We’re in Middleport, an offshoot of one of the six towns* that make up the Potteries, Stoke on Trent to see an exhibition first installed at the Tower of London three years ago - Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red, represented by ceramic poppies.
*Yes, I know about Anna of the Five Towns, but Arnold Bennett would have to change his title now as Fenton was added to Stoke, Hanley, Longton, Burslem and Tunstall quite a while ago, making Stoke on Trent a city made up of six towns.
We are obliged to park in a specific car park as the exhibition is bringing in a couple of thousand or so visitors a day and there are traffic wardens out in force to stop anyone parking in side streets. The car park is huge, made out of what used to be one of the biggest scrap yards, maybe the biggest, in Britain. You’d never know it ever existed now as it’s just a massive car park. Hopefully, they’ll do something with it eventually as it seems a bit of a waste as it stands.
We pay our £3 and the girl who takes the money tells us there is a courtesy bus to the exhibition, ‘but the driver’s having a brew and a ciggie so he’ll be a while.’ Hmm!
We park next to only about a dozen or so cars as it’s still early, reversing into a free space when asked to by one of the three attendants. The next car to arrive is driven by a fierce woman who flatly refuses to reverse ‘because I’m crap at it’ and tells the young man if he wants her car reversing into a space he can do it himself.
Which he does.
Not very well.
It took him three attempts and he had to face the scorn of his two colleagues and the expression on the face of the car’s owner said, ‘well, I’m not very good at reversing, but neither are you.’
No sign of a courtesy bus, so we decided to walk and were glad we did. The walking route took us through a rather scruffy area, despite a local couple assuring us many thousands of pounds had been spent on ‘upgrading,’ and across a canal bridge. On the canal were several barges/narrowboats, one was set up as a floating pub and another was called ‘the oatcake barge.’ Bet that’s the only oatcake barge in the world.
Staffordshire oatcakes, best served hot with bacon or cheese but there are hundreds of possible uses, are not widely known outside Staffordshire and Derbyshire, but we love them and the rest of the world doesn’t know what it’s missing.
One of the barges was parked (moored?) next to the bridge and and a man fiddling with a rope said ‘hello.’ It turned out he is a water bailiff, which sounds impressive and we got the impression he was a sort of Canal Sheriff. He certainly knew a lot about canals. He said, ‘We get about 60,000 craft, mostly barges a year on this stretch of canal and we’ve made mooring here as attractive as possible which will only be to the benefit to Middleport.’ Yes, he did talk like a press release!
He was very believable, but we couldn’t see the attraction of this particular stretch of canal. It’s a very run down area with derelict buildings lining the banks, but the oatcake barge is an attraction, I suppose.
We crossed the bridge and walked past a metal shutter set into a wall which had been decorated as a Secret Garden. The ‘secret’ is that there’s nothing behind the shutter, the shutter itself is the garden. Nice idea.
We reached the entrance to the Pot Bank as they call a pottery works in Stoke on Trent, and joined a queue. It’s free to go in, but you have to get a ticket online. The man checking the tickets didn’t look very closely. We could have shown him a shopping list and been waved through. As we went in, the courtesy bus finally arrived, packed with people looking very fed up.
The poppy display is very impressive, with them coming out of the top and then tumbling down the side of an old bottle kiln and spreading out as a puddle of red at the bottom. I talked with the man who had organised the display who was very interesting. He told me it’s been almost three years since the original display was set up at the Tower of London and since then Weeping Window has been sent ‘on tour’ around the country. Over half the ceramic flowers were made in Stoke, at Johnson Tiles, and the rest were made in Derby.
I wrote down what he told me, so this is from the horse’s mouth! 888,246 ceramic red poppies were made, one for each British or Colonial serviceman killed in the First World War. The artist was a man named Paul Cummins, who got the idea from the first lines of a poem by an unknown World War I soldier.
The poem begins: ‘The blood-swept lands and seas of red, Where angels dare to tread.’ (Hope I got that right, but I did my best, scribbling away, standing up, on a scruffy bit of paper.)
‘How many did you break?’ I asked him. He looked a bit cross, but I thought that was a good question as they’re made of pottery and look very fragile.
‘Only one,’ he said, ‘but that caused us a problem as there has to be exactly 888,246 poppies as every one presents a human life so we had to report the loss of a poppy so a replacement could be made. We only used 11,000 poppies here.’
They used 497,000 kg of Marl-based Etruscan red earthenware to make the poppies (I wrote this bit down as well) and he also told me about a crow that used to perch on top of the bottle kiln and got very cross when these men turned up to fix poppies all over his favourite perching place, which was much more interesting than knowing how much clay was needed to make 888,246 poppies.
This ‘pot bank’ was chosen to host the display as it is the last working Victorian pottery in the U.K. G had been talking to a man who used to work at Wedgwood and now makes his own pottery items on these premises. He was giving a demo with clay and a potters’ wheel and was very good. He was also very funny and G and the Jolly Potter were in fits of laughter when I joined them.
They had been talking about the Prince of Wales opening a section of the factory about four years ago and how his friend, a fellow potter, had slipped on a patch of wet clay, fallen over and regained his feet, covered in wet slime just as Prince Charles walked through the door. Charles shook hands with the man and said, ‘you look like you’re having fun.’
I found a friend there, (not saying an ‘old friend’ as she’s still gorgeous, like me) not seen each other for many years, and we had a good laugh and chat. I recognised her straight away and we had one of those really weird conversations that seemed as if we had been interrupted and just carried on as if the interruption happened five minutes ago. She said G needs to grow his beard, moustache and hair back, but the hair part is easier said than done.
Later on, we drove past a couple of our many former houses, one in Longsdon and one in Rudyard, and stopped for a cool drink at a canal side pub that used to be our ‘local.’
