Staffordshire Moorlands: travels with the KARVAN

E. Dawson Varughese

Ideally, you need three of the printed Ordinance Survey (OS) maps to locate the Staffordshire Moorlands. There is a Derbyshire ‘side’, a City (or Stoke-on-Trent) ‘side’ and then there’s the bottom bit which is neither here-nor-there; somewhat towards the east midlands ‘territory of Uttoxeter’ but still only an 8 minute car ride away from Stoke train station. But these days OS maps allow you to have it all, at your fingertips (and at a price). You can centre your map anywhere you wish so, if you hover around Ipstones in the Staffordshire Moorlands on the ‘customise map section’ of the OS website, you can just about get it all in, the rivers, the borderlands, even the outlying city of Stoke-on-Trent; yes, indeed, you can have the Staffordshire Moorlands all on one map! Immediately you see the polycentric City of Stoke-on-Trent to the left, sprawling up the side of the Staffordshire Moorlands, hugging Ash Bank, Werrington, easing itself towards Milton, Bagnall, Endon and Stanley, then finally, stretching itself up towards Biddulph. The boundary lines on the map literally spike upwards to the north of the district at Hollinsclough and the River Dove forms the majority of the border between the Staffordshire Moorlands and Derbyshire, meandering along the east side of the district, appearing most dramatically in the enclaves of Alstonefield, Ilam and Waterhouses.     

This semi-rural and oftentimes, completely rural district, known to me for years now, was the subject, the muse and the site of exploration for Knotted Identities. This project invited me to revisit and re-tread this supposed familiar landscape and with nine locations on ‘my’ map – Biddulph, Butterton, Caverswall, Froghall, Leek, Longnor, Stockton Brook, Tean and Werrington – and a ton of decent summer weather, me and my KARVAN set off.

The landscape of the Staffordshire Moorlands changes quickly but somehow it all seems to be in tune with itself, with its multiple scapes, towns and settings. I wondered if this is because of the ‘City’ that many residents of the Staffordshire Moorlands typically interface with throughout their lives. The Potteries has provided job opportunities to Staffs Moorlanders for years; Tean is a ‘quick’ 15 minute drive up the A50 (when the A50 is behaving like a dual carriageway should), Werrington is literally, just over the way, and from Biddulph, you are soon on the north end of the City’s A500. Stockton Brook, Endon, Brown Edge, Stanley and Bagnall all sit on the edge of the Potteries, commuters’ corners from which you can soon be in the City’s ‘towns’. But importantly, the Moorlands is not the City, and if you make this journey from one to the other often enough, you feel that shift, that change as you travel across the borderlands. The topographical variety across the Moorlands seems to unite, to form an identity that is shared between its residents as being distinct and indeed, very different from the urban centre located at the district’s east side. So, from the South Moorlands towns and villages of Tean, Cheadle and Alton, to the more rural villages in the district’s north such as Warslow and Longnor and Hollinsclough, the Staffordshire Moorlands seems to be united in its innate expression of ‘outside’, of heathland and valleys, of untamed space, windy ridges and panoramic views; the Staffordshire Moorlands’ intimate connection with the land is unlike its urban neighbour, a land that is not mined or riven with clay, a landscape that is experienced and lived upon very differently.  

‘Levison Snr in Mid-May’, Caverswall, ST11

I parked up in the village hall car park, the mid-May sun peeping through the KARVAN’s windows, I met Levison Snr – the muse for today’s life drawing sitting – and we sit in the van talking about it means to live here around Caverswall and Forsbrook. He tells me about his early days, growing up in the ‘City’, around Burslem, in ‘the Pots’ and how, when he moved to Forsbrook, his mother spoke of his move as if he were moving to another country. The Staffordshire Moorlands, at some points on its map, is so very close to the City yet, in its people, its landscape and language, so very different. As I listen to Levison Snr, I can hear whispers of a Potteries start in life, tempered by a softer, south Staffordshire Moorlands accent. This part of the Moorlands, here in Caverswall is right on the border with Blythe and Meir and further up the road, Weston Coyney and Bentilee.   

