The book they tried to kill … send us your photographs of the Six Towns!
The consumerwatchfoundation.com is publishing the book they tried to ban after it remained in the wilderness for more than four years.
Journalist, editor and broadcaster Leigh G Banks was commissioned by a leading publishing house to write a small book on Staffordshire’s Six Towns … then, at the last minute it all fell apart.
The book – described as offensive, objectionable and inappropriate by the publishing house – is about to get its first public airing.
Out of the Darkness, takes a road-trip round Staffordshire revealing how it changed from the ancient grime and smog-ridden home of the world famous pottery industry to become a burgeoning centre for commerce and the arts.
It’s a personal journey round the Six Towns for Leigh G Banks which began in the early 1960s when as a child he visited Trentham Gardens with his grandmother, Ada. Later, he became a fan of Burslem’s Northern Soul fame and in the book he talks vividly about his experiences at the notorious 1970s Hollywood rock festival near Leek.
In the 1990s he upped sticks from Manchester and moved to Staffordshire but it wasn’t until beginning to research Out of the Darkness in 2011 he discovered that many of his ancestors hailed from Slindon, near Eccleshall.
Leigh said: “It was clear my grandmother was drawn to the Six Towns although she never told me about our family connections. But every chance we’d get we’d jump on a bus or a train from Manchester and visit for the day.
“I suppose because I came from a dirty old city like Manchester I was never offended by the grime of Stoke but what I was fascinated by even as a child were the buildings and the architecture. I found it all majestic.
“I would wander the streets for hours just looking up, looking up … that’s part of the ethos of the book, look up in the Six Towns, much of the history is above your head in the friezes and inscriptions on the buildings.”
Leigh got a call from the international publisher commissioning him to write a book on the towns.
“I didn’t approach them with the idea, they came to me,” Leigh said: “I liked the thought of taking a look at the towns, their history and how they’d changed against a backdrop of my childhood.”
But a year into the publishing process things started to go wrong. “Out of the Darkness was being advertised on Amazon and on all the major book sites, we’d been given a launch day and had arranged a venue and a couple of lucrative deals with major stores and then, out of the blue, the rug was pulled from under us. It was a real shock.”
Correspondence from the managing director of the publishing house, said ‘our advisers share our view that much of the content of your book may be considered offensive, objectionable or inappropriate by some readers and consequently may harm our reputation and potentially damage our relationship with both our readers and our trade customers’.
`They were objecting to phrases and paragraphs in the book including:
- Pubs reeked on every corner.
- Stoke was becoming a slum while the Victorian super-rich lived in imposing elevated red brick mansions. They were closer to God up there.
- Let’s begin at Trentham’s highly technical new round-about with it’s dozen or so drunken lampposts and its already grimy black and white road sign pointing to all the roads that lead to the heart of this story.
Leigh said: “The objection to the description of the Trentham round-about was the funniest though! Who in their right mind would be offended by the description of drunken lampposts – what if we’d said they were bent!
“We couldn’t believe it … I’ve made my living as a writer for more than 30 years and know exactly what I am doing. Why they adopted that attitude to the book I will never really understand.”
He said: “A lot of people were interested and a number of book shops had put in orders – and a major supermarket had wanted to stock it, so we thought we’d better let people know what had gone on. People heard I was going to do the show and started sending in requests – I ended up playing music by Legendary Lonnie, Lemmy, Robbie and even Jackie Trent! It’s a really good show.”
So, here is the full manuscript of Out of the Darkness – do you have pictures of the Six Towns which would go well with the words? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org, we’ll give you a byline and your photos could be used in future publications…
The Long Black Vale
THOMAS DOODY is said to still walk the hills of the long black Vale, a ghost wandering in the raging fires and billowing smoke of Stoke on Trent’s history. And there is no doubt Doody was the man who cast the die for the city’s first claim to fame – crocks and pots – way back at the beginning of the 17th century. That was more than 200 years before the scientifically-minded Josiah Wedgwood metamorphosed “pottering about” into a conveyor belt of brittle porcelain art.
