First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
A mad spring morning of wild skies and tearing clouds, of heavenly slashes of blue and thunderous slabs of slate grey racing over Staffordshire. Walking up the road into Barlaston, I passed Esperanto House, the UK’s weekend rendezvous for speakers of the international language. What a nice thought on a blowy morning – hearty gusts of Esperanto wafting round the Arts & Crafts houses of Barlaston, the village green and the curious, blockily-designed modern church.
There’s altogether more to ‘Beornwulf’s town’ than meets the eye, as visitors discover during Barlaston Wassail each New Year’s Eve, what with chariot racing, dancing on the green, and flaring torches lighting a grand late night procession out to the nearby ridge of Downs Banks. I set out along the processional route, and the rain set out after me. It caught me at the top of the bank, a proper grey-out which mercilessly lashed the countryside. Hail sparked in silver jags off the path, wind roared in the stunted oaks along the ridge. Then the storm howled off east, leaving every twig and half-opened bud with a dangling teardrop. I dropped down into the shelter of the hidden valley below Downs Banks, and made my way back to Barlaston along paths gleaming and sticky.
On the outskirts of the village, Barlaston Hall stood square and dignified in red brick, commanding a superb view over ornamental lake and parklands. Hidden beneath the well-mannered paddocks lie long-abandoned coal mines, whose collapsing tunnels almost brought the house down before it was stabilised and restored in the 1990s – a long and painstaking process.
Beyond lay Wedgwood Pottery’s leafy industrial estate. There’s an excellent Visitor Centre and a brand new museum. I shook off the raindrops and went in for a look-see. What the one-legged pottery designer Josiah Wedgwood started in his native Burslem in the 1750s grew into a mighty industry. Wedgwoods made creamware for the dinner tables of the world, and blue and black jasperware for its dressing tables. Techniques have altered over the years, but the craftsmanship hasn’t. This dedicated, specialised, intricate craft still flourishes, near where it all began.
The walk back to Barlaston lay along the Trent & Mersey Canal, commissioned by Josiah Wedgwood to carry his fragile wares to the buyers. I’d spent yesterday cruising the waterways towards the Potteries in a slow boat, looking forward to a good walk in this tempting Midlands countryside. It had lived up to all my hopes.
Start & finish: Village green, Barlaston, Staffs (OS ref SJ 894384)
Getting there: Barlaston or Wedgwood stations – NB no longer served by trains, but by bus from Stoke or Stafford (www.thetrainline.com). Road: M6 (Jct 15); A34 south, side road to Barlaston
Walk (6 miles, easy grade, OS Explorer 258): Upper House Hotel entrance (894383) – field path (yellow arrows) to ridge crest (897375) – follow ridge south to road (899363). Return to Barlaston northwards via valley bottom path for 2/3 mile (left over stile at 900374 to regain ridge). From village green follow ‘Wedgwood Visitor Centre’ signs past Duke of York PH (894385) and Barlaston Hall (894391). Cross stile beyond (894393) to road (893396); left over bridge; right (890395) to Wedgwood Visitor Centre. Return to road; right over railway; left (884393) along canal to Plume of Feathers PH (887383); left into Barlaston.
NB – Detailed directions, online map, more walks: www.christophersomerville.co.uk
Refreshments: Duke of York PH (01782-373316) or Plume of Feathers (01782-373753), Barlaston: Wedgwood Pottery tearooms or restaurant
Accommodation: The Graythwaite Guest House, Newcastle-under-Lyme ST5 1DS (01782-612875; www.thegraythwaite.co.uk) – classy, friendly place
Wedgwood Visitor Centre: 0870-606-1759; www.thewedgwoodvisitorcentre.com
Wedgwood Museum: 01782-371900; www.wedgwoodmuseum.org.uk
Canal cruising: www.hoseasons.co.uk
More info: Stoke-on-Trent TIC (01782-236000); www.enjoyengland.com