Why I love the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent)

My mum took my little boy for his first visit to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley today. I was so excited to hear about their visit! Apparently his favourite part was the Spitfire gallery – he had to be almost dragged away. We’ll take him again and again over the years, I’m sure. I love it there too.

Their visit made me think of this feature that wrote for the August 2008 edition of Staffordshire County Magazine (no longer published). It was before the discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard, which now forms a key part of the museum’s exhibitions, but I expect most, if not all, of the items I mention are still there five years on. I hope they are.

Hannah Hiles returns to one of her favourite childhood haunts to see whether the magic is still there 20 years on….

The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley can be summed up for me in a few words: rabbit; skeleton; boat; cows; whippet; and plane.

While they may sound like entries from an ABC book, they represent the highlights of the museum as seen through my childhood eyes – and, it turns out, my adult ones too.

My parents and I used to go to the museum every Sunday. I don’t recall this routine ever being boring – I never tired of stroking the stuffed rabbit, or feeling a pleasurable shiver down my spine looking at the skeleton, or marvelling at the Spitfire, for example. But would I still feel the same all these years later?

Having been given some information sheets by the very helpful staff on the reception desk, I headed straight for the natural history gallery on the ground floor.

One thing that struck me straight away is that it seems like today’s children want more than to look at exhibits – they need dressing up boxes, drawing paper, stuffed toys and such like. Maybe we were easier to please 20 years ago.

My late bunny friend was still there, but protected from inquisitive child-hands by a glass case, along with all sorts of other familiar and forgotten wonders. A mummified cat! A six-banded armadillo walking on tiptoes! A tarantula, a badger, boxing hares and a barn owl catching its prey!

While the checked petals of the Fritillary looked as exotic as ever, I was getting so excited about getting to the archaeology section that I had to restrain myself from running straight to the skeleton.

This section describes sites and finds representing 12,000 years of local settlement, and includes treasures such as gold torcs, a cup-and-ring marked stone and what is known as the Staffordshire Moorlands pan – a 2nd century AD Roman artefact currently on loan to other museums, but returning to Hanley in 2010. It is amazing – and eye-opening – to see how many historical objects have been found in Staffordshire.

I was delighted to see that an old favourite, the log boat from Abbey Hulton, was still there, and that the skeleton was still grinning his toothy grin. “I’ve missed you, old chap,” I murmured under my breath.

Moving on into the Community History area, the Arnold Bennett exhibits were enlightening – as well as seeing his bag and slippers, I learned he had been in charge of propaganda in France in World War One – and the Miners’ Strike memorial, carved from Hem Heath coal, was a poignant addition to the gallery.

The two men in the reconstructed pub scene were still playing their interminable game of dominoes while their whippet looked on. According to the board, the dog is called Billie and “he has a special story to tell”. Dog lovers should look for the additional information sheet to find out more about brown-eyed Billie, but should make sure they have a tissue to hand.

After the home scene, chemist shop, fire engine, classroom and fish and chip shop, I came to the room at the museum’s heart – the Spitfire Gallery. The plane last flew in 1952, but still looks every inch the “incredible, immortal combat vehicle”. Reading the tales of bravery of local men on the boards around the room I felt choked up in a way that my childhood self would never have imagined. I couldn’t agree more with the visitor’s comment on the wall: “You are in the presence of greatness”.

Needing a little light relief after the intensity of the Spitfire Gallery, I looked in on You’re History, a gallery featuring trends from the past few decades, and popped downstairs to see the temporary exhibition about the cartoons of Dave Follows, creator of the May Un Mar Lady comic strips.

I must confess that I whizzed quite quickly round the first floor, just as I used to as a child, glancing at the world-class ceramics displays (including Clarice Cliff, Minton and Wedgwood masterpieces), art gallery and Changing Fashions exhibition – but as I did as a child, I paused at the cow creamers and frog mugs, and Ozzy the Owl, a 17th-century slipware owl jug, who was “discovered” on the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow in 1990 and subsequently bought by the museum.

It was also interesting to see a more recent addition to the collection, a thought-provoking Grayson Perry piece called “Video Installation” which is actually a ceramic vase, listing 10 sorts of work Perry feels have become clichés in contemporary art.

Having visited the British Museum in London just the previous week, I have to say I enjoyed my trip to the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery even more. While this can be partly put down to nostalgia, I was also surprised to find just how proud it made me to be from Staffordshire, where so many amazing things have been created over many hundreds of years.

As I enjoyed bacon and cheese oatcakes and a pot of tea in the cafe where I used to have a glass of milk and a ring doughnut, I found myself hoping that there are still children visiting the museum every week, laying the foundations for a lifelong interest in the world around them – and that they too will come back in 20 years’ time, and have to hold themselves back from running to see the skeleton…

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance

We went to the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance today (10/9/12) and joined the crowds at Blithfield Hall for the first time. It made a very impressive backdrop to the dance, although compared to watching in the village it seemed like it was all over quickly. My favourite spot to watch from is Rugeley Turn – you can get quite close to the dancers and then follow them into the village and up a farm drive where they dance on some lucky person’s lawn! [UPDATED 2/9/14: Having watched from Blithfield Hall for the past two years, I think that’s now become my preferred spot – especially with a lively toddler in tow!]