Make no bones about it, Doody was in at the beginning, there in Trent Vale with the coarse brown pottery he sold at the old Roman market on the dirt road to Trentham. It was him and the Romans – and coal of course – that created the alchemy which wrought Stoke on Trent out of the dank and dirty layers of God’s earth all those centuries ago.
Doody stood at the small brown door of his manufactory in what’s now called St Thomas Place atop the long black Vale of Penkhull, and looked down on the writhing rural lands of plenty. Beneath them lay coal and clay.
More than any other man – Mr Wedgwood, Mr Minton, Mr Spode and Mr Doulton – he started the conjoining of six stoic, dower and dramatically different towns. And they are Stoke, Longton, Fenton, Hanley, Burslem, and Tunstall,
Doody looked down on them and he could see fertile dreams, hopes and opportunities. It was a beautiful place, way back then … barbel and bream and grey seals in the River Trent, woodlands and orchards, wild hyacinth, meadows and a tapestries of fields, daffodils and primrose. Stoke-on-Trent was endless country miles.
By the 19th century Britain was giving birth to industry and there was evolution in the air across the Midlands. The revolution had already started thirty miles to the North in Manchester … you could see chimney stacks belching shapeless tattoos on the horizon. Soon Stoke-on-Trent would join in obliterating the sky as it made its own polluted journey into the future.
This time around it was led by Josiah Wedgwood, the alchemist, the scientist, the industrialist, the potter and the visionary.
He built his mansion on top the hill next to the golden angel of Burslem. He too looked down on the industrial world he and his compatriots, Minton, Burleigh and Doulton had made incendiary. Stoke-on-Trent glowered back as if purgatory itself was bursting from the bowels of the earth. Potteries, pot banks, paint works, print works, breweries, brickworks, they all sucked on the blood of the earth and blotted out the landscape, poor houses, two-ups-two-downs, they replicated like warts.
And pubs. Pubs to keep the workers under control. Beer and gin. Pubs reeked on every corner.
The workers lived cheek by jowl in windowless cellars, detritus dripping in from the disgusting streets above. But still farmers became potters and labourers became brick setters. The choice was simple, the poor house or a job in a factory. The latter meant you could at least afford a dirty dank corner of a cellar with the “missus and kids”.
Stoke was becoming a bricked-up slum while the Victorian super-rich lived in imposing elevated red brick mansions. They were closer to God up there.
By the time the 20th century flickered into view, buoyed up by new machines, Stoke was bustling, grimy, unhealthy and unrecognisable as a place of beauty hope and creativity.
Then in 1910 the six towns became one in an act of political bigamy which created the new county borough of The Potteries.
So, let’s begin our journey through bull’s blood and bone china at the crossroads, the place where souls were sold and reputations were hanged.
Let’s begin at Trentham’s highly technical new round-about with it’s dozen or so drunken lampposts and its already grimy black and white road sign pointing to all the roads that lead to the heart of this story. The first stop has to be off the roundabout itself:
Trentham Gardens has many claims to fame including the fact it houses the only copy of Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus and Medusa from 1553. It was made for Cosimo I, the Duke of Tuscany, and the second Duke of Sutherland was allowed to take a cast. The sculpture was erected at his home, Trentham, in 1840 as Sir Charles Barry meticulously sculpted the gardens.
But only 60 years later the Sutherlands were driven out of their once palatial home by the stench and disease of the River Trent as it began to pollute their estate. They fled to Sutton Place, Surrey, with Perseus and Medusa underneath their arms.
Despite this abandonment, Trentham held on to its title as the playground of the Potteries and even in the austere 1950s its swimming pool and Hollywood-style art deco lido and gardens were pulling in 10,000 people a day. By the time Perseus and Medusa returned in the psychedelic Sixties it had become a venue for concerts by the Beatles and Brian Ferry and other such brittle lumanaries.
Then this grand old lady of more elegant times suffered another blow. It was far worse than a river-ful of pollution. The swimming pool and the lake became drained because of mining subsidence. For decades Trentham and its gardens decayed. It was as if Stoke had finally dragged its once Baroque and very stately home into its own dirty industrial doldrums. Trentham became a trailer park and venue for tacky car boot sales.
