“I DO not know what Nature originally made of it,” wrote JB Priestley, when he visited The Potteries in 1934, “because nearly all signs of her handiwork have been obliterated … To begin with, it is extremely ugly … The small towns straggle and sprawl in their shabby undress, following the ugly fashion of industrial small towns.”
One of the abiding myths about Stoke-on-Trent is its absence of beauty.
The slurs began in the inter-war years when the likes of Priestley and George Orwell caricatured the city as ‘Smoke-on-Stench’.
It was depicted as a quintessentially urban place, where nature had been buried beneath the smog, smuts and filth.
But, at the very same time, the city was also renowned for its remarkable collection of open spaces and parks. Not just The Roaches and Lake Rudyard Lake, but our formal, Victorian gardens.
The journalist Paul Johnson, growing up in Stoke-on-Trent during the 1930s, recalled his father taking him around Tunstall Park and explaining that, “the public parks were designed to give humble townspeople the feeling they had free access to property not unlike the parks of the highest aristocracy, such as the Duke of Sutherland at Trentham.”
And the young Johnson adored the clock -tower, bowling greens, serpentine paths and sense of ‘monumental grandeur’.
Well, this week, that tradition of beauty, equality and Potteries’ pride comes to the smartest set in London as Stoke-on-Trent takes on the Chelsea Flower Show.
While other cities and local authorities have abandoned the tradition of exhibiting at the world’s leading horticultural show, Stoke-on-Trent is using this international shop-front to lure inward investment into North Staffordshire.
With support from private sector sponsors, Stoke-on-Trentthe City Council is showing that local authorities can still act in a creative and adventurous manner.
For the garden is a tribute to all those skilled public servants in the council’s landscape team, who have made Park Hall, Burslem Park and, hopefully, Hanley Park such successes. In very tough times, our open spaces are more valuable than ever.
And, what is more, they are helping to regenerate Stoke-on-Trent in the most unexpected manner – by proving that this city is a place of colour, design, and beauty.
Mixing precision engineered artefacts with plants and flowers, the ‘Transformation Garden’ (as it is known) tells the story of Stoke-on-Trent’s heroic past and plans for an ambitious future.
At the heart of the garden is a skeletal, steel bottle-kiln covered in hundreds of hand-crafted, super-light bone china ‘flower bricks’.
These have been painstakingly put together by our best ceramicists working with local school pupilschildren from Abbey Hill and Ormiston, college students and community groups.
Behind the kiln is a living tapestry of plants symbolising the Peak District as the glorious, natural back-drop to our ‘STRAGGLING six towns.’
In the middle of the exhibit, Johnson Tiles hashave applied digitally printed photographic images of flowers onto glazed tiles, while Moorcroft Pottery has created a tiled table top depicting plants exhibited in the garden.
There is a crackle-gaze sandstone path and then a pergola in the same shape as Hanley’s new bus-station.
Finally, there are the roses – providing one fifth of the garden’s flowers in recognition of our relationship with Lidice and the planting of the rose garden in that ravaged city.
Then comes the hard work. Because, as beautiful as this garden is, it has to earn its keep.
Thanks to the generosity of Knights Solicitors, David Austin roses, Bartholomew Landscaping, and many others, most of the costs have been covered but this is a moment to exploit our investment.
So, tomorrow evening, the city’s industry ambassadors will be using the garden to tell a new story of Stoke-on-Trent – a high-skilled, pro-business, technologically advanced place in which to invest.
A city hugely proud of its history, but now explaining how it can build on that heritage and identity to deliver a prosperous, modern future.
And we have the Japanese Embassy, Imperial College London(CRRCT), and high-rolling property, industry and finance clients to convince.
On the one hand, it is an unfortunate sign of the times that Stoke-on-Trent City Council has to head down to London in order to attract inward investment.
But if, at Chelsea, we can use our great landscape and design skills to promote The Potteries then we should.
Of course, it would be wonderful to win a medal. But the real prize will be to waft away any tired old image of ‘Smoke-on-Stench’ on the back of a bed of roses, by the banks of the Thames.