Top Five: Reasons why Stoke-on-Trent should become City of Culture 2021

As soon as we revealed our intention to campaign for the City of Culture 2021 title, I’m sure many folk around the country (who have never actually set foot inside Stoke-on-Trent) snorted and guffawed at the idea. In the national press, our city has rarely been discussed in reference to a rich cultural scene; instead, we are reduced to a poor, uneducated and overweight city. Yes, we are still struggling with the lasting impacts of the total destruction of our industries and yes, education in Stoke-on-Trent needs to improve, but none of these things can take away the cultural activity that is currently subsuming the city. Here are five examples illustrating why Stoke-on-Trent deserves the 2021 title:

  1. Festivals. Stoke-on-Trent hosts a plethora of different festivals of all shapes and sizes. At the larger scale, there’s the Hot Air Literary Festival. Hosted at the Emma Bridgewater Factory for the past 3 years, we’ve seen huge names from the literary world pootle down to Stoke to share their thoughts and experiences including the likes of Nick Hornby, Joanna Trollope and Michael Palin! The British Ceramics Biennial is another wonderful example, celebrating everything pottery in the old Spode Factory. Another Stoke-based extravaganza, The London Road Festival, returns this year with more arts and music activities while Appetite Stoke’s Big Feast has showcased world-class theatre across the city in recent years.
  2. Art. It’s everywhere! We’ve got perceptive street art from the likes of Doddz; regular celebrations of urban style at Upstairs Gallery; local artists on display at One One Six and more classical pieces at the PMAG. Art is taking shape as I type this with the resident artists at the newly opened ACAVA studios, art classes at Burslem School of Art and the incredible student artists studying at Staffordshire University. Perhaps most importantly, the community art scene is growing at breakneck speed. The hugely successful Portland Inn Project saw members of the community coming together to learn and create while Art Stop Stoke hosts regular crafting and art sessions.
  3. Independent Businesses. The Cultural Quarter in particular is now home to a mix of innovative independent businesses, each demonstrating their own creativity in different ways. Tsp, for example, have just opened their upstairs seating area along with their take on a traditional afternoon tea, except their “high tea” includes mini bagels and cupcakes with a scone on top. AMAZING. Rawr, on the other hand, give a whole new meaning to healthy eating with their delicious smoothies, juices and sandwiches and Klay Pizzeria and Bar encourage the best kind of creativity with their make your own pizza menu. Not forgetting new kid on the block, The Quarter, who continue to host a range of performances from local musicians, comedians and poets.
  4. Pottery. You can’t talk about Stoke’s culture without mentioning its pottery industry – we are built on clay for goodness sake! Plenty of folk are quick to condemn the pottery business as a dead duck, but they couldn’t be more wrong. Take Emma Bridgewater for example, her designs continue to grace the shelves of middle class families up and down the country and Steelite is supplying the hospitality industry all over the world. Moreover, smaller pottery businesses like Black Star Ceramics and Emma Bailey Ceramics are enjoying huge success too. Of course, our own Middleport Pottery is also home of The Great Pottery Thrown Down, which has just hit our screens for the second series.
  5. Individuality. Our city is the home of the mighty North Staffordshire Oatcake – surely that in itself is worthy of the 2021 title? The Stokie dialect is still alive and well, whether it’s “ay up Duck” or “nesh” or “look to rhyme with Luke” and our reputation as a generous community remains in tact – you only have to look at the city’s foodbank or the community night shelter project for evidence. Finally, we might be the only city who consistently turn over our crockery to see where it’s made. We are creative and caring and unique, and we deserve to be recognised as such by winning the 2021 City of Culture title.

REVIEW: Tristram Hunt at Hot Air 2016

Last Friday night, I made my way to the Emma Bridgewater Factory to hear Tristram Hunt speak at Stoke’s very own literary festival, Hot Air 2016. The factory itself was the perfect setting; the central courtyard had been accessorized with a gazebo-turned-box office and the factory shop was transformed into an author’s book-signing spot. All the while, the cafe continued to refresh each visitor and I even saw some glasses of wine which I’m certain aren’t usually on the menu- how posh!