Nowadays, the grand old lady has had a bit of a return to dignity, sadly though as shop girl. They’ve built a garden centre where the grand hall once stood and there’s a wooden shopping village on its doorstep alongside a Premier Inn and a Frankie and Benny’s.
But over to the left, you can step back in time into a 1,000-year-old woods. There’s the imposing statue of the 1st Duke of Sutherland, you can see it from the busy A34 Stone Road. The statue, commissioned in 1833, is on top of Monument Hill, a grand and evocative ‘folly’. Amazingly, some parts of the woodland including the statue are open to the public at no charge.
By the way, Trentham has branched out into a bit of monkey business, by opening a monkey sanctuary but you have to pay to get in there.
Stoke, the fires of memory
I remember Stoke itself as if it were yesterday. The first time I visited was with my grandmother Ada when I was five or six. We were big city people from sophisticated Manchester. Ada would save up from her job as a purveyor of penny policies for little treats for us both, sometimes a visit to the local cinema and sometimes a day trip to Blackpool.
For some reason Ada fancied a trip this time on one of the last steam trains to travel the defunct Loop Line in Staffordshire. This was in the industrial 1960s and the closest the Potteries had got to psychedelia was acid rain.
It did seem to be a bit of a busman’s holiday though – Manchester was a big dark gloomy Victorian warehouse of a city, it’s blackness given an oily shine by the constant rain. And Stoke was viewed as mini version of it.
I was wearing my tightly belted Gabardine raincoat, school cap and Wellington boots and at that age I could hardly be expected to be excited by Stoke Station as we alighted… but looking back now, what an impressive edifice it was, and still is today. Long, clear, functional elegance, deep platforms and a grand concertina of glass above which gathered up the steam like clouds and muffled the squeal of steel wheels.
Stoke station was a small town by itself, cafes and offices, store rooms and arcades, carts and trolleys, baggage piled high, the fat station master bewhiskered and bewhistled and passengers bustling and keeping an eye on the big platform clocks.
Stoke Station was built in the 1840s in what was described way back then as a robust Jacobean manor house style. It still has a robust appearance and so does the 88-roomed red glazed hotel North Staffordshire Hotel across the almost forgotten opulence of Winton Square.
But I do remember as my gran and I stepped through the station’s giant verandahed gateway that it was like stepping into a world that no longer existed … it was row up on row of dirty red houses marching up and down hill after hill, tall chimneys, pit heads, round kilns, tiny shops, a market, rickety stalls by the roadside and the people, small, wiry, stick people with their heads down contemplating the paving flags.
Even at that age I recognised them all, good working-class folk, factory girls, mums in headscarves, dads chain-smoking Park Drive and Woodbines.
The Sixties was an important decade for Stoke and the other five towns, finally the smoke was being blown away by the Clean Air Act, Stoke City was being kicked back into the First Division by Stanley Matthews and a nightlife was developing, The Place, the Golden Torch and many others. The Victoria Theatre arrived too and so did BBC Radio Stoke with its completely non-BBC ‘mi duck’ accents. And a massive urban reclamation was beginning.
The second time I visited Stoke was in the Mid-70s as a young hippy type. My hairy, beaded, slightly stoned friends and I poured off the slick electric train at Stoke station … it hadn’t changed and I still didn’t notice it.We hitched and hiked and marauded in a good-natured hippy way across town jumping Potteries Motor Traction company double-deckers and flatback coal wagons over the hills and far away to a little place dubbed Hollywood just outside Madeley. It was Whit Week and we were living in a field watching the Grateful Dead, Colosseum, Free, Mungo Jerry, Jose Feliciano and Ginger Baker’s Airforce.
It was on my way back to the station three days later, a little bit disorientated and lost perhaps, that I stumbled upon Lonnie’s record shop, Rubber Soul, Hide Street, road at the very heart of Stoke. ‘Legendary Lonnie’ still is one of the great characters of the Potteries, a Lemmy lookalike with the voice of Jerry Lee Lewis, he’s still a real rock ‘n roller who once had a cult record show on Radio Stoke.
