Burslem - an unlikely tourist magnet

CHARLES ROBERTS Not in a hundred years would I have made the journey without good reason. As for its tourist attraction - No go! I was in for a surprise.


Not in a hundred years would I have made the journey without good reason. As for its tourist attraction - No go! I was in for a surprise.

It was thus that I found myself making a visit to the very heartland of the industrial heritage of England, to the land of Arnold Bennett's celebrated novels of the five towns which make up the pattern of the modern city of Stoke-on-Trent.

Or rather, the six towns. Bennett, for reasons of his own, omitted one of them, by name of Fenton, and committed it to near oblivion.

That is why the publishers of a new monthly journal, a century or so later, called it Six Towns Magazine - and appointed youthful me to edit it. But that's in passing.

What is important is that Burslem contains Britain's last real working industrial district, where people live within walking distance of the factories of a single heavy industry.

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In this case, the Potteries. So it is that much of the 19th century industrial heritage, buildings and character of Burslem makes it, according to a recent report, the richest stretch of canal for industrial heritage in England.

The canal in point is the Trent & Mersey, completed in 1777. On the back of fine pottery production and canals at that time, Burslem boomed.

Industrial scale pottery production has drastically declined since the 1970s. But specialist makers and smaller producers of high-value ceramics are thriving.

Amazingly, for Stoke-on-Trent is not a place likely to smite the eye with its beauties, some five million tourists flock there each year. It plays an important role in the local economy, supporting around 4,400 direct jobs.

Particularly admired by visitors to their factories and workshops are Burleigh, Moorcroft, Lorna Bailey, Ceramica and the Festival Park. Ceramica is a new, award-winning ceramics family attraction, based in the imposing old Town Hall and funded by Millennium Lottery money.

There is the appeal of the old Trent & Mersey and the colourful narrow boats which ply its waters. Then there are the town's many authentic English pubs - and one in particular... The Leopard.

When exactly the pub and hotel first served its customers is not exactly clear. Present owner Neil Crisp names a 17th century date. Local historian Fred Hughes claims the 1760s. Certainly there is proof positive that it was receiving men of consequence, as a surviving letter confirms:

"On Friday last I dined with Mr Brindley, the Duke of Bridgewater's engineer, after which we had a meeting at the Leopard on the subject of a Navigation from Hull... to Burslem" - Josiah Wedgwood, March 11, 1765.

The Leopard presents a quaint face to the 21st century. It has a pair of three-storied bows, which were added to the original façade in the 1830s, all of which might step from the novels of Charles Dickens - and did emerge from the stories of Arnold Bennett, Burslem's own local and international author.

The pub is now in the enthusiastic hands of Neil Crisp and his partner, another Neil, who took over the establishment a year ago. Mr Crisp waxes lyrical about its history, its appeal, its heritage - and about the menu they have created, virtually all local dishes, locally sourced - and highly distinctive, as we confirmed for ourselves.

But there is another element which brings delight to Mr Crisp. The pub/hotel has three storeys, the upper two of which were for long closed off, as being "excess to requirements".

Neil would dearly like to restore them to their 18th and 19th century opulence. It was when he was doing a reconnaissance with this in mind that he discovered there were others in residence that he had not known of.

Since then he and his staff frequently hear voices, footsteps and laughter, especially children's happy laughter, sounds which the staff now take for granted - though one incident did cause a stir, when a heavy wedge of stacked chairs slid smoothly "off, stage right", without mortal assistance.

On the "grand corridors" on the second and third storeys, there is always the sense and the sound of movement - and of pauses. For the width of the corridors was very specific, to allow precedence to ladies in bustles, who would pass each other at an angle.

Not ghosts, perhaps, but a subtle tuning-in to another time, another dimension. If Neil Crisp's intention is realised of restoring the 50 bedrooms which have remained out of use for a lifetime, let's hope that, in the doing, the echoes of yesteryear are not chased away.