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The Box Office

Hunt’s talk was held in The Meakin Room; a large whitewashed room with exposed beams and brickwork, albeit a little hot once the 200ish guests were all seated. Matthew Rice, Emma Bridgewater’s husband and author of one of my favourite books, “The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent” introduced Tristram to the stage with a string of jokes about how he had finally been given the opportunity to host a talk, now there was no one else available…

The session was based on one of Hunt’s books, ‘Ten cities that made an empire’ and together we explored the role that cities as varied as Boston, Mumbai and Hong Kong played in the creation of the British empire. He began with the horrific slave trade triangle of Boston, Bridgetown & Dublin, and then continued on to the opium trade that criss-crossed between the cities of British India and Hong Kong.Both examples continue to reinforce the darker nature of British imperialism and its ruthless pursuit of power and influence. After a trip right across the globe, we finally arrived in Liverpool. Once a crucial part of the British empire, it found itself on the wrong side of the country when the empire collapsed and we looked to Europe. In a particularly bizarre turn of events, Hunt argues that the city now finds itself depending on primarily Chinese and Indian capital to fuel its regeneration effort- the very countries that Liverpool exploited in order to build its wealth!

The discussion was particularly poignant with regard to the EU referendum and the questions from the floor certainly reflected this. Nevertheless, Tristram argued that the original British empire model is not one that can or should be repeated and I fervently agree. The British empire was built on exploitation and destruction, the remains of which can still be seen today all over the globe, whereas the European Union offers hope for the future through open dialogue and problem solving between countries.

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Tristram Hunt’s ‘Ten cities that made an empire’

Overall, I am mightily proud and impressed with Hot Air 2016. It was fantastic to hear one of Stoke’s MPs discussing one of his own interests and the factory was a hive of activity. What’s more, the impact of the festival extended far beyond the factory walls with authors visiting local schools and colleges and festival fringe events taking place all over the city. Sometimes, it feels a real struggle to encourage city-wide engagement with anything other than football, but I’m confident that Stoke-on-Trent’s Literary Festival has captured the imagination of both residents and visitors from further afield.


For more information about Hot Air 2016:

https://www.facebook.com/SOTLiteraryFestival/ 

http://www.stokeliteraryfestival.org/

IN THE NEWS: Jason Manford & Phil Jupitus’s mission to get Stoke off the UK’s “top ten worst towns”

I’m absolutely over the moon with Jason Manford and Phil Jupitus this week- who knew that we three had so much in common?- as they have tasked themselves with a mission to knock Stoke out of the list of “top 10 worst towns in the UK” and champion the city. The pair are currently touring in ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ which has pitched up at The Regent in Hanley until the 9th of April and they intend to fill the next week and half with as many tourist attractions, restaurants, museums, cafes and ‘things to do’ that Stoke has to offer.

The idea has certainly captured the imagination of many Stokies (near and far!), as Manford’s first Facebook status appealing for places to visit in the city received over 2,000 comments and 3,000 shares. They even made it on to the 6 o’clock ITV news! During the item, they argued that after having toured many times and in many different towns across the country, they could certainly think of at least 10 that were far worse than Stoke…

The pair’s twitter feeds reveal what they’ve been up to today, and boy have they crammed a lot in. By the looks of things, they’ve visited (tsp.) cafe (which was my first suggestion, of course!) and popped down the road to the AirSpace Gallery; they’ve tried an Oatie Moston oatcake and browsed around the Potteries Museum where they were particularly taken with the spitfire. The day was all topped off with a visit to Emma Bridgewater with Jason trying his hand at pottery decoration, the success of which I’ll leave for you to decide… Alton Towers, Trentham Gardens and Gladstone Pottery are all still on their to-do list but I’m sure they’d still welcome any other suggestions. Phil & Jason, if you’re reading this, I think my restaurant recommendation for you would have to be Roberto’s Italian. It’s literally a stone’s throw from the Regent and you are definitely in with a chance of ending up on his wall of fame!