He also stood along side Screaming Lord Sutch for the Monster Raving Loony Party.
In the Seventies his shop was a paradise of rare records and rock and pop memorabilia.
All those years ago I realised that Stoke, this little bronchitic mini-city, was actually super-cool, music in the air at night and cafes and rock bars. It’s still a place to visit with its plethora of music emporiums, antique shops, second-hand shops and its young café society.
Now the Kings Hall hosts Northern Soul All-Nighters and was a central location for the film ‘Soulboy’.
Of course it’s worth taking in the regular tourist attraction of this fabulous town and its surrounding areas, like Portmeirion, or the Dudson Museum and Stoke Minster where Josiah Wedgwood and Josiah Spode are buried. Take in too the Staffordshire Hoard, a display of Anglo-Saxon treasures housed at the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery – but don’t forget to check out its arty hedonistic eccentric rock’n’roll heritage too.
Another Long Thing …
And so, after Doody’s long black Vale, to another long thing – Longton, the Long Town. Some people say there isn’t much more you can say about this district which is also, quite disingenuously I might say, called the Neck End of Town (because of it’s ‘long’ shape). But it’s been around a long time and long is its history, its heritage. It makes it stand out in the madding crowd of towns around.
Even Potteries writer Arnold Bennett renamed it Longshaw in his novels.
It has another claim to fame too. It was right there at the beginning of the Workers’ Education Association. Richard Henry Tawney, the Edwardian Christian Socialist educationalist, brought education to the masses of the Potteries. He taught in Longton for three years.
Longton definitely has a charm beneath its plethora of 1930s semis and Victorian terraces. It’s worth visiting the centre just to take a stroll down The Strand in to Times Square and take in the rather impressive railway bridge that stands at the bottom …
… it must have been beautiful here at the turn of the century, gas lamps in wisps of fog, shops with steamy bullseye windows, horse-drawn carriages cracking the cobbles. And of course the rattle of the trams and the steam of the trains…
I remember less than a decade ago Banks’s Emporium suddenly appeared on the high street and started doing a roaring trade in what can only be described as cartoon consumerism – cheap stuff made to look like something it isn’t, the way perhaps Capodimonte purports to be classical art, except Capodimonte can have a bit of class. Banksy is a distant relative of mine – we’re not quite sure how or why – but even I have to say his emporium, which I think may have been in the Art Nouveau Focus cinema building, was not a classy place. Evocative? Yes. But stylish? No. He sold white porcelain horses, battery-operated grandfather clocks, plastic musical fairground rides, and bright brocade covered armchairs already shrink-rapped for posterity in cellophane.
Banksy turned his emporium into a bit of Potteries social history – he captured the world of tacky fairings, flawed seconds, throw-away trinkets, things that hinted at opulence but rarely had any value. His shop became a Mecca in the moronic world of Mammon.
It’d be nice to say Longton has taken on the air of shabby chic over the decades, but it hasn’t. Sadly it’s taken on more the air of dowdy duck with the endless traffic jams outside its grotesque 1960s-style glass monument of futuristic tastelessness, its shopping centre.
Yet like most battered things it has a lot of bottle – and you can visit them! Its twenty bottle kilns are Grade II listed, and are perfect examples of the hundreds which used to be dotted across the town. There were so many of them that on a good day, it’s said, you could actually see to the to the other side of the street. But most of the time the kilns were fired-up and Longton choked in flames and smoke.
Longton has a long history in the pottery industry – Paragon China and Aynsley – the Gladstone Pottery Museum near the famous Roslyn Works where modern potters and ceramic artists now work.
It’s also worth a visit to Longton Park, or Queen’s Park as it is also known. What a beautiful place this is, famous for its horticulture, lakes, clock tower and three bowling pavilions. Quintessentially working-class English.
