The Geography of the Potteries (Stoke-on-Trent)



West Midlands
Potteries and Churnet Valley

Select from list below:-
1 Key Characteristics
2 Landscape Character 
3 Physical Influences 
4 Historical and Cultural Influences 
5 Buildings and Settlement
6 Land Cover 
7 The Changing Countryside 
8 Shaping the Future 
Source & references

1 Key Characteristics 

Strongly dissected hills and small plateaux, rising up to the Pennines and cut by major river valleys. 
Strong contrast between remote uplands, urban areas, sheltered wooded valleys and hillside pastures. 
Prominent Millstone Grit and Coal Measures ridges. 
Sprawling industrial towns of the Potteries forming a major conurbation. 
Extensive former industrial and extractive sites, many now reclaimed, intermixed with settlements and open land. 
Open moorland and rough grazing on higher ground. 
Rural settlement pattern of sheltered villages on low ground with hamlets, scattered farmsteads and cottages elsewhere. 
Brick and sandstone older buildings with tile and slate roofs. 

2 Landscape Character 

At the western edge of this area, the industrialised and densely settled conurbation of the Potteries forms a boundary with the Shropshire, Cheshire and Staffordshire Plain. To the south where the landscape is more rural there is a less abrupt transition to the Plain west of the Trent Valley. 

The ground rises eastwards, overlooking the low glacial till and Triassic Mercia Mudstones of Needwood and South Derbyshire to the south and south-east, with the Dove valley forming an approximate boundary. The north-eastern edge is formed where the Millstone Grit and Edale Shales, commonly dipping quite steeply around the Churnet Valley, meet the limestone landscape of the White Peak. The southern margin of the high ground is flanked by the Triassic Sherwood Sandstones. 

The landscape is very varied. There is an underlying landform of deeply incised, steep valleys and high, much-dissected ridges rising to the Peak District. This is combined with a transition from lowland to upland vegetation and with an ancient pattern of valley-bottom villages with scattered farmsteads and hamlets on the slopes above. 

In the west this pattern is strongly overlaid, and often completely obscured, by the 18th and 19th century towns whose settlement pattern, buildings and industrial heritage still dominate the landscape today. 

The Churnet Valley runs through a smoothly undulating upland pasture landscape and linked to it are short, steep, wooded valleys known locally as 'cloughs'. The main valley has attractively-sited small villages, former industrial buildings such as streamside mills, and substantial hedges with hedgerow trees. In the lower valley the parks at Alton Towers and Wootton are conspicuous features of a rich and visually complex landscape. Above the valley, hedges gradually give way to dry stone walls and stone farmhouses linked by narrow, winding lanes. As the land rises, the fields become larger and take on the regular rectilinear pattern of 18th and 19th century enclosure. 

In the north, rising to its highest point at Biddulph Moor, there is an undulating plateau separating the coalfield towns from the Churnet Valley. There are frequent hamlets, individual cottages, farms and formless clusters of houses along a dense network of lanes. Red brick is as common a material as sandstone in the older buildings. Hedgerow and hedgerow tree cover is variable and the open character of the landscape is often dominated by views of settlements. 

In contrast, to the south of Stoke, eastwards along the lower reaches of the Churnet valley and rising up from the Dove valley, is an altogether lusher and more rural landscape which was the 'Loamshire' of George Eliot's Adam Bede. There are medium-sized fields, well-trimmed hedges and many large hedgerows oaks. The land is predominantly pasture with occasional arable cultivation. 

The landscape of the six towns of the Potteries is very complex:

The towns, and the villages interspersed between them, developed rapidly in the 18th and 19th centuries but still remained individual settlements with their own civic buildings and vast Victorian churches which now form prominent landmarks. The original rural character of these coalfield valleys has been largely, but not entirely, lost. 

