There’s also a lovely café and tearoom. Note, advanced booking is required for all.
Also make your way over to the nearby Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. Their collection of Staffordshire pottery is considered one of the world’s finest and they will be showing a new installation by renowned multidisciplinary artist Osman Yousefzada, commissioned especially for the BCB. Next door is the AirSpace Gallery, another official BCB venue, showing work by William Cobbing. For a bite to eat in town, try The Slamwich Club or Dumpling King, both just a stone’s throw from the gallery.
If Burleigh pottery is more your cup of tea, consider visiting Middleport Pottery in Burslem instead of Emma Bridgewater. This historic factory has been the home of Burleigh since 1889 and fans of The Great Pottery Throw Down will recognize it from early seasons of the show. The guided tour is well worth doing and includes a look at their traditional tissue transfer printing process. It’s a method that dates back to the mid-18th century in England. Note, the tour is only available weekdays and must be pre-booked. There’s also a nice café and tearoom should you want to eat here.
You’ll likely be running out of time by now, if you’ve come up just for the day. The Spode Museum is another of Sarah’s favourite’s and just a 10 minute walk back to the Stoke railway station. The museum is actually the old Spode factory, now an independent charitable trust, and a wonderful space to wander around. There is a small, curated selection of the brand’s vast collection and archives on public display and BCB Award artist Carrie Reichardt will be showing work in the temporary exhibition space. Visits to the iconic Blue Room are available but must be booked in advance—the museum is run by volunteers, so they need to arrange for extra staff to accommodate guided tours. There’s a restaurant here as well.
If you’ve got a bit more time or are spending two days in town for the fair, consider visiting any of these institutions as well, listed in order of distance from the station:
The Brampton Museum in Newcastle-under-Lyme is the fourth official BCB venue and here you will find artist Neil Brownsword’s ‘Obsolescence and Renewal’ exhibition—a look at the relationship between the origins of British ceramic manufacture and Chinese porcelain. Keep your eyes out for limited edition tiles the BCB has commissioned Brownsword to create in collaboration with Johnson Tiles, available for sale in the shop at All Saints Church.
The Gladstone Pottery Museum in Longton is a preserved Victorian pottery factory and home to one of Stoke’s last traditional bottle kilns. It provides a glimpse into the working life of a potter during the Industrial Revolution and is the current filming location of The Great Pottery Throw Down. There’s a small collection of tiles in the Tile Gallery and a surprisingly enjoyable exhibition about toilets called ‘Flushed with Pride.’ Be aware, however, that the museum has a project in the works that’s causing closures for additional days between mid-August and early November. Be sure to check their website for opening times before you go.
Furthest afield: the World of Wedgwood in Barlaston has a lovely museum, right, including some excellent pieces from Wedgwood’s UNESCO-recognised archives. There’s a factory tour available Wednesdays through Fridays (pre-booking is available but not required) and for a deeper dive, tour the collections as well during this month’s Heritage Open Days (13-15 Sept). It is a rather remote location, but it’s worth the trek and there are a few good options for nibbles on site if you’re hungry, including a tearoom and café.
If heading to Stoke by train from Euston, the tickets cost less the further in advance that you buy them. To make the most of your day, we suggest booking an early train and grabbing breakfast to go from Leon inside Euston station (upstairs). Once in Stoke, be aware that cabs are few and far between once you leave the station. Waiting times can range from 10-25 minutes. If you’re only staying for the day, book an off-peak return fare on the same day so you can get any train home that afternoon. It costs a tad more but gives you the flexibility to leave whenever you’re ready. Or stay in Stoke overnight and give yourself two days to enjoy the festival. The Hilton Garden Inn in Hanley is new and walking distance to the Potteries Museum. Or if you’re more the boutique hotel type, try The Upper House Hotel in Barlaston—it’s the former country estate of the Wedgwood family so there’s even more ceramics history for you to be immersed in!
Photos © Sarah Hogan Photography; Andrew Montgomery/Country Living/Heart Magazines UK; World of Wedgwood