Around the China Trail in Stoke-on-Trent

As the birthplace of British pottery, Stoke has some of the richest heritage in England. We join Steven Rittey, from Wheel2Wheel Holidays, as he visits the home of popular BBC show The Great British Pottery Throwdown.

Just before Christmas, my girlfriend Jilly said to me “I think we should go to Stoke. I really want to go.” I was a bit taken back by this as it has been a place on her radar before and wondered why. It turns out that she really enjoyed watching the BBC programme ‘The Great British Pottery Throwdown’ and she wanted to visit the home of Burleigh and the Middleport Pottery kiln where the show was filmed.

So on New Year’s Eve, we decided to head down the M6 from Manchester to spend the night in Newcastle-under-Lyme and toured the excellent Middleport Pottery and the Wedgwood/Royal Doulton outlet shop. To my surprise and despite not being that interested beforehand in pottery, I found myself wanting to know more about pottery production on a return visit and also about the history of Stoke-on-Trent by bike.

Fast forward a few weeks and I found out that there was a dedicated cycle route around some of Stoke-on-Trent’s famous pottery attractions called the ‘China Trail’ through three of the six ‘towns’ that make up Stoke-on-Trent - Burslem, Hanley and Etruria. I decided to ride some of the official route before heading north to the ‘Killer Mile’ climb Mow Cop on the Cheshire/Staffordshire border and ending in the upmarket Cheshire village of Alderley Edge.

Stoke-on-Trent is the capital of the UK’s pottery industry and was one of the biggest centres of ceramic production in the world. There were hundreds of kilns dotted around the city and hundreds of thousands of people employed in the manufacture of pots, chinaware working in the creation of internationally famous brands such as Wedgwood, Spode and Moorcroft. Despite a marked decline, the industry is still important to the city with approx. 20,000 employed in the ceramics trade.

As I rode around Stoke, there are clues that offer glimpses into former times. The founder of the famous brand - Josiah Wedgwood has a statue outside the station and there is an excellent museum charting the company’s history in Barlaston. Following the China Trail into Hanley, the ‘city centre’ of Stoke and often derided due to now demolished Bus Station, there is the excellent Potteries Museum and Art Gallery. This building houses one of the greatest collections of pottery in the world and gives detailed information on the history of Staffordshire. You will also see the uniquely shaped 'Kiln' towers that look like glass bottles made out of brick and were used to cook the clay used to make the pots.

After the decline of the pottery industry and other linked industries such as mining, one of the best things about post-industrial Stoke-on-Trent is that many of the canal routes and former railway lines are now traffic-free cycle paths that link various parts of the city together. I rarely cycled on the road as I followed the former loop lines that used to be used for pottery production and export. In fact, there are nearly 100 miles of off-road cycle path in the Stoke-on-Trent area and is one of the highest concentrations in the U.K!

I cycled up the National Cycle Route 5 that links Reading with Holyhead in North Wales towards Tunstall on the Loop line before making a short detour to see the blue plaque noting another of one of the city’s famous exports, former Take That singer Robbie Williams and his childhood house on Victoria Park Road.

Upon leaving the city boundary, I rode up the muddy Trent and Mersey Canal towpath towards Kidsgrove and decided to ride up to Mow Cop. Straddling the two county borders, Mow Cop is a cycle climb that is notorious in cycling cycles due to its steep gradient and is known as the Killer Mile. Upon completing the ascent, why not recover at the top to see the derelict castle and get a drink at one of the pubs in the village?

I descended down the hill towards Congleton before meandering around the Cheshire Lanes. However, it became clear that my late start was catching up with me as darkness was starting to fall around the rural roads. I did have bright lights with me, so wasn’t too concerned about being seen, it was the rainstorm and leaden skies heading into the Macclesfield/Alderley Edge area that was more of an issue. The recent and frequent heavy rain showers have put me off cycling recently and I really didn’t want another soaking!

Fortunately, I just made it to Alderley Edge before the heavy rain started and caught the train home to Manchester. I appropriately ended the day with a tea poured into my blue Burleigh mug bought from the Middleport Pottery in Stoke-on-Trent. A great souvenir from an unexpectedly good cycling city and well worth a visit for those interested in industrial history and a good urban cycle or walk.

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