Between the older urban areas, largely dominated by red brick buildings with slate or tile roofs, there are extensive areas of reclaimed land in residential, industrial, commercial and amenity use. There are also patches of unreclaimed land as well as larger, older industrial buildings, subsidence ponds, canals and fragments of naturally-regenerated vegetation. Around the edges of the urban areas, agricultural land is mixed with abandoned land, overgrazed pasture and indeterminate land uses in a typical urban fringe pattern. Beyond the towns around the coalfield valleys, Leek has a more distinctive centre of brick and local sandstone buildings but is quite exposed on its more elevated site. 

3 Physical Influences 

The core of this area are the hills, heavily dissected by the Churnet Valley, which are associated with Carboniferous and Triassic sandstones, overlain in the main with brown earth and podzols. To the north- west, towards Biddulph Moor and Mow Cop, outlying sandstone outcrops of the high Millstone Grit moors, with stagnogley and peaty soils, give rise to deeply dissected moorland plateaux. To the south and west, Carboniferous Coal Measures are covered with glacial drift giving rise to stagnogley soils. 

Fireclays, pottery clay and coal lie near the surface along valleys, with Newcastle-under-Lyme lying in part on the concealed coalfield. 

4 Historical and Cultural Influences 

Much of the high moorland on the fringes of this area probably became upland grazing for the scattered communities in the surrounding valleys. 

Bronze Age barrows are to be seen on prominent hilltop sites. 

The other principal prehistoric evidence in the present landscape is the Iron Age hillfort within Alton Towers. 

Roman influence appears to have been slight and the permanent Anglo-Saxon settlements may well have been confined to the tons of the valley floors.

After the Norman Conquest, part of the area was for a while Royal Forest. There were only a few centres of consequence, like Leek and Newcastle, and the area was dominated by a substantially sheep-based pastoral economy. This was based on an infield-outfield system with arable close to settlements and unenclosed common grazing on the higher and more open land to the north. 

The Churnet Valley remained significantly wooded and, by the 14th century, iron was already being produced there. In the succeeding centuries the valley was an important centre of metal production. The extensive woodlands that still survive today were used for charcoal production. 

At the end of the Middle Ages the settlements, which later became the six towns of the Potteries, were just a group of poor villages and hamlets relying on subsistence agriculture. 

In the late 16th and early 17th centuries pot making and coal mining began in earnest. 

For a long time the pottery industry was a part-time occupation. 

In many cases the buildings were placed around a hollow square - large works like Copelands Spode pottery at Stoke still preserve this arrangement. By the mid-18th century pottery was a major industry. Wedgwood's factory and model village of Etruria was being built and the Trent and Mersey canal was under construction. With the canal and new turnpike roads widening the available markets, the Potteries expanded rapidly but remained a dispersed collection of fiercely independent communities. 

Brickworks and tileries also flourished and large pits were excavated. 

Iron working and coal mining expanded greatly and the land between Biddulph and Blythe became a mosaic of red brick towns, villages, isolated groups of settlements, industrial workings and derelict land, with farms still lingering in the pockets of open land between. 

The wealth from potteries, coal and iron enabled the building of grandiose mansion houses and historic parks like Biddulph and Alton Towers, 'the work of morbid imagination joined to the command of unlimited resources' as one contemporary put it. Throughout this period the hinterland outside the coalfield remained deeply rural apart from some localised quarrying. 

The individual communities created extensive areas of derelict land, which was described as 'a messy and forlorn environment ... workshops, grimy rows of houses ... yards filled with rusted metal, and great pitches of waste ground'. Since the 1960s there has been large-scale restoration of the landscape although this has sometimes been accompanied by demolition of historic industrial buildings and removal of landscape features. 

The novels of Arnold Bennett dominate many perceptions of the area, often for the worse: 'the vaporising poison of their ovens and chimneys has soiled and shrivelled the surrounding countryside till there is no village lane within a league but what offers a gaunt and ludicrous forestry of rural charms'. In contrast George Eliot was able to write about the rural landscape in the east of the area in the same century. 

5 Buildings and Settlement 

The older vernacular buildings are predominantly red brick but the churches, civic buildings and larger Victorian houses were built of purple sandstone, now much stained and weathered. Sandstones are also to be found in the older rural buildings in the east, with Sandstones from the Millstone Grit being used locally in the west. Occasionally within the older town centres, like Leek and Cheadle, there are timber framed buildings but most were swept away in the 18th century. 

