No matter how beautiful or desirable a product may be, touring the factory where it’s made can sometimes be an underwhelming experience. We know we ought to find the process interesting, but a close-up view of staff in white coats and pieces of ingenious machinery so often fail to excite.
But package the factory tour up with a tempting retail space and an atmospheric tea room, a world-class museum and interactive opportunities, and all of a sudden you have a tourist attraction that really delivers. You have World of Wedgwood.
If you’ve already visited the factory at Barlaston in the leafy outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent, let me tempt you back. The attraction closed to the public in December 2014 ahead of a major revamp under new owners, international interiors company, Fiskars. World of Wedgwood reopened in July this year as a tourist attraction capable of holding its own with the best and, just as important, a tourist attraction that reflects the quality of one of the world’s most famous brands.
Visitors now pass lawns and fountains instead of car parks to reach the main entrance where Josiah Wedgwood’s kindly face looks down from the wall of the Atrium, a portrait made up of 1100 plates in 18 different colour glazes. It sets the tone perfectly for an attraction that puts a contemporary slant on British art and heritage.
The different elements of the attraction can be taken in any order and a full-day ticket (adults from £15) will give you access to all of them. Alternatively if time is short, you can buy a ticket just for the Factory Tour or the Wedgwood Museum, but you’d be missing out.
After Wedgwood’s much publicised financial troubles, the 80,000 artefacts that belong to the Wedgwood Museum risked being split up and sold off in lots. But thanks to the Art Fund charity, which generates money for arts causes, a public appeal raised enough money to enable the V&A to acquire the collection and subsequently loan it back to the Museum. Significantly enlarged, it features more than 3,000 items.
I spent an hour in the Museum – entrance free to Art Fund members – and barely scratched the surface. A handy icon guide leads visitors to key items in the collection but everyone has their favourites. I particularly loved the family portrait of Josiah Wedgwood and his family with their horses by equestrian artist George Stubbs and the vases personally thrown by Josiah to mark the opening of his Etruria factory in 1769. But what’s really overwhelming is the variety of styles and artefacts – letters, machines and colour charts as well as ceramics – that span the history of the company.
You can watch today’s craftsmen and women making ceramics on the self-guided factory tour, which finishes up with the chance to watch a master potter at work. For a small extra charge, you can even have a go yourself – an opportunity I couldn’t resist. With no tools other than a plastic apron and my two hands, I turned – literally – a piece of clay into a very creditable small vase to be fired, glazed and posted to my home. A talking point for my next house guests!
Visitors can also pay to get hands-on in the Decorating Studio. One young man apparently brought his girlfriend to a session where he inscribed ‘Will you marry me?’ on a plate. Another gentleman wanted a set of ceramics bearing a sketch of his house. The possibilities – with expert help – really are limitless. Short of inspiration? Take a look in the Design Studio to see how the in-house creative team go about it, or browse the Design Worlds gallery with its four themed collections.
Factory visits always imply the chance to do some shopping, but if you’re expecting lots of cut price Wedgwood, think again. The Wedgwood Flagship Store here at Barlaston is the largest Wedgwood retail space in the UK and the choice of styles, colours and prices is overwhelming, but Wedgwood don’t sell anything other than first quality so expect retail prices. You may however pick up discounted end-of-line pieces from one of their prestige ranges in the Outlet Store.
If all this shopping makes you hungry, The Dining Hall is a great new informal eating place modelled on the original workers’ canteen and decorated with archive photographs. Open all day, it serves locally-sourced produce in a family-friendly environment. But my favourite stands across the courtyard next to the shop.
More than 50 World of Wedgwood teas are now on sale here in the Tea Emporium, where you can sample various brews as well as sit down to a quick cuppa and a cake. But for something extra special, I recommend the elegant Wedgwood Tea Room next door, model for a franchise which will span the globe within a few years.
Choose from a selection of dainty sandwiches with tea of your choice (£10) or – my indulgence – the full Afternoon Tea with sandwiches, warm scones, mini cakes and tarts like wonderfully decadent dolls’ house food (£25). All served, of course, on delicate Wedgwood china. English tradition at its very best!