I AM EXTREMELY BEHIND. The last week has been somewhat frenetic getting ready for a combined family 21st and 20th birthday in the Kirk household, and I’ve headed off on a train to Hebden Bridge to visit my old English teacher for a couple of nights.
Part of an especially writing-focussed tour been to indulge in a pottery side-trip amongst other things.
Hence, Sophie and I made a trip to Stoke-on-Trent on the way to Shropshire to visit old family friends, Charlie’s sister, Jessica and her husband, Simon at their quite incredible historic house and farm at Shrewsbury. Not long after Charlie, Jessica also came out to Australia many moons ago and stayed with our family.
Given my tardiness or tardy-arse, whichever seems more appropriate – I’ll do a combined one of the picturesque trip, culminating in an unplanned stop in Manchester en route to a George Ezra concert in Sheffield on the way home. Sound like a weird combination? Well, here goes…
Stoke on Trent —
Referred to as simply ‘Stoke’ — like many other industrial centres has undergone an unceremonious slump after the closure of many factories over the years. All the bursting, burgeoning brilliance of the industrial revolution, reduced to hollow, cavernous spaces and vacant shops, with darkened windows and chipped paintwork. Sophie says to me, ‘Stoke’s not the prettiest part of England.’
But that said, I remind her that plenty of parts of Australia not that inspiring either. I find Stoke sill has an infectious grittiness; the kind of dust layers and darkened surfaces that make my fingers itch to create. I’ve always loved industrial spaces and I’m entranced by the bulk of the Victorian factories, which still hold raw charm – great big brick edifices with huge paned windows and industrial pendants – the kind I want to nab and bring back to Australia and hang in my studio. Maybe I was born in the wrong time, but I’ve always dreamed of owning a factory: a glorious extraordinarily industrious creative space making beautiful things, with happy and clever people in it. Is that too much of a dream? Could industrial spaces every be considered ‘happy’?
In the modern day it would seem so. Stoke has undergone a resurgence, thanks mainly to the demand for artisan products and ceramics, the Prince of Wales Trust for saving Middleport Pottery, the Great Pottery Throw-Down television series for highlighting it and the seemingly endless success here of Emma Bridgewater.
We start at Middleport, which still has an extraordinary feeling about it – centuries of toil and the ghosts of workers in almost in every room. We are led on a long tour (perhaps a little too long) by an amiable guide but I’m fascinated by the process; the flow of workspaces, the technical methods and the last remaining biscuit kiln standing out of seven — yes seven massive kilns that took days to fire.
I also become increasingly aware of the miracle of my little studio and the fact that I undertake every stage in producing my pottery – and I’m not sure why I don’t think of it until now – but I consider that producing ceramic pieces has changed very little of the years with the exception of some brilliant time-saving devices and vast electric kilns served by huge dolly trolleys of identical ceramic forms.
Over the course of the tour there’s very little they tell me that I don’t already know. This comes as a complete surprise and it dawns on me how hard I’ve worked over the past few years to learn my craft and I feel a bit emotional. When you live so far away from the centre of places that created these industries, you sometimes feel as though what you know is not good enough. I felt immensely satisfied, I really understood – both the terminology and the practise.
As we drive on to Shrewsbury, the landscape changes and industry gives way to rolling, productive fields and agriculture. I can see vast houses as we beetle down skinny lanes bordered by hedgerows. This has clearly been and still is a bountiful county.
Jessica and Simon’s property looks like a little village on its own as we approach – but cavernous grain sheds and original stables give way to a beautiful historic house which was once home to a monastery.
Shortly after, I’m ensconced in a heavenly bedroom decorated in William Yeoward wallpaper and my view over the garden is breathtaking.
We take an evening walk on arrival through the garden – formal paths and lawns lead to a series of breathtaking lakes complete with a pair of white swans – who follow us, no doubt hoping for morsels of bread, not the cup of tea we’re carrying. It is unseasonably balmy and the sunset is gentle; I’m snapping madly while the light is still golden.
The following day, we whizz into Shrewsbury for a quick coffee and some shopping while Jessica has an appointment and I’m fascinated by some of the Tudor buildings. She then drives us onto Ludlow where we have a delicious lunch by the River Teme.
As well as being home to some great vintage stores and antique shops, my lasting impression of the very pretty town of Ludlow is a church—which surprises me— given I’m respectful of my Christian faith, but not particularly active in its pursuit. St Laurence’s sits on the pinnacle of a hill, surrounded by a cascade of stone houses, and is a stone’s throw from Ludlow Castle. A place of worship since the Norman times, excavations have revealed 11th century foundations. The present church was built around 1199, before a burgeoning wool trade led to major renovations and modifications between 1433-1471. It houses a gracious nave and a medieval history as long as your arm. Let’s just think about this—just casually, of course. We’re talking nearly a thousand years of prayers and community and fellowship on this site. The timelines are always mind blowing to an Australian, and always seem a remote concept, given our built history is so short, relatively speaking.