The Potteries, although effectively a conurbation, still retain the identity of individual town centres like Burslem, Hanley and Stoke while the older parts of Newcastle still have a little of the character of a country town. Large, modern, industrial development, as well as high density residential development, edge of town retail and industrial units and a complex road network, mask these identities and the civic buildings and imposing 19th century blackened stone churches are often dominant characteristics. At the edges of the towns and straggling along main roads, like the A53 and A520 between Stoke and Leek, there are scattered settlements and a maze of narrow lanes and footpaths typical of old industrial and mining areas. 

Leek and Cheadle, separated from the Potteries, are settlements of medieval origin which developed 18th century industries. Their mills and works cottages are still prominent features. To the east, where the landscape becomes almost entirely rural, there are small villages like Ellastone and Alton sheltering on the most favourable sites of the Churnet and Dove valleys. However, the characteristic settlements away from the towns are the small hamlets, isolated farms or groups of red brick cottages built to serve some long-forgotten industry. 

The parklands within the sheltered valleys have some outstanding buildings including the Jacobean Wootton Lodge which has been described as 'perhaps the most beautiful country house in Staffordshire' and the 19th century gothic extravagance of Biddulph and Alton Towers. 

6 Land Cover 

Between and around the Potteries towns there are quite large areas of open land comprising clay and gravel pits, abandoned mines and tips, subsidence ponds, reclaimed land and patches of naturally regenerated scrub and woodland. 

At the edge of the towns there are often small fields of rough and horse grazed pasture with gappy fencing mixed with neglected and abandoned land in a typical urban fringe pattern. The reservoirs associated with the canal systems are locally significant features. Much more typical of the higher ground either side of the Churnet Valley, and rising up to Biddulph Moor, is rough or improved pasture enclosed by hedges or dry stone walls with patches of unenclosed common. Open heather or grass moorland is found on the highest ground. 

To the south of Stoke and eastwards towards the Dove valley, the land is still predominantly pasture but there is a more substantial hedgerow pattern and frequent hedgerow trees. Arable is found occasionally on the best land of the river valleys. 

Woodland is generally sparse in the area although there are significant woodland clusters as well as new woodlands on reclaimed sites. However, there is extensive woodland in the Churnet Valley comprising both conifer plantations, much of which are on ancient woodland sites, and semi-natural ancient woodland. Corsican pine is the dominant species of the former and sessile oak a characteristic species of the latter. Elsewhere in the rural areas, and particularly on the higher ground, the main tree cover is groups of sycamore around farm buildings. 

7 The Changing Countryside 

The reclamation of derelict land within and around the Potteries towns is continuing. It includes multiple-use reclamation like the National Garden Festival site. 
The industrial archaeology of the area is exceptionally rich. While major sites and linear features like the canals are safeguarded, many features could be lost to well-intentioned landscape reclamation or natural regeneration. 
It is possible that parts of the area will be considered for forestry expansion, given the perceived availability of suitable land. 
Heathland and moorland could become further fragmented by agricultural conversion and other pressures. 
Although major air pollution is a thing of the past, the effects - blackening of buildings and rock outcrops, acidification of soils and impoverishment of vegetation - remain to be tackled. 
Urban fringe pressures on farmland may decrease its viability and lead to abandonment or non-farming uses. 

8 Shaping the Future 

Marginal agricultural land and reclaimed industrial land should both be considered for the re-establishment of heathland. 
The wet valley-bottom grasslands and the smaller historic parks would benefit from appropriate management. 
The visual and nature-conservation characteristics of marginal land and its associated features like dry stone walls are important. 

Source and references



The Countryside Character Initiative (concerned with the character of England's countryside at the end of the 20th century)

Selected References:

Palliser, D M (1976), The Staffordshire Landscape, Hodder & Stoughton, London. 

Millward, R & Robinson A (1971), The West Midlands, Macmillan, London.



questions/comments/contributions? email: Steve Birks