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Photo credit: Phil Jupitus’s Twitter @jupitusphillip

Joking aside, perhaps the most poignant observation that they’ve made so far is that some of Stoke’s harshest critics are actually those living in the city themselves. Don’t get me wrong, Stoke-on-Trent drives me absolutely bonkers sometimes (don’t get me started on the snail’s pace that people walk through Hanley at, for instance, or the compulsory police presence that is required across half the city when there’s a Stoke home game on) but even in those moments I’m still proud to be part of such a warm, city-wide community. After all, we can’t lament other people for calling us a top 10 worst town to live in if we ourselves aren’t prepared to shout about our assets. Thank you Mr Manford & Mr Jupitus for highlighting some of Stoke’s best bits! (and break a leg this evening!)


 

The Sentinel’s coverage: http://www.stokesentinel.co.uk/Jason-Manford-appealing-best-places-visit/story-29032241-detail/story.html 

http://www.stokesentinel.co.uk/Phil-Jupitus-Jason-Manford-tuck-oatcakes-taking/story-29033283-detail/story.html 

 

FIRST LOOK: Hot Air 2016, Stoke Literary Festival

I feel like most people across the country would argue that “Stoke Literary Festival” is a bit of an oxymoron. So, if you’re reading this and thinking exactly that, can I politely encourage you to keep an open mind as I think you may be pleasantly surprised, if not a little impressed with this year’s set up. We’ve been a creative city – making beautiful things – for many years, so why would curating a literary festival be any different? Now in its third year, “Hot Air” Literary Festival will be held at the wonderful Emma Bridgewater Factory, Lichfield Street over the 9-11th June 2016. (Giving you the perfect opportunity to visit the factory cafe which, in case you missed it, I LOVE! See my review here)

The website quotes Emma Bridgewater as saying it all began with “a quick discussion with Tristram Hunt”- as so many things appear to do so at the moment, for example, the recently developed scheme to attract more maths teachers to the city. And what is the finished result? An eclectic programme from all sorts of authors, presenters and performers.

Some of this year’s guests are truly enormous names: Nick Hornby will be contributing to the opening session; every middle-aged, middle class woman’s favourite, Kirstie Alsopp will be in conversation with Emma Bridgewater and of course, Tristram Hunt will be making an appearance too. Nevertheless, I find myself, rather oddly, most excited about the children’s line up which includes a workshop based on David Walliams’ “Gangsta Granny” and Cressida Cowell of “How to train your dragon” fame.

The festival finale will feature what can perhaps be referred to as Stoke-on-Trent’s best export of 2015: The Great British Pottery Throw Down. I’m sure I’m not the only one who would secretly love the opportunity to find out a little bit more about the show and hear from some of the contestants… and with a confirmed second series to come, maybe it has the potential to match Bake Off’s success? On a more serious note, this event will also discuss the impact the show has had on the city and the opportunities it could create within the pottery industry. Now, that is a conversation I’d like to hear!

Finally, new to the festival this year is the Hot Air Fringe. Stoke Literary Festival is encouraging groups across the city to organise book/reading/writing-themed events during the run up (April, May & June 2016) to the festival weekend. Anything goes so long as it encourages folks’ interest in literature- the world is your oyster- so if you’ve got something in mind, use the contact form on their website to let them know.