The secret of Longton’s appeal is there to be shared with everybody, and like in the rest of the Six Towns you need to take to the streets and keep looking up, looking up. Look up at the buildings. The stories are all there on a never-ending reel, captured inside each red breathing brick, every hand-carved frieze … these are the things that tell the real tales and, like good old-fashioned books, never let you down.
Long Highway …
When you actually reach the traffic lights in Times Square turn left underneath the low-slung skeletal railway bridge onto Uttoxeter Road. It’s a long straight downhill road, an almost endless highway flanked by old warehouses and work yards, some are derelict and abandoned, some have been restored and are working, others are derelict yet still working; they house carpets sellers, wrought iron dealers, potters, tinkerers and auction house after auction house.
You can get anything here from a Desperate Dan teapot to an exclusive bit of Clarice Cliff. But be careful, the fakers are about …
Only a few years ago, it was worth setting off down the back streets round here, worn pavements, looming mills housing small nameless factories and work-a-day potteries, dark as a row of Methodist chapels. If you got over the threshold of one of these studios the potters were like mediaeval alchemists, living in the white dust of porcelain and bisque, poking the embers of ancient kilns. They turned out anything that looked like anything that was worth money. Reproductions they called them.
Those days and those people are relics of the back streets now – but take a walk, you never know what you’ll find just around the next corner.
After you’ve visited these charming cash-in-hand pockets of commerce, industry, opportunity and history you’ll find that the endless highway has descended into the bowels of Fenton.
Fenton is a greasy spoon by the side of the road. It’s a tragedy really, Fenton’s land looks like a ravaged pock-marked face, a vast yawning toothless bad-tempered area of incomplete redevelopment. It’s a place of abandonment, of car valeters, tyre fitters, battery shops, even an inelegant Kentucky Fried Chicken fizzes like a sanitised wart against a background of flattened and neglected industrial sites.
I don’t think Fenton has ever been a healthy place to live, or visit – as a potters and miners community it used to have a preponderance of cemeteries, people died young there way back when. But mining and industry didn’t only kill people, it killed the land too, pockets of subsidence and pollution have slowed the town’s slovenly march into the brave new world of the 21st century.
Fenton started life as an area of wasteland tacked onto the apron strings of Audlem and it’s never really progressed although people have made some effort. Lloyds bank is now an art gallery, for instance. And there are a number of plaques commemorating the William Baker dynasty which built much of Fenton’s hidden architectural beauty and opened one of its best-known potteries, Bakers. The ‘salt, pepper and vinegar’ kilns stand near the gates of their old factory in Fountain Street. The red brick fire station, functional, austere and serious is also down there.
It has a plethora of churches too, in the past they just helped to point out the class system which was so obvious in places like Fenton. The wealthy were Anglicans and took their horse-drawn carriages to the massive and opulent Christchurch. The workers took Shanks’s Pony to the tiny converted Methodist chapel at the end of a terrace.
Fenton has a bit of strange, unwholesome history too – world-shaping in its own way, I suppose. But is the fact that Hitler-esque firebrand Oswald Moseley married local MP Cynthia Curzon and then used the box-shaped Angel Inn on Vivian Road to hold his fascist rallies something you want to brag about?
The Town with No Name …
Here we are in Hanley, the nearly town. Sorry, but that’s what Hanley is, a nearly town – the town that is nearly a city centre, that’s nearly famous. It nearly made it to the top you see, which should have been easy considering it sits on a hill and its name means High Meadow …
Do you know people until recently described going shopping or for a night out as ‘Going up ‘Anley mi duck’. Hanley should be important and certainly it has heritage, it’s the birthplace of Arnold Bennett after all, and of Sir Stanley Matthews and Captain Edward Smith, the man who gave the Titanic that final sinking feeling. (Note: Tunstall claims them all too)
In the early 1800s Hanley was described as a ‘town and chapelry’ ranking in ‘size, extent and opulence’ with Burslem. And it was up there with Burslem, at the top of the hill.