‘Off to the Windy Village!’ June 13th and 14th in Werrington ST9

This certainly feels like the borderlands up here on this windy ridge. In fact, when I first got my map out to plan these journeys, I had to double check that Werrington belongs to the Staffordshire Moorlands and not the city of Stoke-on-Trent. Approaching from Cheadle, through Cellarhead into Werrington, I am reminded of the pre-A50 (dual carriageway) days when one of the most popular routes ‘up ‘Anley’ from the south Staffordshire Moorlands, was through Cellarhead, Werrington and Ash Bank, where ‘The Windmill Pub’ was (and remains) one of the features of this particular route into the City. So, with this in mind, I went in search of ‘the sign’ – where did the Moorlands end and the City start? But before I could find it, Werrington’s own sign, emblazoned with a majestic Staffordshire knot, told me that Werrington was firmly located in the Staffordshire Moorlands. This windy ‘village’ sits on the top of a ridge that overlooks the city of Stoke on Trent. The views from Wetley Moor Common are extraordinary. With just a little imagination, you can easily appreciate why Job Meigh built (well, rebuilt) what is still known as Ash Hall here in the mid-1800s; the ‘clean’ air of Werrington accompanied by the view of the Potteries (and his associated wealth) offered a home and estate that could not easily be paralleled. The people here hold a special affinity with the Moorlands – they shop in Leek and Cheadle, they identify Werrington as a village and are proud of their Moorlands’ roots. Not unlike other places in the Staffordshire Moorlands, many Werringtonians have worked in the nearby City, some in the NHS, in engineering, and many in the pottery industry.              

I was advised to take a walk up on the Common so, leaving the library and well-being centre behind me I drove along Armshead Road to park in the small carpark and walk along the Common’s main pathway. The City was sprawled across the horizon although it gave the impression of being nestled into the landscape quite neatly. It is windy up here and not just a little bit. The birdsong penetrates through the wind though and you enter both a mesmerising, wild, landscape and audioscape of this special corner of the Staffordshire Moorlands. [Listen to some of the birdsong here:] As I left the Common behind, I wondered if there was another part of the Moorlands that shared such a heritage – a strong connection to the City’s industries with an equally strong, independent and deeply embodied identity of belonging to the Staffordshire Moorlands. 

The day before the summer solstice, June 20th at ‘Foxtwood’ in Froghall, ST10

The Caldon canal which runs from Eturia in Stoke on Trent to Froghall in the Staffordshire Moorlands is well known locally not least for its 76 yard long (Froghall) tunnel. The canal gently curves round and passes under a bridge in Froghall along which the old copper works once stood. In the mid-1800s, Thomas Bolton & Sons had set up a copper works 3 miles down the road at Oakamoor but by the late 1800s there was no room for further expansion at Oakmoor so a new site at Froghall was built and major extensions to the Froghall site were made in the 1920s and 30s resulting in it becoming the company headquarters. The copper works fabricated copper wire as well as sheet copper, bars, rods and tubes and the wire that was made at both sites formed part of the first transatlantic telegraph cable. From this small but intensely productive spot in the Staffordshire Moorlands, miles and miles of telegraph cable was manufactured and they were sent from here across the British Empire of that time. The remnants of the copper works are more evident here in Froghall than they are in Oakamoor which has for a long time now been a grassy playing area with picnic tables and a small car park, huddled alongside the river at the bottom of the Churnet Valley. Froghall in June was glorious with a million shades of green surrounding you at every step, the calls of birds, wildfowl and geese filling your ears as you bask in the sun streaming down into the valley. It feels like a pocket of tranquillity and for those of us who have not known the earlier era of Froghall’s fabrication, it is a struggle to imagine such hustle and bustle in this, now quiet corner of the Moorlands. The canal, the works, the Churnet valley railway, it would have been not only busy but smoky, indeed even dirty as the wire was made, fuel for its manufacture imported, products exported along the canal, the road and the railway. As I take in the midsummer sunlight here at ‘Foxtwood’, I am reminded of the unfailing commitment that nature inherently makes to regeneration and renewal. Nearly one hundred years on from the copper works being at the height of their production, the air is clear, clean and the sound of cars pass by slowly as they climb up the bank (of the A52) towards Whiston and Cauldon Low.

‘In search of coal!’ on July 8th, travel to Biddulph, ST8.