All in all, the varied festival line-up and the newly added fringe look set to make 2016’s “Hot Air Literary Festival” the best one yet. Just make sure you don’t miss out on your tickets…

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Hot Air: Stoke Literary Festival


 

Hot Air Literary Festival Website: http://www.stokeliteraryfestival.org/

Get involved with the Festival Fringe: http://www.stokeliteraryfestival.org/hotair-fringe-get-involved/

Emma Bridgewater Factory: http://emmabridgewaterfactory.co.uk/

Stoke-on-Trent Maths Teachers’ Scheme: http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/feb/23/stoke-council-and-bet365-launch-1m-scheme-to-attract-maths-teachers 

 

IN THE NEWS: Stoke-on-Trent makes it into PWC’s ‘Good Growth for Cities’ report

Stoke-on-Trent has made it onto a list detailing the best and worst cities in the UK for quality of life and economic performance…but this time it’s sneaked into the BEST CATEGORY as our city was ranked 19th out of 39 cities detailed in PWC’s ‘Good Growth for Cities Report.’ We’ve managed to surpass some of the UK’s core cities including Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester and perhaps most surprisingly of all, London. But what does this ranking actually reveal about the city of Stoke-on-Trent?


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PWC (the fifth largest privately-owned firm in the USA) in partnership with Demos (a cross-party think tank) have released an annual “Good Growth for Cities Report” for the past 3 years and 2015 is no different. While PWC as a corporation appear to have made a few questionable decisions regarding ethical operating, this report provides a comprehensive summary of what economic success looks like beyond traditional indicators like GVA (Gross Value Added) by taking a more holistic analysis of a variety of variables.

For example, in the case of Stoke-on-Trent, the only indicator for which the city is below average compared to other UK cities is skills, yet it has exceeded the national city average in areas like ‘jobs,’ ‘owner occupation’ and ‘sectoral balance.’ In other words, we’re currently succeeding in terms of jobs provision and maintaining a balance of industrial sectors across our local economy but need to pay particular attention to increasing and broadening our skill set and qualifications. The ‘Implications’ chapter of the report highlights the importance of improving the skills of a city’s population as not only do they contribute to a higher economic performance overall, but they also help to build the resilience of a city and better its response to periods of economic uncertainty.

Good Growth for Cities 2015 goes on to propose a number of different actions that can be taken in order to consolidate and further the economic growth seen in UK cities. The focus on ‘the investment in the assets of a place’ seems to be particularly relevant for Stoke. We have so many ‘assets’ that we could capitalise on and share with the rest of the UK- it’s about time we started blowing our own trumpet! Beautiful pottery is still made here (another plug for Emma Bridgewater!) and remnants of our industrial heritage contribute to a truly unique landscape, to name but a few!

For me, this publication serves as the perfect reminder that Stoke-on-Trent has a lot to offer and that we should be proud of the significant progress that we’re making as a city.


To access a copy of the Good Growth for Cities Report 2015: http://www.pwc.co.uk/industries/government-public-sector/good-growth/good-growth-for-cities-our-report-on-economic-wellbeing-in-uk-urban-areas.html 

To access a copy of the Midlands highlights of the GGCR 2015http://pwc.blogs.com/files/good-growth-for-cities-2015-midlands-factsheet-3.pdf 

IN THE NEWS: SUPPORT THE SENTINEL’S NEW POPPY CAMPAIGN

‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’ is the full title of the art installation that saw over 800,000 clay poppies surround the Tower of London to mark 100 years since the first world war began, though it seems to be more commonly known to most as just the ‘Tower of London Poppies.’ Now, parts of the display are set to tour a variety of towns and cities across the country in order to encourage even more people to engage with the sculptures and reflect on the conflict that ravaged the globe between 1914-1918. They will then find a permanent home at the Imperial War Museums in London & Manchester in 2018.

However, The Sentinel sadly reported earlier this week that Stoke-on-Trent’s bid to be one of the host cities for the poppy display had been rejected by 14-18 NOW, the organisers of the national tour. This decision was met with outrage across the city, and rightly so, as Stoke played an integral part in the production of the final masterpiece. Without our clay, supplied by Potclays in Eturia and our skilled workers at Johnson Tiles, Tunstall (who made a whopping half of the total amount of poppies!) the installation would have been near impossible to open. Considering the important connections that clearly exist between the city and the flowers, the verdict is somewhat inexplicable.

