Monday, 26 October 2015

Stoke-on-Trent and the British Ceramics Biennial

A visit to the fourth edition of the British Ceramics Biennial[i] was a chance to revisit that most singular of English cities, Stoke-on-Trent.[ii] The Biennial occupies a cavernous factory floor, part of the former Spode china works in the centre of Stoke, one of the six middling-size towns that make up this conurbation of a quarter of a million people. The space is thrillingly atmospheric, the Biennial presents work by artists of international standard and showcases graduate talent from the Potteries and beyond, and there is an ambitious programme of events and educational activities. 

The Spode Factory

This looks like exactly the kind of thing Stoke should be doing as it struggles to find a sense of purpose – and renewed economic vitality – in the aftermath of the shocking decline of the pottery industry in the second half of the 20th century. The Biennial confirms the continuing significance of ceramics – domestic and industrial – for the local economy, and the potential of craft and design skills to drive modern manufacturing and the creative industries. It also attracts visitors who, if they are prepared to give the Six Towns enough time, will find much to enjoy in the diminished but still palpable “Stokishness of Stoke”, as Matthew Rice calls it. Like Hull, Stoke isn’t the same as everywhere else. It’s different, not always in a good way, but definitely different.

The first three volumes in Nikolaus Pevsner’s The Buildings of England were published in 1951. 23 years later, in 1974, the last of the series, Staffordshire, was completed.[iii] Pevsner included “Some Words on Completion”, noting that “the series is not complete. It is only the first round which has run its course”. Several of the early volumes had been revised by the time Staffordshire made its appearance, and Pevsner told his readers that “the first editions are only ballons d’essai; it is the second editions which count”. Staffordshire is still waiting for its second edition, but we can reasonably expect that Stoke-on-Trent will receive more comprehensive (and sympathetic) treatment than in the first. Pevsner dealt with the entire conurbation in 15 cursory and dismissive pages, and his brief introduction pulled no punches:

"The Five Towns are an urban tragedy. Here is the national seat of an industry, here is the fourteenth largest city in England, and what is it? Five town - or, to be correct, six - and on the whole mean towns hopelessly interconnected now by factories, by streets of slummy cottages, by better suburban areas. There is no centre to the whole, not even an attempt at one, and there are not even in all six towns real local centres."

By contrast, Matthew Rice’s The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent doubles as an industrial history and an affectionate guide to the buildings and landscapes of the Potteries, but even Rice has to admit that Stoke is “a mess”:[iv]

“The five old pottery towns (Hanley, Stoke, Longton, Burslem and Tunstall) are linked but never in a felicitous or definitive way, and while each is held to have particular specialities to an outside eye these are well hidden. The all-pervading air of decay is common to the whole city…the linear and fragmented nature of the city’s plan means that a drive through the middle of the area takes you not from the outer margins to the obvious centre but through a whole series of outer rings…”

Rice’s concern is that, faced with the challenge of post-industrial decline, Stoke-on-Trent resorted to the wholesale destruction of a townscape which, “urban tragedy” or not, was utterly unique. Almost all the bottle kilns have gone: between the wars there were 4,000 of them, in 1958 2,000 were still in use, now just 47 remain – all listed but by no means all in good condition. Even Pevsner acknowledged that the destruction of the kilns was “a great loss”:

“…their odd shapes were the one distinguishing feature of the Five Towns and used to determine their character – kilns bottle-shaped, kilns conical, kilns like chimneys with swollen bases. They have a way of turning up in views with parish churches and town halls as their neighbours.”

Julian Trevelyan, sketch of the Potteries 1938

Aerial view of Fenton, 1930s

You can get a flavour of the classic Potteries’ townscape in Longton, where the Gladstone Pottery has been preserved, miraculously intact, as an excellent (working) museum. There are other fine factories nearby; some of them are in a pitiful state but Hudson & Middleton is still producing bone china in the splendidly restored Sutherland Works. Just up the road, in Fenton, the Heron Cross Pottery is also still at work in a small traditional potbank nestled sweetly among the brick terraced houses so typical of Stoke. The bottle kiln, complete with small tree, emerges from the roof of the building.

