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Celebrating violins and all things violinistic

Barlaston: An Historic English Village

Barlaston is a very pleasant and somewhat historic English country village in rural Staffordshire, just outside the area known as ‘The Potteries’. This is how the Stoke-on-Trent industrial conurbation is widely known as it had in the recent past been the national (and at times world) centre for pottery production. All the most famous names in the production of fine chinaware became located here – names like Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, Royal Minton, Spode, Moorcroft etc.

 

Geographically it is located very centrally, in the Midlands, half way between Birmingham and Manchester. It is on the River Trent and served by very good road and rail networks. All these were major reasons for the pottery industry locating itself here, although when it was founded road and rail transport had not even been invented. At that time the Industrial Revolution was just beginning and the main form of transport for raw materials and manufactured goods was the waterways, by way of (initially horse-drawn) canal barges. The Trent and Mersey Canal bisects the village, running alongside the London to Manchester railway line (which was introduced much later of course).

 

The canal itself has an interesting history. Josiah Wedgwood wanted a canal to carry raw materials in to the Potteries for his business and to safely transport the finished goods out (pottery goods were fragile to be carried on the ‘roads’ of the day). However, powerful coal merchants in Liverpool feared competition from a canal that could bring coal in from Cheshire. A determined man, Josiah Wedgwood would not be thwarted and, knowing the value of this form of transport (fast and efficient for its day, despite the many lochs required to negotiate the undulating landscape). With the help of close friends with Parliamentary connections Thomas Bentley and Dr Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles Darwin), Josiah Wedgwood succeeded in obtaining an Act of Parliament in 1766 that authorised the building of a canal connecting the river Mersey near to Liverpool with the river Trent at Derwent Mouth in Derbyshire. That same year Josiah Wedgwood ceremoniously cut the first spade of earth from the new canal, which took until 1777 to complete. The greatest hurdle in the construction was cutting a tunnel through Kidsgrove Hill, the last thing to be finished in building the canal. The heyday of this canal lasted until 1847 when the North Staffordshire Railway Company bought out the Trent and Mersey Canal Company (whose headquarters were based in the local brewery town of Stone, just 3 miles from Barlaston) in order to end opposition from the canal company to the building of a Stoke-on-Trent to Liverpool railway line. The canal, however, not only survives but thrives today having found a major resurgence in recent decades through the popularity of the canal leisure boat industry.

 

Apart from the main Wedgwood pottery factory, with its museum and factory shop that draws many tourists each year (a considerable number of these from Japan) the historic attractions of the village of Barlaston include a 13th Century church, old manor house (Barlaston Hall) and the Upper House Hotel.

 

Barlaston Hall has a history perhaps even more remarkable than the canal. Built by architect Sir Robert Taylor for Thomas Mills in 1756 it replaced the existing manor. Situated in a 1.5 km2 (380 acre) estate, it is a Palladian style country house and one of the few by this architect that remains with his trademark sash windows with diamond and octagonal glazing. The manor house came into the Adderley family in 1816 when the co-heiress of the estate, Rosamund Mills, married Ralph Adderley. Their son, Ralph Thomas Adderley inherited the estate and ran it until his death in 1931, whereupon it was bought by the Wedgwood pottery company as a site for their new factory, replacing the existing operation in Etruria (in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent) which had been its home since the opening of the canal. A village was also built in the grounds of the estate to house employees of the factory. The Wedgwood Memorial College occupied the Hall from 1945 but on discovery of dry rot in the building the College relocated to its current site in the village. The Hall was vandalised and thieves removed the lead from the roof in the late 1960‘s, after which the Wedgwood company ceased to maintain the building. Falling into increasing disrepair and suffering from subsidence as a result of sitting on top of one of Europe’s largest mine works, as well as a geological fault, resulting in cracks as wide as 10cm (4inches) in the walls, the building was close to being condemned.

 

Being a Grade 1 listed building the Hall was safe from demolition without authorisation which Wedgwood applied for on 2 occasions before at a public enquiry SAVE (Britain’s National Heritage Trust) came up with proposals to protect and restore the Hall, in association with Kit Martin (a specialist in restoring ancient buildings), engineering company Peter Dann & Partners and the architect Bob Weighton. The National Coal Board (NCB) agreed to pay compensation for subsidence damage and for a concrete raft to be built to make the foundations secure. In September 1981 Wedgwood offered to sell the Hall to SAVE for just £1 on the condition that the restoration work was completed within 5 years and retaining a right to buy the building back for the same sum if this was not achieved.

