Travel to: Stoke-on-Trent for the British Ceramics Biennial 2015

Polly Checkland Harding
Photo of white bone china flowers and a medal

From cutting-edge ceramicists to emerging new talent, the British Ceramics Biennial’s programme includes all manner of incredible work – don’t miss it.

Though only just over half an hour away from Manchester by train, Stoke-on-Trent isn’t usually the most obvious place for a day trip. But when the British Ceramic Biennial is in town, things are a little different. Last held in 2013, the fourth outing of the festival takes place towards the end of this month: from 26 September to 8 November, Stoke will again be filled with the best and brightest ceramics talent.

The original Spode Factory site is at the heart of the programme; once the workplace of over 1,000 people, the factory now plays host to the festival Hub, exhibitions, installations, events and the Bread in Common café. There are over thirty artists involved in BCB’s showcase exhibitions AWARD and FRESH alone – so we’ve sifted through the programme and put together some highlights, along with recommendations for places to eat, and what else to see when you’re there.

BCB Highlights

High profile ‘action sculptor’ Bruce McLean is exhibiting at BCB for the first time; for his commissioned piece, McLean is creating a Set, or performance space, filled with work produced in Stoke – including ceramic tiles painted with both his experiences in the city, and, slightly bizarrely, inspired by what he’s eaten or been offered to eat there. BCB’s signature exhibition is AWARD, a showcase of 12 leading artists selected from over 150 applicants in the majestic China Hall on the factory site. The works in this prestigious show range from small-scale to monumental – and all are competing for a £5,000 prize.

At the other end of the spectrum is FRESH, an exhibition of the best graduate talent across the UK; newer to the scene, the 22 artists on show here are vying for a single residency place at Denmark’s International Ceramics Research Centre. Visitors not only have the opportunity to spot upcoming new makers, but also to buy their work. Perhaps most poignant, though, is Resonate: this huge sculptural head is based on the angel on the Victory Medal of 1919, and the clay it’s made from includes some from the battlefield sites of Passchendaele. The installation is accompanied by a sound sculpture of songs and music from the era, and visitors can donate to attach one of 5,608 white bone china flowers to the structure that surrounds it, each bloom representing one of the men from the North Staffordshire Regiment who died in World War One.

Also worth looking out for is AGAIN, the very last time, Laurence Epps’ participatory installation in which ceramic coins replace metal ones for playing penny arcade games. To get involved yourself, your main port of call should be the Festival Hub, where there will be workshops that include china flower making and printing on clay, as well as a packed programme of events. Last, but not least, don’t forget the festival shop, which sells work from past and present BCB artists, and – if you get peckish – the Bread in Common café, where a wood fired clay oven will be used to make bread and slow cooked meals.

What else is on?

Newly-opened is the World of Wedgwood, a new attraction that includes a museum, factory tour, craft studio and shop (bear in mind that you’ll need either a car or taxi to get there). Out in Burslem is Middleport Pottery; saved for the nation by the Prince’s Regent Trust (the Prince himself stepped in), the site includes a visitor centre, factory tours, café and seconds shop selling Burleigh ware – which, to the untrained eye, looks perfect. Also a journey from BCB site is Trentham Estate, which includes award-winning gardens, a monkey forest (with real monkeys), boutique shops and plenty of places to eat. Last but not least, and back in the city centre, is the most important collection of ceramics in the UK outside the V&A, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery.

Where to eat

Your main port of call for food should be BCB’s Bread in Common café – but if you’re after alternatives, we can recommend The Glebe not far from the Spode site. Purveyors of decent Ploughman’s and pies-type fare, this pub also serves up a good range of local beers. Make sure to pick up some oatcakes – the speciality of the area and available in most cafés and shops – or, for a more genteel experience, drop into one of the tea shops at ceramic factories like Emma Bridgewater, or stop at the World of Wedgwood, where they serve breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and tea tasting.

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Please note – many of the venues on our site will be closed and events either postponed or cancelled. Please check the venue website for details.