Hanley should have been called Mr Hanley, it should have been the brooding mill owner but instead it lost its way and became Hanley, the bad tempered mill manager, a rather beery, tobacco-stained pompous working-class man in a shabby suit with an array of dangerously sharp pencils in his breast pocket. You know the sort, seedy, one eye on the flibbertigibbet girls and the other on the clock as it edges towards opening time. Hanley nearly made it to be Mr Hanley but when push came to shove he couldn’t be bothered. It was less trouble to continue being the nearly man.
The manager never bothered to look down as the fields became arterial roads with rattling new trucks and lorries and the canal became less slickly populated by coal boats and delivery barges. No, he stayed there in the pub, pencils bristling, drinking draught Bass and regaling all who would listen with the stories of what might have been.
Hanley could have been the centre of the Six Towns’ universe and, if it had tried harder, it could have been the pottery capital of the world. But our manager believed he could see the writing of the belching smoke of industry fading on the horizon. So he jumped mill and became a shopkeeper instead.
And that’s what Hanley has ended up as today, the corner shop for all the other towns and districts that once looked up to it. Check out Hanley on the internet and what’s the first thing you learn about? The Potteries Shopping Centre, that’s what – a vast unattractive market place where you can get anything from a shell suit to an anorak, a pair of trainers with flashing soles or a singing trout wriggling on a plastic shield.
I really despair of Hanley, it should have been so good we could have named it twice … but what sort of place brags a one-way system which takes you through the heart of its bus station?
The bus drivers don’t like you being on their territory and have turned it into a bit of sport baiting us, honking their horns and tapping their temples with a finger, just because we’ve been phased by arriving unexpectedly in this bustling terminus with its Lower-case passengers shifting from one flashing trainer to the other.
The bus driver sits there glowering, his pencils like tiny missiles about to go off, waiting for the station clock to tick-tock inexorably round to the point when the rules say he can open the double doors to the waiting crowds.
Hanley, so good they should have named it twice… but now the powers-that-be don’t even want it to be named once. The final ignominy is looming, Hanley could soon become The Town with No Name.
Fewer people use the name Hanley now, and the phrase is becoming ‘Going up town mi duck’. The decline in the use of the name is because all the jobsworths in the council officers, the bus stations and even the Government want it to be known very simply as the city centre. Road signs refer to it as the city centre. Two years ago the City Centre Partnership proposed officially renaming Hanley as Stoke-on-Trent City Centre and it is said to be actively encouraging businesses to remove the name of Hanley from their addresses. They have also asked the local council to instruct Ordnance Survey to call it city centre.
Would Hanley truly be such a wilted rose if it was known by any other name or would it simply no longer exist?
Queen of the Hill
Burslem should be known for its intrinsic masculinity, it looks like a man’s town. As you drive up from the hell of Hanley, things seem gruff and tough and intimidating; it’s a long way up that hill and in the dark days it would have been such a hard slog, black houses, factories, bottle kilns and warehouses and all the time the ribbons of the polluted sky growing wider and longer overhead.
When you arrive in The Square you could be in the shadows of Masonic giants … the town hall, Wedgwood’s imposingly functional house and factory, manufactories and the homes – these buildings are like dusty fat old mill owners looking down their grubby noses at you.
Despite its masculinity Burslem is known as the Mother Town; I suppose it’s because it all began here, the kiln-dried birth of a nation’s pride, from china town to The Potteries. It was here in 1870 that Josiah Wedgwood cut the first clod of the Trent and Mersey canal and that really opened the flood gates to it all.
Burslem grew from a small patch of agricultural land above the sprawling Golden dale valley and when the Century of the Matriarch arrived, it was ready to make it to the top. So, yes I accept Burslem’s feminine side too – this town reflects the androgyny of Queen Victoria high on the hill of her throne, face full of thunder, engulfed in uninviting robes of black Coalfields silk.
In Burslem though, more than anywhere else on this strange journey over hill and down dale, the colours start to come through, little pockets of crimson and scarlet and brown, a different aspect of Potteries history told over and over in the hand-made bricks of the town’s historic school of art, the seasons of the year told in the girdle of a frieze round the Wedgwood Institute.