On the contrary, The Sentinel isn’t prepared to shut up and accept this decision and so they have relaunched their campaign to bring these iconic poppies back to the potteries! They are asking everyone to register their support either online or by filling in the coupons found in the print editions of the newspaper and I am joining them in asking for your support too. Our city has been overlooked enough and we’ve missed out on one too many events of national importance. For Stoke, hosting the poppies could remind us of even more than the soldiers who bravely gave their lives for our country in World War One. It could reaffirm the skills, talents and resources that remain in our city and the contribution that they can still make to modern Britain.

Poppies found at Emma Bridgewater

Poppies found at Emma Bridgewater


REGISTER YOUR SUPPORT FOR THE POPPY CAMPAIGNhttp://www.stokesentinel.co.uk/Stoke-Trent-earned-right-host-WWI-Tower-London/story-27466477-detail/story.html

More information on “Blood swept lands and seas of red”: http://www.hrp.org.uk/TowerOfLondon/poppies/about-the-installation

14-18 NOW website: http://www.1418now.org.uk/

REVIEW: The Emma Bridgewater factory cafe, Hanley

Don’t get me wrong, there is far more to the Emma Bridgewater Factory than just the cafe. You can book a factory tour or look around the gift & seconds shop and even decorate your own pot in their decorating studio. You can essentially make a whole day of it but the cafe itself is just so quirky that it deserves a post of its own.

The coffee shop can be found overlooking the factory courtyard, sandwiched between the gift shop and the seconds shop, which can be accessed via the front gates on Lichfield street or from the car park round the back. Through the doors of the cafe, the counter lies right in front of you with a mishmash of different tables and chairs to both the left and right. The decor is undoubtedly the first thing that catches your eye- there are trademark Emma Bridgewater spots everywhere! And everywhere is no exaggeration; the cupboards, the shelves, even a giant aga hasn’t escaped the paintbrush! The walls are covered with various prints, including EB designs and wartime posters – the whole room just screams homely.

Once you’ve chosen your table you can settle down with the menu, although I can almost guarantee that it’ll take 10 minutes to decide on what you’re having because you’ll still be looking around the room in awe. All the drinks are served in the iconic EB half pint mugs and are very reasonably priced. A filter coffee is just £1.70 and definitely some of the best in Stoke but there are still lattes and cappuccinos and hot chocolates available too. As for snacks, their toasted teacake is definitely my favourite, not least because they serve it with an overly generous hunk of butter but also because the teacakes themselves are enormous. Their oatcakes are also a good choice with a range of different fillings and the cafe might just be the prettiest place in the whole of Stoke-on-Trent to eat them.

Emma Bridgewater Pottery

Emma Bridgewater Pottery

The Emma Bridgewater afternoon tea is something else altogether. They pile sandwiches, cakes and scones with jam and clotted cream onto one of their patterned cake stands and serve it with tea or coffee for a minimum of two people but it would easily feed four! However, I can’t pretend that it’s not pretty steeply priced so it’s definitely more of an occasional treat than a regular order.

The Emma Bridgewater Afternoon Tea

The Emma Bridgewater Afternoon Tea

All things considered, the Emma Bridgewater Cafe has a lovely, cosy atmosphere and is the perfect place to while away a Saturday afternoon over a hot drink and an excellent slice of something. Be sure to pop in soon, preferably with a big group of friends so that you can nab one of the big kitchen tables and benches!


The Emma Bridgewater Factory: http://www.emmabridgewaterfactory.co.uk/

The Emma Bridgewater Cafe menuhttp://www.emmabridgewaterfactory.co.uk/i/content/cafe_menu.pdf