A Cracking Time at England's Wedgwood Factory

Globe and Mail

When two gruffly bearded men throw a pot together it’s best not to mention the movie Ghost. But while romance failed to flicker between myself and instructor Chris at the World of Wedgwood, I at least got a (slightly wonky) vase out it.

 

Located in Stoke-on-Trent – the West Midlands’ city that’s the historic heart of UK pottery making – the busy factory of one of Britain’s most famous brands reopened its visitor operations in July, following a multimillion-dollar revamp.

 

And while its breathtaking collection of historic ceramics – recently gifted to the Victoria and Albert Museum but on permanent display here – is a key lure, a fancy platter of new experiences keeps visitors entertained beyond the displays.

 

Throwing your own pot – Chris deftly saved mine from becoming a spinning potato sculpture – is the finale of the factory tour, a behind-the-scenes glimpse at everyone from handle casters to prestige throwers. Listen carefully and you also learn that wagglers, jigglers and diddling sticks aren’t just naughty euphemisms.

 

Glancing over the shoulders of employees – most wearing T-shirts due to the heat of the kilns – I discovered that the factory floor employed thousands during its 1950s heyday but that mechanization – and a further plant in Indonesia – has reduced that to a few hundred today.

 

Not that production has suffered. Wedgwood’s headquarters still manufactures some hugely popular lines, including this year’s top-seller – a 50th-anniversay relaunch of the sparkling Wild Strawberry tableware range – as well as $50,000 vases and 22-carat gold-slathered plates that Liberace would have loved.

 

But it’s the classic pale blue and icing-sugar-white Jasperware – still made here – that will always be linked to Wedgwood’s image. Although, as the plant’s excellent onsite museum and its several thousand artifacts reveal, it wasn’t the only important innovation in the 256-year-old company’s early days.

 

When founder Josiah Wedgwood won a 1765 order from Queen Charlotte for his shimmering cream-coloured earthenware, he quickly dubbed his new range Queen’s Ware. The savvy branding sparked a buying frenzy throughout the country from wannabe sophisticates.

 

But while early successes were fueled by these aristocratic fashions – Wedgwood was especially adept at complementing stately home interiors – the demands of the unwashed masses soon became commercially appealing. Keen to exploit any profitable trend, the museum showcases eye-popping Egyptware and Monkeyana plus 19th-century hookah pots.

 

Judging by the shop near the museum’s entrance, today’s tastes are more sedate. A display of individual teacups – sold in hatbox-like packages – almost seduced my credit card. And while there was also a tea-tasting bar and fancy afternoon tea restaurant, I was happy to stroll the complex’s landscaped grounds.

 

Alongside huge willow-branch sculptures of cups and teapots, I found a retro-cool cafeteria and a studio where visitors can paint plates. I also visited a second shop stocked with exquisite vases. They seemed to lack the lumpy uniqueness of my own creation, which I’m sure had already been earmarked for the museum.

 

If you go:

World of Wedgwood is open daily in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent. For information on tours, activities, shops and restaurants, see www.worldofwedgwood.com.

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