Arnold Bennett put it this way, in Burslem ‘beauty was achieved and none saw it”. He wrote of the scarlet market, the grey tower of the old church, crimson chapels and amber chimney pots. Today the beauty that was achieved can now be seen by all.
And the famous golden angel of the town hall makes you feel welcome and safe … Robbie Williams was inspired to write Angels about this little shining icon: “When I’m feeling weak/ And my pain walks down a one way street/ I look above/ And I know I’ll always be blessed with love.”
Burslem is blessed with many things, including ghosts and secrets. Check out the 18th century Leopard Inn… it is reputedly haunted and has suffered real tragedy only recently. Neil Crisp who bought the hotel at the beginning of the new century discovered a walled-up fifty room hotel at the rear of his historic coaching house. It hadn’t changed since the day it was boarded up in the 1950s. Sadly Mr Crisp died in 2009 after being scratched by a mysterious cat he met in the old hotel. Now it is the venue for ghost hunts and séances.
This vibrant old queen sitting on the throne of The Potteries has so much going for it, Bare wall, an independent gallery gathering and disseminating local art, Wedgwood’s school teaching the intricacies of pottery decoration, Six Towns Radio broadcasting from the new artisan multi-purpose studios renovated in a crumbling part of town, the gay pride, home of the Titanic Brewery. This is Burslem continuing to survive and prosper, just as it was built to.
Why it can be a Bit Messy in ‘Messy Town’
So, here we are, we’ve arrived. Tunstall, the last town on our potter around the Potteries.
What’s fascinating about Tunstall is that sometimes it’s there and sometimes it isn’t. Sorry you Tunstall-ians, but it’s true and you can’t even claim smoke and mirrors – I’ve driven to your town and completely missed it many times – I’ve ended up pottering through the Staffordshire Moorlands instead.
The last time I went to Tunstall however, it was different; I made a point of looking and it was definitely there, so I drove round it and dutifully took in its sites …
And what a sight it is.
When you visit Tunstall, this is how to spot it: keep your eyes open for a big green plastic-looking Loch Ness monster swimming in a lake of goose-pimply terraces, cottages and council houses. The monster is actually Church of the Sacred Heart with its grand green domes and it’s neck-like tower.
It might not be a bundle of laughs but Tunstall is a funny place … a modicum of charm of course, some boarded-up shops in its impressive town square, some bizarre 1980s wedding cake-style houses and vast tranches of wasteland, the sight of sites.
Like the rest of the towns it has its own attractions like the Churchill china factory shop or the Harecastle tunnel which takes the Trent and Mersey Canal underneath Goldenhill or the famous clock tower in the town centre.
In some ways it should have been the king of the hills, after all it stands on the edge of the moorlands like a sentinel. But it never made it. It got missed out.
The powers-that-be have made some kind of effort, on it’s massive traffic island for instance. They’ve put a frieze of a Spitfire by the side of the road. I wasn’t really sure if this emblem to Britain’s war games was supposed to be made out of flowers but on the chilly January day I saw it, it was nothing more than a grey stain by the side of the road, like a homage to Fenton.
And, apart from Robbie Williams who spent part of his childhood in the town, it has a bit of musical history too – The Torch, sometimes called the Holy Grail of Northern Soul, certainly it at the very heart of the movement in the early 1970s and gave Manchester’s legendary Twisted Wheel a run for its money. The Drifters, the Stylistics, The Chilterns and Edwin Starr all appeared there.
Well, that’s it! We’re done, it’s been a bit of a whistle-stop tour but worthwhile. The Potteries are not Middle England, they are rough, gritty, honest document to the industrialisation of Great Britain. It’s not a handsome and foppish place, it’s battered and scarred, the grime of history has eaten into it, it’s desolate abandoned sites, beautiful parkland, it’s thundering roads and peaceful canal systems, it’s greasy spoons and café society, it’s tacky and exquisite, it’s people are blunt yet caring.
It’s a place where the working-class worked hard to perpetuate the upper-classes and between them they created industry, art and history. I will keep on coming back to the Potteries and continue this mammoth task of uncovering the truth about this fabulous place.
Copyright Leigh G Banks