It has been a long time since I visited Biddulph. As I came to plan my journey up to this quaint village on the edge of the Moorlands, I had a decision to make: was I going to wind my way through the south and central Staffordshire Moorlands’ villages to reach Biddulph or should I ‘cheat’ and run up the A500 and jump off at Sandyford? I decided to fully indulge in such dichotomous decision-making and therefore, travel to Biddulph via the A500 and then from Biddulph back to the south moorlands, via Stockton Brook, Bagnall, Werrington and Cheadle. What do I know about Biddulph? Well, there is Mow Cop nearby, significant not least because it stands on the Cheshire-Staffordshire boundary and also, it is also intimately connected to the Primitive Methodist Movement – Methodist chapels dot the Staffordshire Moorlands landscape, often in the most remote of places – and I also know Biddulph had coal! Victoria colliery was its famous mine, known locally as ‘Black Bull’ and it operated up until the late 80s when the industry in the nearby City began to fall into decline. As I approach the Town Hall in the middle of this seemingly sleepy north Moorlands town, I spot the balance wheel from the Victoria pit, elegantly positioned on a paved area, surrounded by flowers. Biddulph is so close to the City and yet I feel that its smart, condensed and semi-pedestrianised town centre connects it to the Moorlands towns of Leek and Cheadle through its sense of community and ‘local’ living. The busy, arterial roads of the A527 and the A34 seem to dance around the town, swinging in close enough to connect Biddulph with urban but far enough away to create an enclave of slower living, township civic pride and an expression of a Moorlands identity.            

‘So close to the City and yet so far away’ August 6th in Stockton Brook, ST9

Like Biddulph, Werrington and Caverswall, Stockton Brook sits on the edge of the Staffordshire Moorlands, a stone’s throw from the border with the City. Unlike Biddulph though, Stockton Brook doesn’t exude that industrial hinterland for me, as Biddulph does. Stockton Brook sprawls itself out up Moss Hill and up through Heather Hills, along Leek Road (A53) and across the A53 towards Stanley Moor. The old Stockton Brook Water Works sits on the edge of the Caldon Canal which goes on to pass through Norton-Le-Moors and into the City. The meadowland around Stockton Brook is impressive and with August in full flow, I am amazed at how pretty this part of the Moorlands is. The busy A53 that reaches out from the City, stretching through Stockton Brook, Endon and Ladderedge, making its way through to the ‘capital’ of the Moorlands, Leek, reminds me how close we are to Stoke-on-Trent but once away from the road, Stockton Brook is reminiscent of Froghall and its million shades of green, a small village also ensconced along the Caldon canal.   

‘Travelling home’ on August 9th in Upper Tean, ST10

The KARVAN did not travel far today; still, it travelled. Parked outside Great Wood Hall in Upper Tean, once the village school and then more latterly, the village junior school, the now village Hall is situated on Hollington Road, a main road out of the village which leads up past the erstwhile mill owner’s estate – Heath House. Upper Tean, connected to Lower Tean just a mile down the road, and to Checkley, another small village after that, sits in the south-west corner of the Staffordshire Moorlands map. A few miles from Cheadle, the village is built around the tape-weaving mill and a dye works which were both located on the banks of the River Tean. The River Tean runs through the village and heads east towards Uttoxeter which lies about 8 miles away. Stoke railway station is 10 miles from Upper Tean and only 3 miles from the A50 which means you can soon be in one of the City’s five (erh, six) towns, Fenton, if need be. At the height of its production, Tean Mill manufactured cotton that was shipped around the world. Not unlike Froghall and its copper production, Tean Mill ceased business in the early 90s and was transformed into small and medium size flats in the early 2000s. 

A ‘warm’ summer’s day in mid-August in Longnor, SK17

A most spectacular journey as I climb out of the Churnet Valley up towards Bradnop and Morridge Side, the bright sun and blue skies up here are life-affirming. I turn off left, just before Onecote and about 4 miles later, I join the road just after Thorncliffe for Blake Mere and the Mermaid Pool. I am hardly able to capture these views with my camera – the expanse of it all; to my left and my right, as I drive along Blakelow Road, the land falls away so spectacularly, rolling away down to Leek on my left, and off down to Elkstone and Warslow to my right. The KARVAN rolls over these softly undulating roads but between the Mermaid Inn and the Mermaid Pool, I realise that I need to take it easy – the road turns, undulates and climbs all in the same moment and the KARVAN jolts and jumps about a bit. As I leave the Mermaid Pool behind me, I join the A53 Leek-Buxton Road momentarily before I turn right to drop down towards Hollinsclough and Longnor. The van barely misses some dry-stone walling on tight corners of these narrow roads, seemingly one way – although I learn very quickly that these are actually two-way roads! –  there are moments when I glance into my mirrors to see behind me, the KARVAN filling up the width of the road. The rurality of this area of the Staffordshire Moorlands really grips me and at the end of the first day, sans KARVAN, I stop near the ridge which marks the way to Buxton, to look at the sea of pink heather. Wave upon wave of this beautiful dusky pink washes up the side of the hill and at the side of the road where Coltsfoot are still flowering, dwarf gorse and reindeer lichen stretch across the roadside. Up here, I think how different it is from the lowlands of the South Moorlands and yet, a pervading sense of rurality, a connection with the landscape and particularly with such expansive views across the district, it all seems to fit together.   