The cottage in Lake Road, Rudyard, looks exactly the same as when we left it, in 1984. Rudyard Lake is a local beauty spot, as they say, and we walked its banks with our dogs many a time. It’s much smarter than it used to be and there were lots of people in boats even though the lake is pretty low after such a dry summer.
There’s a statue, carved out of a tree, of a tightrope walker who walked across the lake in 1878 and the feat was repeated in 2016 by a man called Steve Bull. There’s a steam train line running alongside the far shore as this used to be a working railway line, but now it’s just for tourists. We missed the train but as we drove away we heard it whistling.
There was a little village fete going on near where we used to live and of course we went in for a look around. I got talking to a woman who lived next door to our old house and she said if we came back later she would find the people who bought our house and still lived there.
We went for another walk, there isn’t a village shop now, or a post office, and the trees lining the road are much bigger than we remember, but otherwise it was all very familiar. The War Memorial for the 1st World War says 1940–1921 not 1914–18. G will pop in later and explain that.
The woman who bought our house turned up and said they hadn’t changed the garden, the fish pond or anything else we had left behind, even the original bathroom suite was still there. Did she offer to walk about twenty yards to show us round? No, she didn’t.
Those dates on the War Memorial took my eye when we used to live in the village. 1921 was the date that Parliament finally recognised the end of the war as after 1918 there were still soldiers on active service left in various other countries, right up to 1921. I’ve also seen Memorials saying 1914-1919 elsewhere in the country, so there’s evidently quite some leeway given to the commissioning local authorities.
Many communities considered the First World War to be over when the Armistice was agreed (11 November 1918), or when the Peace Treaty of Versailles was signed (28 June 1919) or when Parliament officially declared the war ended (31 August 1921).
It seems the 1914-18 War, dates everybody associates with the First World War are not ‘set in stone,’ so to speak. Apparently, British troops continued to serve during the 1920s in the Army of Occupation in Germany, in Palestine or in Russia so some war memorials use other dates that are relevant to their own communities, as is the case with Rudyard.
We were in Fowey recently, battling the crowds who flock to Cornwall, and I noticed a plaque on a wall reading ‘on this date, September 5, 1752, nothing happened.’
I looked it up, then kicked myself for not recognising that date! ‘Give us our eleven days back!’ was the rallying cry behind the English calendar riots of 1752.
The eleven days referred to are the ‘lost’ 11 days of September 1752, skipped when Britain changed over from the Julian calendar to the Gregorian calendar, bringing Britain into line with most of Europe.
The Gregorian calendar is today’s international calendar, named after the man who first introduced it in February 1582, Pope Gregory XIII. Before 1752, Britain and the entire British Empire followed the Julian calendar, first implemented by Julius Caesar in 46 B.C.
However this calendar had an inbuilt error of 1 day every 128 years, due to a miscalculation of the solar year by 11 minutes. This affected the date of Easter, traditionally observed on March 21, as it began to move further away from the spring equinox with each passing year.
To get over this problem, the Gregorian calendar was introduced, based on a 365-day year divided into 12 months. Each month consists of either 30 or 31 days with one month, February, consisting of 28 days. A leap year every 4 years adds an extra day to February making it 29 days long.
First to adopt the new calendar in 1582 were France, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain, so Britain didn’t exactly rush to fall into line. Turkey was the last country to officially switch to the new system on January 1st, 1927.
The Calendar Act of 1750 introduced the Gregorian calendar to the British Empire, bringing Britain into line with most of Western Europe, but brought a few teething problems. It meant that the year 1751 would be a short year, lasting just 282 days from 25th March (New Year in the Julian calendar) to 31st December. The year 1752 would then began on 1 January.
There remained the problem of aligning the calendar in use in England with that in use in Europe. It was necessary to correct it by 11 days: the famous ‘lost days’. It was decided that Wednesday 2nd September 1752 would be followed by Thursday 14th September 1752. This prompted nationwide alarm and the rise of the ‘give us our eleven days back’ movement.
I thought back to this as we drove through Endon Village, across the stream that’s barely a trickle in this dry summer, and the well that is bedecked with flowers every year in one of North Staffordshire’s longest running and most charming well dressing ceremonies.
One 18th Century Endon resident, William Willett, was evidently alert to the possibility of turning the new calendar into a business opportunity. He went all around the village taking bets that he could dance non-stop for 12 days and 12 nights. On the evening of September 2nd 1752, he started to jig around the village and continued all through the night. The next morning, September 14th by the new calendar, he stopped dancing and claimed his bets!
Absolutely no relation, but on the same theme, another William Willett was responsible another landmark piece of ‘time shifting,’ not eleven days, just an hour, but we now take it for granted.
William Willett was responsible for the introduction of daylight saving, campaigning over several years at the beginning of the twentieth century almost single-handedly. He did not live to see his success as he died in 1915, a year before the measure was first introduced during the First World War. As a house builder, he became conscious of the many hours of daylight wasted in the mornings, when his men could be working, and came up with the idea that more could be made of daylight by adjusting the clock.
He put his ideas in a pamphlet, 'Waste of Daylight', and campaigned ceaselessly to win over influential people in government. It was a slow process and his ideas suffered much opposition – people habitually resist change- but he also attracted support from many prominent people such as Winston Churchill, then President of the Board of Trade and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
When the measure did eventually come in it was as an emergency measure during the First World War as a means of saving fuel in munitions factories. The Summer Time Act of 1925 finally made daylight saving a permanent feature.
That’s far too much ‘history,’ far too much guff about people named William Willett. Even if one of them did change the way we live, possibly for ever. One more thing and yes it’s William Willett related (the daylight saving one, not the dancer) and this time it’s interesting! Willett’s great-great-grandson is Chris Martin, lead singer in Coldplay.