Oh heck, if I don't get this posted it'll be April. And I hope the weather will be better then! Since I last posted we have had more snow, which was quite pretty, and we also stayed in a particularly beautiful part of Staffordshire - Consall Forge, not far from Stoke on Trent.
At Consall the woods were beautiful in a wintry way but there was very little sign of Spring. I was struck by the almost fluorescent green of the moss on the trees.
The purpose of the visit to the Stoke area was a reunion. I'm not usually one for reunions, but I liked this one. They'd been an entertaining bunch even when you saw them day after day, and although some have sadly passed away, it was fun for us survivors to meet again, hear the funny stories and see what had become of everyone.
But isn't it strange what people end up doing? I still remember my surprise in my late twenties when I met up with a couple of friends from art school. Ten years ago, one of them had been a brooding passionate genius wedded to his sculpture. Ten years later he was a schoolteacher and said that the most exciting thing in his life was the weekly trip to Sainsbury's! But another friend, who'd never seemed interested in very much, had become rich, and was working as a jeweller, creating amazing portrait rings for wealthy people. Have you ever had any surprises at reunions?
Anyway, back to Stoke. Here's a locally made plaque by Johnson Tiles showing the city's history and created by children under an artist's direction. See the bottle kilns on the left?
It's in the railway station, where we arrived after a remarkably cheap though slow train ride from London - just £8. You might have seen the recent Guardian documentary series of short films on Stoke and if you view them or read this you may get an idea of the place. Like so many ex industrial towns, Stoke has an interesting history and some great buildings and good people. When I lived there, heavy industry had made it spectacularly hideous, but it was still a true working landscape with a very strong identity.
Now, nearly all that's gone. I don't think anyone denies that the city needs something big to replace the the pottery, coalmining and steel industries that used to be at its heart. Walking out of the handsome station, I was glad to see the North Stafford Hotel still stood opposite. It was built in the beautiful neo-Elizabethan/Jacobean style which characterised the local railway company in Victorian days. Doesn't it look like a mansion?
The hotel's still there and on the card you can see a statue at the bottom left which is also still there today. It shows Josiah Wedgwood, who set Stoke on course to be the centre of pottery making for two centuries.
We stayed with old friends and visited some local pubs. My favourite has always been the Black Lion at Consall (and that's our friends' dog). I remember visiting the Black Lion when it had no road access - you could only reach it by canal or footpath. Something about the owner of the road not allowing access, I think. But it kept going and now the adjacent railway has returned to life and runs steam trains, so you can reach it by steam train too.
While we were drinking our Pig Squeal or Hogfather (for goodness sake) in the bar...
...I picked up a children's book which happened to be lying on a table. It was called "Dash Makes a Splash" and it was by a local author. I instantly fell in love with the happy, colourful pictures.
Dash is a little puppy who has a simple adventure. He gets lost, is taken in by a couple of canal boat restorers at Consall, and restores a lonely natterjack toad to the bosom of its family before returning to Consall in time for Christmas.
The story is just the kind of tale that little kids can understand and sympathise with, and that is not as easy to find these days as it once was. I liked it so much that I went to visit the lady who did the book, and bought a copy from her. It is also available on Amazon, but visiting was more fun! I learned she learned to paint plates in her family pottery business, can't you just imagine those flowers above, garlanding the edge of a plate?
Although Stoke still has many problems, it's a lot cleaner and brighter than it was all those years ago. I was startled to learn that Etruria Hall (once the home of the Wedgwoods) is now part of the Stoke on Trent Moat House Hotel. I still remember how amazed I was when I first saw Etruria Hall, presiding over a completely industrial landscape at Shelton Iron and Steel Works, a little bit later than the picture below admittedly but a spectacular panorama scene of industrial devastation, the like of which I had never seen in all my young life! It was actually such a busy scene that I was quite fascinated by it, though, and wish I'd photographed it myself.
And here is another view of Etruria Hall as it was years ago, at about 0.58 on the "Staffordshire Men" song below.
I'm not going to presume what people of Stoke are like now, or what they want for their city, but I'm hoping to return to have a better look around later in the year. Times are changing and I'd like to think Stoke will soon start to get the break it deserves.