Gladstone Pottery Museum, Longton

Heron Cross Pottery, Fenton 

Middleport, next to the Trent & Mersey Canal in Burslem, is another interesting neighbourhood. The Burleigh factory, recently restored by the Prince’s Foundation, marks a step up from the workshop scale of Gladstone and Heron Cross to true industrial production. China is still being produced here, and sold in a chic shop, popular with American, Korean and Japanese tourists. Across the road, in Port Street, a row of terraced houses has been smartly refurbished; others now lie empty and shuttered, hopefully awaiting the same treatment.

Port Street, Middleport - pottery on the right

Derelict houses, Middleport

What else? Hanley is designated the city centre and Pevsner’s description – “the most townish of the six towns” – still applies. It’s a thoroughgoing mess, but there are things worth seeing: 19th century survivals include the Town Hall (a Loire chateau originally built as a hotel), the former meat market (now the Tontines), the brick and tiled Staffordshire & Potteries Water Board and, next door, the Bethesda chapel. More recent civic buildings include the City Library and the rather grim Potteries Museum – a downbeat and unprepossessing home for the city’s superb, genuinely world-class ceramics collection. These are thin pickings for a town with aspirations to become a city. More ambitious is the new bus station, a bold and confident building designed by Grimshaw architects.  The Smithfield site, next to the museum and the library, has been designated as Stoke’s Central Business District but demand for space in the first two buildings on site seems to be sluggish. The £55m development has been plagued by delays and disputes with the contractors: a plan for the City Council to occupy both buildings (so much for business) has been diluted but staff will shortly be moving into three floors of 1 Smithfield – a shiny, multi-coloured job by RHWL architects.

Broad Street, Hanley

Potteries Museum, Hanley

1 Smithfield, Hanley

As we have seen, Longton, though down at heel, is worth exploring for its rich industrial heritage. It is also home to the Centre for Refurbishment Excellence (CORE) which combines the new-build Stoke Studio College with the conversion of the former Enson pottery and the American Hotel. A £11.4m project, largely public sector funded, CORE is described as “a one stop, national centre of excellence for the construction industry and allied trades as they work towards a low carbon future”. My instinct is that it will be a struggle to survive in the age of austerity. I hope I’m wrong: it’s a very nice project.

CORE, Longton

Short Street, Longton

On Saturday we made a detour to Burslem, the “mother town” of the Potteries, to see Port Vale play Peterborough. There was no time to visit the town centre – the best of the five (or is it six?) according to Rice. I agree and, more important, so does Pevsner, albeit grudgingly: “It may not be up to much, but it is undeniably the centre…”Vale Park, much smarter and tidier than when I first saw it, is another interesting story. Port Vale led a peripatetic existence - latterly in Hanley – until they acquired the site in 1944 and began work on a 70,000-capacity stadium, optimistically styled the “Wembley of the North”. The new ground opened in 1950 but the grand design soon degenerated into an improvised botched job. By the 1980s Vale Park had “a strange lop-sided feeling; terraces exposed to winds which whip across the open surrounds, dark little corners, rickety fences, all overlooked by a cosy little directors’ box.”[v] It’s altogether better today, with the kind of friendly, fatalistic crowd you find at all lower league clubs.

Vale Park: the Wembley of the North

There was no time to visit Tunstall in the north and only a glimpse of Fenton, that problematic sixth town. As for Stoke itself, it’s got the rather fine mainline railway station and Staffordshire University, but they’re separated from the modest town centre by the A500 – the urban motorway that swings past (and in Stoke’s case through) all six towns. It’s the civic centre but there’s nothing much else to recommend it.

Former Free Public Library, Stoke with former Art School right
Stoke Town Centre

It’s a modest enough list of assets and the Stoke-on-Trent’s small pleasures take a fair bit of finding, scattered as they are across this rambling, polycentric city. It’s not a city at all, really, just a federation of towns. The town (later city) of Stoke only came together in 1910; before that the Potteries were governed by separate boroughs and urban districts, each with their own municipal and public buildings. The result was the sextuplication of just about everything, and the long term consequences have been an absence of any kind of civic grandeur, and a surplus of hard-to-use property.