It seems like a good opportunity to post a feature of mine that originally appeared in Staffordshire County Magazine (no longer produced) in June 2008, along with some photographs from today’s dance. Please contact me if you would like to use any of the words or photographs.

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

For 364 days a year six sets of reindeer antlers are kept in the Hurst Chapel of St Nicholas’s Church in Abbots Bromley. But on the first Monday after the first Sunday after the fourth of September the antlers are brought out for a day-long celebration that is one of the oldest traditions in Britain. Hannah Hiles finds out more.

The Abbots Bromley Horn Dance – which this year [2008] falls on September 8th – draws visitors from around the world to this attractive 13th century village between Uttoxeter and Burton upon Trent.

While the first recorded reference to the dance is in Robert Plot’s Natural History of Staffordshire, written in 1686, it is said that it was first performed at the Barthelmy Fair to celebrate St Bartholomew’s Day in August 1226. However, whatever the origins of the dance itself, one set of antlers was found to date from the 11th century when carbon-dated during repairs in the 1970s.

The dance consists of 12 dancers, six carrying reindeer antlers weighing between 16lbs and 25lbs, accompanied by the hobby horse, a jester, Maid Marian, a boy carrying a bow and arrow, a musician playing an accordian and a boy playing the triangle keeping the beat of the music for the dancers.

After collecting the horns from the church at 8am, the dancers perform at locations throughout the village and its surrounding farms and pubs – although never leaving the parish – until the horns are returned to the church at around 8pm.

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

The leader of the dance, Tony Fowell, has been involved with the tradition since his first appearance as a triangle player at the age of seven or eight.

“I don’t like to think too much about when I started dancing,” he says. “It seems like I have been doing it forever sometimes, but it would have been 1957 or 1958. My grandfather was the dance leader at the time, and my father was also a dancer. The dance is not only a historical tradition, but also a proud family tradition, so I suppose it was a natural thing to be brought in as a position became available.

“The tradition is important because it is unique. It is, to my knowledge, the only one of its kind to have survived, anywhere in the world. Even the two world wars, which probably caused the demise of many other British traditions, couldn’t stop it. In my own view, the dance has earned its own place in our history. It’s a living, breathing thing that goes back hundreds of years and there is nothing else like it.”

Tony’s nephew Michael, who created the dance’s website [UPDATED 2/9/14: link removed as no longer working] last year aged just 13, is also very aware of the power of the tradition – and made his debut at the age of seven with the bow and arrow.

“My mother used to push me around in my pram while my father, uncles and grandad all danced,” he says. “I remember saying the first time I danced that ‘I have waited all my life for this’, which gave my family a good laugh as I was only seven years old. It means a lot to my family and it makes me very proud.”

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

While the origins of the dance have been lost in the mists of time, Tony and Michael favour the theory that it was a fertility ritual designed to bless the farms with good crops each year. But, for the dancers as well as the audience, the mystery is part of the appeal.

“Some historians tell us that it is likely to be an ancient fertility ritual with pagan roots,” says Tony. “I like that theory. It sort of fits in with the feel of the dance, especially when performed at dusk, or night. But, I suppose it could just as easily been started by a bunch of ancient local jokers at the village fair. The truth is, we don’t know. I believe that it’s the ‘don’t know’ that’s so intriguing. That’s what gets people’s interest. Each time you think you have an answer, it simply raises another question.

“We discovered that at least one of the horns is over a thousand years old. So, as reindeer have been extinct in this country for longer than that, where did they come from? And so it goes. How, and why, the dance started is interesting, but the important fact is the dance was, and still is, danced.”

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance 2012 at Blithfield Hall

You can find more information about the dance, as well as a schedule of the day, at http://www.abbotsbromley.com/horn_dance.

Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum (Staffordshire County Magazine)

Staffordshire County October 2008

I wrote about the fascinating Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum as part of the October 2008 Cannock and Lichfield county special for Staffordshire County Magazine.

“I lately took my friend Boswell and showed him genuine civilised life in an English provincial town. I turned him loose at Lichfield.

Samuel Johnson

View a PDF of my feature about the Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum here.


Potteries Museum and Art Gallery (Staffordshire County Magazine)

Staffordshire County August 2008

I wrote about my love of the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley as part of the August 2008 Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke-on-Trent county special for Staffordshire County Magazine.

View a PDF of my feature about the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Treasured Memories, here.

This article also appears in full on my website here.

Abbots Bromley Horn Dance (Staffordshire County Magazine)

Staffordshire County June 2008

I wrote about the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance as part of the June 2008 Burton and Uttoxeter county special for Staffordshire County Magazine.

View the Abbots Bromley Horn Dance feature, A Dance to the Music of Time, here.

I also posted this article elsewhere on this website along with some of my photos from the Dance in 2012.