Go for gold in the heart of the country

Date Posted: 11/07/2012

Staffordshire has plenty to celebrate in the year of the royal jubilee and Olympic Games, writes Jeannine Williamson.

As the world spotlight turns on the UK for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and Olympic Games, the heart of the nation’s pottery industry will be given a high profile boost. Over the decades Staffordshire’s potteries have produced commemorative ware to celebrate landmarks in the country’s history, so it’s no surprise that manufacturers chosen to produce official merchandise for the Olympics and fine china for the jubilee can all be found in Stoke-on-Trent - the self-proclaimed World Capital of Ceramics.

It’s an exciting time for groups to visit Staffordshire as many of Stoke’s potteries - such as Moorcroft, Emma Bridgewater and Wedgwood - are producing commemorative pieces which can be seen on visits and factory tours.

The Wedgwood name has recently been in the headlines because of the threat hanging over one of the world’s most important ceramic collections on show at the museum. Culture minister Ed Vaizey is spearheading a campaign to stop the collection being sold to plug a pension deficit following the collapse of Waterford Wedgwood in 2009 and the museum is open as usual. A new factory tour at Wedgwood Visitor Centre and Museum runs until the end of October and gives groups an insight into how these wonderful products are made.

The websites of Enjoy Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Tourism both have sections dedicated to group travel to assist GTOs planning visits to the area, including itinerary suggestions and ideas for refreshment stops and accommodation.

New land train at NMA

The National Memorial Arboretum (NMA) at Alrewas is the UK’s centre of remembrance and a poignant and uplifting destination. Set in 150 acres of trees and gardens, it includes the Armed Services Memorial dedicated to the 16,000 men and women who have been killed on duty or as a result of terrorist action since 1948 to the current conflict in Afghanistan. Names are added annually to the giant Portland stone walls.

Earlier this year the NMA opened its second land train route which makes areas of the site more accessible, particularly for any elderly or disabled group members. The new route passes close to memorials including the Basra Memorial Wall, Polish Armed Forces Memorial, Shot at Dawn - in memory of the 306 soldiers shot for desertion or cowardice during the World War One - and the RNLI memorial garden. There are four stops so visitors can get on and off the train to view the memorials at leisure. The NMA welcomes groups, and parties of 25 or more can take advantage of new packages introduced this year which include the opportunity to book a guided tour or use the land train.

More treasures

Unearthed on farmland in 2009 by a man with a metal detector, and with a value of more than £3 million, the Staffordshire Hoard represents the largest and most valuable collection of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever found. Many of the glittering items are on display at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in the heart of Stoke city centre’s cultural quarter, and from 21st July the exhibition gets even bigger and better when 100 items will be on display together for the first time in the UK, along with improved interpretation. The exhibition will continue until September 2013 and groups can book a guided tour of the hoard.

The free entry museum has three floors of diverse permanent and temporary displays including archaeology, costumes and fine art, plus a vast collection of Staffordshire ceramics including quirky frog mug pottery. Lunch or light refreshment is available in the museum cafe.

Architect’s anniversary

This year marks the bicentenary of the birth of Augustus Pugin, one of the foremost architects of the Victorian age. He is best known for his work on Westminster Palace and the clock tower that houses Big Ben, but Cheadle is nationally recognised as ‘Pugin Land’ for the 14 buildings he designed in the area. These include St Giles’ Church, Alton Towers, Cotton College and Alton Castle.

Cheadle’s former police station has been transformed into the Pugin Heritage Centre and admission is free. Special events to mark the anniversary will be held in Cheadle for the rest of the year and groups can visit the architectural gems he created in the area.

Special tours at Shugborough

At Shugborough (pictured) groups can experience life on a magnificent 19th century estate and enjoy food, and even beer, produced there. Comprising an elegant mansion house, working farm and gardens, plus a range of special tours; daytime and evening experiences are available for groups.

One option is a tour of the servant’s quarters with Mrs Bonham, the formidable housekeeper, who will talk about life in 1871. Alternatively meet the cook and master miller in the farmhouse for a baking demonstration before enjoying a meal, or arrange a combination of difference experiences during an extended visit.

Passport to savings

Visit Stoke’s newly updated coach driver’s and group organiser’s passport and group discount card are now available.

GTOs who bring groups of 15 or more to Stoke-on-Trent will receive one stamp at each participating attraction or factory shop that they visit, including meal stops. For every five stamps in the passport they receive a £10 gift voucher that can be exchanged at a number of local venues. Stoke-on-Trent Museums, Wedgwood Visitor Centre and Museum and Trentham Estate are among the new attractions taking part this year.

Organisers can also obtain ten per cent discount cards for each member of their group valid for purchases over £30. More information on these incentive schemes can be found on the Visit Stoke group website by calling the number shown below.

Five great group attractions

1. Alton Towers: The UK’s largest theme park offers group discounts of up to 35 per cent. New for 2012 are Nemesis Sub-Terra, the latest white knuckle ride for thrill seekers, and the Ice Age 4D cinema where 3D comes to life.

2. Biddulph Grange: This amazing Victorian garden was created by James Bateman for his collection of plants from around the world. A visit will take your group on a global journey from Italy to the pyramids of Egypt, China and a re-creation of a Himalayan glen.

3. Blackbrook Zoological Park: Reportedly the largest bird park in the country, Blackbrook’s attractions include a penguin enclosure with an underwater viewing cave and raised walkways. The park is also home to animals including meerkats, monkeys and zebra.  

4. Titanic Brewery: Take a tour of the brewery named after the infamous ship that sank 100 years ago, and whose captain Edward Smith was born locally in Hanley. The brewery’s beers naturally include one called the Iceberg.

5. Trentham Estate: This 725-acre estate includes the lovingly restored Trentham Gardens, a scenic walk around the mile-long lake, an extensive garden centre and shopping village, and the enchanting Monkey Forest, home to 140 endangered Barbary Macaques living in a natural environment.

Five history and heritage visits

1. Foxfield Light Railway: One of the UK’s earliest heritage railways, the line was built in the 1890s. Unlike many railways that follow valleys, Foxfield’s steam trains travel on a five and a half mile round journey through open moorland, hills and woodland in north Staffordshire.

2. Lichfield Cathedral: A group tour will highlight the long history of the three spired cathedral, where treasures include the eighth century St Chad gospels and beautiful 16th century Flemish glass.

3. Moseley Old Hall: Find out about the dramatic story of King Charles II hiding from Cromwell’s troops after he fled the Battle of Worcester in 1651 and see the bed where he slept.

4. Museum of Cannock Chase: Once home to the Valley Colliery, the museum illustrates the rich industrial history of the area and the working and domestic lives of the people who lived there.

5. Tamworth Castle: Step back in time to experience life in a medieval motte and bailey castle, located in the centre of the historic market town of Tamworth.

Photo credit: Nick Meers 

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