‘The Queen of The Moorlands’ – August 15th, off to Buxton and Leek College in Leek ST13

Known locally as ‘The Queen of the Moorlands’, Leek is fairly familiar to me. A rich centre of arts heritage, design, weaving, silk and architecture, the town is both pretty and vibrant. As I drive through Cheddleton towards Leek, I notice an abandoned pub, ‘The Travellers Rest’ set right on the busy road in Leekbrook but by the end of this project, the pub has been knocked down and provision made for new-builds. This road sees a lot of traffic, it winds from the south end of the Potteries across to Leek, onwards if you wish, to Flash or Buxton. Leek is peppered with small and large mills, once a hive of industry, of weaving, silk, and textiles. William Morris used to frequently visit Leek in the 1870s where he learnt about dying and was very friendly with Thomas Wardle. The old mill buildings have since been converted into flats and offices but you get a sense of the ‘old’ Leek as you wander around, enhanced by its array of boutique shops and antique furniture shops. I make my way up to the top of the town and find the Nicholson Museum and Gallery, a magnificent building that stands off Stockwell Street and I decide to go in and have a look around. Built in 1884 by silk mill owner Joshua Nicholson, surprisingly, this building still fulfils its original function in that it showcases the heritage and industry of Leek and the Moorlands, as well as offering a gallery space for local people to access and enjoy. As I enter into the main room of the museum, the glass cases of silk moths are mesmerising. Lined up and aligned, perfectly, one after another, their markings and colours are a true marvel of nature. The silk thread is so very fine and I stand there wondering at how this industry flourished in this part of England, how people from far and wide would visit Leek because of its silk production and at the time, its industrial technological advances in weaving and textiles. Weaving… such a different industry from the potteries, from the clay and the fire. I am reminded of how Arnold Bennett wrote about the ‘agricultural’ hinterland in his novel Anna of The Five Towns:  

‘One day, about noon, a clay-soiled urchin brought a letter addressed to herself: she guessed that it was some appeal for mercy from the Prices, and wished that her father had been at home. The old man was away for the whole day, attending a sale of property at Axe, the agricultural town in the north of the county, locally styled ‘the metropolis of the moorlands.’    

The metropolis of the Moorlands as an ‘agricultural town’ according to Bennett, industrial, powerful and influential but ‘agricultural’ all the same. Famous for its cattle market and as a centre for farmers to exchange news and advice, Leek is surrounded by the high land of the Moorlands, and is just a few miles south of the Roaches which is a gritstone escarpment, rising steeply to around 500m. After the Nicholson, I round the corner to the college and the School of Art which was founded in 1868, it is now Buxton and Leek College and before that it was known as Leek College of Further Education. This is where the workshop will take place; a modern reincarnation of much making and crafting that has gone before.   

‘The Spire’ – August 16th off to Butterton, ST13

I saw the church spire first and although it wasn’t ideal parking the KARVAN along the grass verge, I did it anyway, just so I could enjoy the view of the valley shrouded in trees, yes, Butterton down there, where I am heading. As I approach the village, the road drops down and turns left and right, I squeeze alongside some houses and a dry stone wall to come face to face with the church and its own dry stone wall boundary. I move left around this wall and ahead of me, the village hall appears. I park the KARVAN up and as I open my car door, the wind rushes by and I am reminded of the Moorlands’ climate out here in the more rural parts of the district. Even though I drove down into Butterton, I realise that we are still very high up here on the edge of Peak District, looking out over the Manifold Valley. Hulme End and the route to Waterstones are all nearby and I see Ecton Hill – which I had previously identified on the map – a site of mineral mining, including copper and lead. Packhorse tracks can still be found around here, used to transport the copper and lead to smelting works in times gone by. I think of Froghall and the industry that was created around copper there and I attempt to connect it to this wild and rugged landscape in front of me. Copper, lead, tin, excavated from their earthy beds, the savage landscape releasing gems of opportunity for the rural communities in the Moorlands. Butterton feels like it is out on a limb up here but as I watch residents arrive for the workshop, I sense that it is an exciting community, a feeling that is consolidated by the group’s enthusiasm and artistic production that follows throughout the day.