Stoke-on-Trent’s fragmented urban form and the towns with their doggedly, but unsustainably, separate identities posed plenty of challenges even before the city’s staple industry fell into decline. The densely packed townscapes of potbanks, factories and terraced houses were thinned out, leaving tracts of derelict land and buildings. Some of these areas have been lying empty for decades, others have been colonised by retail sheds, warehouses and cheap hotels – lowest common denominator developments that smack of desperation rather than civic confidence. Either way, Stoke’s distinctive character has been terribly diminished.

The problems have been compounded by some truly deranged roads engineering. The A500, which runs in a loop between junctions 15 and 16 of the M6, is a brute and the A50 spur which runs past Fenton and Longton is no better. Stoke gets the worst of it, because the A500 smacks straight through the town centre, but the whole conurbation is dominated by these crudely over-engineered highways which, acting as a magnet for traffic, have the perverse effect of creating chronic congestion at peak hours. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the individual towns all have absurdly complicated and disorientating one-way systems – the entry to Stoke is a particularly mad example – and Hanley is enclosed by a necklace of dual carriageways. The car is the only realistic way for the visitor to get around and, with many higher earners living outside the city, car dependency is a big issue.[vi] There used to be a local train service but that is long gone. You can’t help feeling that Stoke is the kind of place that would really benefit from a tram system but the prospects of that happening seem remote.

Against all the odds, Stoke inspires affection, but its future remains uncertain. The Centre for Cities, which monitors conditions in an urban area which also includes Newcastle-under-Lyme, finds Stoke lagging behind on important indicators relating to enterprise, productivity, employment in knowledge intensive business services, employment rate, workforce qualifications and house prices. The same organisation’s 2013 report on England’s mid-sized cities, identifies Stoke as one of a group of “economically isolated cities” – the others are Blackpool, Hull, Middlesbrough and Plymouth. These are cities with relatively weak and less diversified economies and weak linkages to more prosperous regional centres.[vii] A recent Oxford Economics report strikes a more optimistic note, highlighting Stoke-on-Trent as a “hotspot” for productivity growth in the manufacturing sector, above-average wage growth and a modest but significant increase in employment in the digital and creatives industries.[viii] These are encouraging straws in the wind but the big picture evidence from census data, official statistics and the property market all suggests that Stoke is a long way from the kind of strong and sustained recovery that would lift it up the cities’ league table.

Matthew Rice sees this as a race against time. Can Stoke recover quickly and strongly enough to generate demand for “the great factories, churches and chapels, pubs and the terraces of neat Victorian housing, the pottery owners and managers’ houses and the municipal palaces of one of the great cities of the first Industrial Revolution”? It seems to me that Stoke has, very belatedly, begun to recognise the architectural and cultural value of this diminished but still substantial legacy. The Ceramics Biennial instils hope that the pottery industry may still have a viable future. The problem is that, in places like Stoke, conventional market wisdom still tends to put the restoration and re-use of historic buildings in the too difficult category and the public money that used to be available to address market failure is drying up. Let’s hope that Stoke can find the energy and ingenuity to overcome these barriers and build a more prosperous future.

October 2015

[i]        Pictures of the British Ceramics Biennial:
[ii]       Pictures of Stoke-on-Trent:
[iii]      Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Staffordshire, Penguin Books, 1974. I've just discovered another invaluable and comprehensive source: Dorothy Baker,                 Potworks: The Industrial Architecture of the Staffordshire Potteries, Royal                               Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, 1991
[iv]      Matthew Rice, The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent, Frances Lincoln Limited, 2010
[v]       Simon Inglis, The Football Grounds of England and Wales, Willow Books, 1983
[vi]      The Centre for Cities Factsheet shows that the Stoke-on-Trent urban area (which           includes Newcastle-under-Lyme) has the second highest proportion of workers             travelling to work by car, and one of the lowest rates of travel to work by public             transport.
[vii]      Centre for Cities, Mid-sized cities: Their role in England’s economy, June 2013
[viii]     Oxford Economics, Beyond the City: Britain’s economic hotspots, June 2015

No comments: