Friday, January 20, 2012

Going Potty for Pottery

No, this is not about chamber pots.  'Potty' is British slang for 'crazy,' and if there's one thing the ladies of the American Women's Club are potty about, it's shopping for pottery.  Every year, they endure a three-and-a-half-hour bus ride -- each way -- to hit the January sales at the factory stores in Stoke-on-Trent, also known as The Potteries.  It's apparently one of their most popular annual activities, and although my weakness is for handmade pottery rather than the kind manufactured in a factory, I couldn't resist signing up.  And I could really use a nice teapot.

Due to the abundance of clay, salt and lead (for glazing), and coal (for firing the kilns), the Stoke-on-Trent area has been a center for pottery manufacturing since the 17th century.  Josiah Wedgwood built one of England's first large pottery factories there in 1769.  Other large companies, including Spode, Royal Doulton, Portmeirion, and Moorcroft, followed suit.  Today, there are more than 25 factory stores selling top quality china along with factory seconds and discontinued pieces.  Sadly, while the distinctive bottle-shaped brick kilns still dot the landscape, most of these companies have moved their manufacturing overseas.

I got up at 5 am (!!!) yesterday and took the Tube up to Sloane Square, where I met up with the 35 other women who had signed up for the trip.  This was a highly-motivated group of shoppers, willing to get up before their husbands and venture out on a cold, dark, rainy morning carting large tote bags, wheeled shopping trolleys, or rollaboard suitcases to bring their purchases home in.  We all piled into the giant bus the AWC had chartered for the trip, and we were underway by 7 am.

After a very brief pit stop to change drivers, we rolled into Stoke-on-Trent around 10:30 am.  It was clearly an industrial city, and by far the least scenic place I've been in England so far.  Our first stop was the Leeds Pottery factory shop, tucked away in an unassuming compound of squat brick buildings.  This was the smallest of the potteries we visited, and we must have been the first to arrive that day, as the shop was still locked.  Someone had to go to the reception area and have someone come out and open it for us. 
Leeds Pottery
The shop was so tiny that our big group filled the entire store.  I loved their handmade pierced cream ware, and the prices were very reasonable, but since it was my first time on this trip and I didn't know what was yet to come, I didn't want to blow my budget at the very first stop.  Plus, the teapots were a little small.
Leeds Pottery factory store (very small!)
 We walked down the street to our next stop, Aynsley, which was quite a bit larger and on 3 levels.
Aynsley factory shop
The main level had an assortment of fine china, porcelain figurines, crystal, and Christmas ornaments.  Above that was a cafe.
The factory seconds were down in the 'bargain basement.'  We were all intrigued by the pile of rejected Will & Kate commemorative plates and cups.
 Even though they were marked down to £5 (from £39.95), there were no takers.
Not a great photo of Kate!
We had a half-hour drive to our next stop, so we ate lunch on the bus (sandwiches, potato chips, apples, and bottled water from EAT) to maximize our shopping time.  Suitably refueled, we invaded the Burleigh factory shop next.  I liked their flowery patterned pottery in shades of cobalt blue, red, black, green, and brown, but it doesn't really go with anything else I own, and the prices were a little higher than the previous two shops.
Burleigh blue & white
Burleigh black & white with ceramic cheese & crackers
Burleigh red & white
Some of the other ladies decided not to buy anything here, either, and found a nice way to amuse themselves while waiting for the rest of the group to finish their shopping.
coloring books & pencils supplied by Burleigh
 On the way out, I got a shot of our giant golden bus (or 'coach' as they call them here).
Our golden galleon
The next stop was the biggest one of them all -- a huge warehouse with a combined Wedgwood, Waterford, and Royal Doulton outlet.
Wedgwood, Royal Doulton, and Waterford outlet
There were lots of great bargains to be had here, especially if you had the storage space -- and the money -- for a full set of fine china or crystal.  Most of the stuff they were selling was much fancier than what I was looking for, although if I go again before we move back, I might be tempted to buy some nice china, since we don't own any...
More china
Pretty Ladies
Christmas ornaments
Our next destination was the Portmeirion/Spode shop.  Spode once had a huge factory and showroom in Stoke-on-Trent that took up an entire city block, but it is now shut down.  It was sad to see as we drove past it.
Portmeirion shop
Coincidentally, a friend of mine had just asked me right before Christmas if I could help her find some extra fruit salad bowls to complete her set of Spode Christmas Tree china, so I was encouraged to see that not only did they have a large display of that pattern, but it was an additional 50% off.  Sadly, they did not have the specific item she was looking for, but they had nearly everything else you can imagine, including matching trays, salad and cake servers, candlesticks, coffee spoons, and serving pieces.  I suspect after she reads this blog post, I will get some additional requests in case I go again next year. 
Spode Christmas Tree
They also had a huge assortment of pieces from the Portmeirion Botanic Garden collection.  At least one person I know filled an entire shopping cart with this stuff.  It's another thing I might be tempted by on a subsequent visit.  I did see a teapot there that I kind of liked, but even with the markdowns it was a little more than I was planning to spend.
Botanic Garden
Our final stop of the day was the Emma Bridgewater shop, which had a first quality area and a much larger factory seconds area with a large cafe in between.
Hmm, I could use some new jugs...
Most of us headed straight for the 'exciting bargains,' but even at a discount, it didn't seem like much of a bargain.  Once again, I liked their merchandise, but it didn't really go with anything I already owned, and their teapots were even pricier than the ones I saw at Wedgwood.
In search of bargains...
Union Jack mugs make good souvenirs.
By 5 pm, we were all filing back onto the bus and settling in for the long drive home.  We hit some traffic leaving town, but otherwise the trip back went pretty smoothly.  I chatted with some of the other ladies sitting around me on the bus, and we shared snacks and drinks that we had brought from home.  We reached Sloane Square sometime between 8:30 and 9 pm, carefully packed our purchases into our bags, and said our goodbyes.  I took the Tube home and had a brief show-and-tell session with Josh as I recounted my day and what I had bought.

So, what did I bring home?  A set of pierced candlesticks from Leeds, a cream-colored platter from Aynsley, a heart-shaped "Sweet Pea" box with a scented candle from Portmeirion (which I told Josh he could give me for Valentine's Day), and a Union Jack mug from Emma Bridgewater. 
My loot
Even including one other item that I bought as a gift (and didn't include in the photo or list, for obvious reasons), I spent less than £45 ($70).  Considering the candlesticks along would have cost me £50 if I'd paid full price, I think I did pretty well, and showed remarkable restraint.  Some of the women on the trip bought so much stuff that they had it shipped rather than carrying it home on the bus.  But several of them are moving back to the US, so I can understand that.  They'll have far more storage space, and it will be a lovely memento of their time in London.  If I go on this trip again shortly before we move back to DC, I may splurge on some nice things to bring back with us as well.

Oh, and notice what's missing from the photo above?  That's right -- a teapot.  The one thing I was specifically looking for.  Well, I guess that gives me a good excuse to hit the January sales in London before they're over.


  1. You should also actually GO to Portmeirion. Particularly since you can take advantage of their off-season rates:

  2. I LOVE the Burleigh floral pattern. Oddly enough, a set of Burleigh mixing bowls appeared in a food catalog I got during the Christmas season. They were so pretty, but at almost $200 for four bowls, I decided to just admire them in the catalog rather than order them!


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