History & heritage in the heart of England

Date Posted: 02/05/2011

Group Leisure explores a fascinating county that combines natural beauty with world-famous industry.

Stories of Staffordshire’s past come alive in its historic houses and gardens and groups can explore the heritage of the towns collectively known as the Potteries through well-preserved industrial sites and working factories.

This year is an exciting one for Stoke-on-Trent, which has claimed the title of World Capital of Ceramics and was chosen to produce commemorative ware for last month’s royal wedding, the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympic Games in 2012.  Groups can follow royal connections through a variety of pottery tours and pick up lasting souvenirs on a visit to one of the many factory shops.

New for 2011 is a large Wedgwood factory shop on the same site as the Museum and Visitor Centre along with a branch of Aynsley China at Trentham shopping village, which already has a Portmeirion shop.

Outside the towns and cities Staffordshire has vast expanses of open countryside waiting to be explored, including the Peak District, and the county is also home to miles of scenic canals that were originally built to bring raw materials to the Potteries and transport the finished pots back to the outside world.

Destination Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent Tourism both offer a range of guides and support services to help plan a group visit, including itinerary suggestions and ideas for refreshment stops and accommodation.

Make tracks to Trentham

Gardens, shopping, a daring high rope adventure course and the chance to monkey around means there’s something for every group at the Trentham Estate. Set in parkland originally designed by Capability Brown, the estate has been completely regenerated over the last six years and there’s also a Premier Inn on site that’s a good base for a group stay in the Stoke-on-Trent area.

After browsing around the shopping village, housed in attractive timber lodge buildings, and taking in the huge garden centre, gardens and maybe even stepping out along the barefoot walk, an irresistible highlight is a visit to Monkey Forest where two large groups of Barbary macaques roam free in 60 acres. Trentham offers a range of incentives to groups of 12 or more and joint tickets are available with other attractions including Wedgwood and historic Shugborough.

Glittering treasures on show

You don’t have to pay a penny to marvel at the largest and most valuable collection of Anglo-Saxon treasure ever found. More than 80 pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard, valued in total at £3.3 million, are on display in a permanent exhibition at the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke city centre. A film and interpretive display will provide your members with background information on the amazing discovery that was found by a man with a metal detector.

Discovered in 2009 on Staffordshire farmland in what was once the heartland of the ancient kingdom of Mercia, the artefacts are mostly gold, with some silver, and many are decorated with precious stones. Experts say most of the treasure appears to date from the seventh century, and the supreme quality of the craftsmanship on many items indicates royal ownership. The museum also includes a vast collection of Staffordshire ceramics including quirky frog mug pottery, costumes and other eclectic items, and is open daily with free admission.

Have a thrilling time

There’s no shortage of fun for thrill-seeking groups as Staffordshire is home to Drayton Manor Theme Park and Alton Towers Resort. Drayton Manor unveiled its new roller coaster, Ben 10 - Ultimate Mission, this Easter. Part of the park’s Cartoon Network Street, it will particularly appeal to youngers who are fans of the character and his alien heroes whilst there are gentler rides for groups who prefer adventures that are a little less action-packed. Drayton Manor offers discounts for groups of 12 more plus free admission for GTOs.

Over at Alton Towers Resort there are plenty of white knuckle rides along with more down to earth attractions that will entertain all ages. New for 2011 is a 20-minute version of the hit West End family musical the Go! Go! Go! Show featuring pop songs, magic and easy to learn dance moves. Also making their debut are Japanese spider crabs in the new Sharkbait Reef area. Comprising the largest display of its kind in the UK, these giant amphibians span nearly four metres in length. Alton Towers Resort offers discounted entry for groups or ten or more and GTOs can also book fast-track tickets to cut down on queuing time for popular rides.