 

Repair work was started on the roof but work came to a standstill when the NCB reneged on its compensation agreement and offered £25,000 instead under the Coal Mining (Subsidence) Act of 1950. Legal action by SAVE forced the Coal Board’s hand and eventually after some delay the full £120,000 agreed was paid. Further funding came by way of grants from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, English Heritage, Manifold Trust, the Historic Buildings Council and Wedgwood agreed to extend the time limit by a further 3 years.

 

With the external restoration complete, but no work done on the interior, SAVE elected to sell Barlaston Hall in 1992. It was purchased by the appropriately named Hall family who over a 5 year time period installed new internal walls, ceilings, staircases and complete interior decor. Much of this restoration work utilised the skills of craftsmen who had previously restored the Uppark National Trust property on the South Downs, West Sussex (but hopefully not the workman who in August 1989 managed to devastate that building 2 days before the restoration was due to be completed by setting it alight with a blowtorch that he was using to repair lead flashing on the roof!) The Hall now forms the residential home of James and Carol Hall. SAVE regard the restoration of Barlaston Hall as “one of, if not the, biggest success stories in English heritage. It is a landmark case in the history of preservation and serves to illustrate how perseverance can win over overwhelming odds. As Marcus (Binney, the SAVE President) so rightly pointed out: ‘if Barlaston can be saved, no other major country house need be forsaken’.”

 

With a somewhat less dramatic history or grand design, the Upper House at Barlaston was built in 1845 for Francis Wedgwood, grandson of Josiah Wedgwood. In the early 20th Century it became a ‘blind’ home, a care home for the elderly suffering from severe visual impairment or mental deterioration. In the late 1980’s it was acquired by Anne Williams and converted into a luxury character property run as a hotel, with 24 en-suite bedrooms, bar, traditional lounge with a log fire and set in 10 acres of beautifully managed landscape gardens and woodlands. As well as providing all the usual hotel facilities it has a well respected restaurant utilising local produce, conference facilities and provides a much sought after setting for weddings and wedding receptions.

 

On the other side of the village green from the Upper House there is the old school house, the building which housed the original Barlaston School. It was built in 1680, when it would have educated a handful of children from the village, as compared to the current primary school located behind it which holds several hundred 4 to 9 year old children. In 1930 the building was acquired by the people of Barlaston and renovated. While part of it became ‘The Teacher’s House’ the largest part hosted the village library; a role which it continued to play until very recently when local government cutbacks replaced it with a mobile library which serves a variety of rural communities throughout North Staffordshire. The library building was eventually acquired by the owners of The Teacher’s House and the two joined to form one residential property. The school bell tower still adorns the roof of the property.

 

The original church, situated adjacent to Barlaston Hall, is the oldest of all the local features, dating back to the 13th Century. The Church of St. John the Baptist is a small sandstone Gothic structure probably built originally in the 1200’s but no definitive records exist to give any precise dates. What is known is that only the South tower remains of the original structure, the main body of the church being rebuilt from 1886 to 1888. A gallery was added in 1930 and a vestry on the north side of the bell tower in 1969. Set into the south wall there is a beautiful simple sundial which appears to have been rescued from a building pre-dating the church and which has incised Roman numerals. The church was forced to close in 1980 due to significant cracks appearing in the supporting walls resulting from the same subsidence that threatened Barlaston Hall next to it. The magnificent stain-glass windows and bells from the bell tower were removed and relocated to the new church built lower down the village.

 

A further local attraction is Barlaston Downs, owned by the National Trust. Well loved by locals for walking and other recreation activities it is now becoming more widely recognised for its beauty and was recently listed in the Mail on Sunday guide ‘30 Best Autumn Walks’. Characterized by mixed deciduous woodland and bracken banks, with a stream running through the middle countless generations of locals have introduced their offspring to the hours of fun that children especially and adults too can have here. It is greatly favoured by dog walkers and in recent years cattle grazing has been reintroduced on the land to naturally keep bracken and other plant growth in check.

 

Not far from Barlaston there is a small amateur music school that meets in a village hall. Here, in the village of Maer, Charles Darwin met and married his wife Emma. She was the youngest of the seven children of Josiah Wedgwood II and his wife Elizabeth. Both Charles Darwin and Emma Wedgwood (who were cousins) shared the same grandparents – Josiah Wedgwood (and his wife Sarah), who was the founder of the famous Wedgwood pottery company. There is also a musical connection here in that Emma Wedgwood went to Paris for a period to study piano with Frederic Chopin.