St Laurence’s is known as being the burial site of the bowels (probably the heart) of Arthur, Prince of Wales, son of Henry VII and older brother to Henry VII. It is believed these remains were removed a very time ago and the rest of him was buried at Worcester cathedral. Seems a bit macabre to divide him up, given we would all rather just Rest In Peace.
The choir chancel in St Laurence’s contains extraordinary miserichords, which are for the record, seats designed with extraordinary carvings and an additional ledge when the seat is lifted, so as to support its occupier when standing for long periods. Some of the carvings were suitably risqué for their time, and permissible because as the church volunteer explains: ‘We were not considered holy from the waist down’. For obvious reasons, I presume.
There are some breathtaking stained lead light windows and pillars which make me think of the Ken Follett classic, Pillars of the Earth. Or at least the perpendicular pillars in the book that I imagined. And in my mind’s eye, I can see monks, hundreds of flickering candles and almost hear the mournful medieval music my singing teacher used to have our madrigal group sing. Soulful yes, but somewhat eerie – music full of ghosts.
As we step outside, I’m slightly foggy in the head and divorced from reality- and consider this was precisely the intended effect. Until the sunshine breaks through and the hustle and bustle of the busy town returns, involuntarily, I’ve been a bit of a trance. Such was the hypnotic power of this space.
Back at Jessica and Simon’s – Simon takes me on a quick farm tour so I am able to take copious photos of tractors and grain storage facilities for my husband and my son, James. And in the course of this tour, I manage to have an allergic reaction to something. Still not sure what, but my right eye—my good eye of course—begins streaming, swelling shut and becoming angrily red – and within half an hour I’m miserable. For some stupid reason I’ve not brought a spare pair of contact lenses, and have no anti-histamine drops, only a tablet which I consume, but it has little effect and I stumble embarrassingly into bed without supper and hope it will all be better in the morning.
Our visit the next morning is dominated by my eye still streaming.
We fly into Emma Bridgewater for a whistle-stop tour as we’d run out of time a couple of days earlier when the Middleport tour took longer than expected. Emma has had huge commercial success and her factory is buzzing. Sophie takes me straight to a pharmacy as we leave Shropshire on our way to the George Ezra concert in Sheffield. I know what I need: what I have is allergic conjunctivitis, which I get about four times a year when in the company of some unknown enemy and my drops always clear it up in a few hours.
But of course I get a stubborn pharmacist who insists he cannot give me the drops I need without a script. Please, please, please!
What do you mean, no?
No. The ingredients all vary and will be a different strength from your Australian drops.
Don’t care. Give me the drops! Give me something similar! Just give me something!
He ends up giving me something really pathetic and ineffective and I quietly swear all the way to Sheffield. By time we get there via Manchester (probably not worth going into why, but it is thanks to me on my boggle eye, the diversion is definitely off piste and we had a lovely lunch in the freshly revived Ancotes district), Sophie and I are bordering on desperate for a loo and a coffee to keep us upright during the George Ezra concert.
Our tickets are for the standing area – the mosh pit. If I could put the scary faced emoji in here, I would. Totally unfounded of course — it was singularly a huge amount of fun – even though I was wearing my glasses to see anything and was looking especially dorky. So I’d be much better served to show you a picture of George, who not only regaled us with amazing music, but some lovely little ditties, often beginning with, ‘He said to me now…Ge-orge!’
I can’t remember the last time I was in a mosh-pit – but it’s great being up close and everybody, (except some boof-head who was far too tall to be straight in front of me, 5ft 4 inches and probably shrinking) was relaxed, dancing and knew a lot more of the lyrics than me.
But gotta say, I came away with a favourite, and it was not Shotgun or Budapest, for which George Ezra is well known – but Hold my Girl.
There is something right in the world when music can bring people together and this song gave me goosies when the whole arena was singing and using the torches on their phones, gently waving them in the dark. It was quite magical.
I’m reminded there are moments whether you’re 20 or 50 – or 80 for that matter! Your heart can still sing when you hum along to a tune. And somehow your body just involuntarily sways to the beat.
The only time I felt my age, was at the end, when after standing for four hours squeezed in between a mass of people, it took some persuading to get my numb feet to move in a forward direction.
Bugger getting old. Finally goodnight!