Walk the Great Wall of China

Groups can embark on a green-fingered global journey at the extraordinary Biddulph Grange. The Victorian garden was created by Darwin contemporary James Bateman as an extension of his scientific interests. He collected plants from around the world and a visit will take your group from an Italian terrace to an Egyptian pyramid, via a Himalayan glen and Chinese-inspired garden.

A highlight of the Chinese garden is a replica of the Great Wall, which reopened this year after a period of restoration. A replanting programme is also underway, creating new interest in the most famous area at Biddulph. The National Trust garden is also noted for its collection of rhododendrons, dahlia walk and Britain’s oldest surviving golden larch.

Card centenary

A celebrity of his time, writer and raconteur Arnold Bennett died 80 years ago and this year marks the centenary of his novel The Card, made into a film starring Alec Guinness. Bennett, who gave his name to his favourite smoked haddock, parmesan cheese and cream omelette, is buried in Burslem cemetery.

He immortalised his native Potteries landscape in many of his books and once said it was easy to spot someone from the area as they turned over their cups, saucers and plates to see where they were made! Groups with an interest in his work can follow the self-guided Arnold Bennett’s Bursley Trail, which can be downloaded from the www.visitstoke.co.uk website, and there is also a tribute to him in the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

New group guide

Stoke-on-Trent has launched a new group guide with suggested itineraries and, particularly helpful in the current economic climate, a list of things to do and places to go that are free. GTOs can also find information on arranging bespoke familiarisation visits. Copies of the guide are available free from the Visit Stoke groups’ desk. Email tourism@stoke.gov.uk or phone the number shown at the end of this article.

Five great group attractions

1. National Memorial Arboretum: At the heart of the 150-acre arboretum is the Armed Forces Memorial, an emotive tribute to servicemen and women who died whilst on duty or as a result of terrorist action since World War Two.
2. Churnet Valley Railway: Evoking the nostalgia of a rural railway from the 1950s and 1960s, groups can take a delightful ten-mile journey through Staffordshire’s hidden valley.
3. The Brewing Experience: Drink in the history of Burton upon Trent’s brewing industry, meet costumed characters and Shire horses at this fascinating attraction that incorporates the Bass Museum.
4. Shugborough: Experience life on a magnificent 19th century estate, which includes an elegant mansion house, servant’s quarters and working farm, and explore the gardens and new sculpture trail.
5. Museum of Cannock Chase: Once home to the Valley Colliery - the training pit for thousands of young men beginning their working lives in the local coal industry, the museum tells the social, industrial and domestic history of the area.

Five perfect pottery visits

1. Wedgwood Museum: This modern interactive museum tells the story of the man and social history behind the name, and houses the world’s best collection of Wedgwood. Group members can pose for a free downloadable cameo and there’s a big restaurant.
2. Wedgwood Visitor Centre: Situated next to the museum your group can watch craftspeople at work and have a go at plate designing, throwing a pot and other fun activities.
3. Moorcroft Heritage Visitor Centre: Decades of history come alive through the art pottery on show in the museum. Groups can watch modern pieces meticulously handcrafted from start to finish on a factory tour and see stunning new designs, including one commemorating the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard.
4. Gladstone Pottery Museum: Walk through the atmospheric cobbled yard, workshops and bottle ovens at this 19th century pottery factory, which was saved from demolition and is the last complete one in existence.
5. Emma Bridgewater: Home of distinctive modern pottery in a Victorian factory, pick up some souvenirs in the factory shop, have a go at decorating a plate or enjoy refreshments sitting by the spotty Aga.

Did you know?

• Staffordshire has more miles of canals than any other Shire county.

• In 2002 history was made at Uttoxeter racecourse when Tony McCoy became the most winning National Hunt jockey of all time with his victory aboard Mighty Montefalco, marking his 1,700th win.

• Staffordshire oatcakes date back to the 18th century and are rather like a savoury pancake, usually served with cheese, sausages or bacon.

Useful contacts:

Destination Staffordshire:

Visit Stoke-on-Trent:

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