Until this week I thought I was reasonably well versed in the history of the Potteries.
Then I met the Reverend Robert Mountford, founder of City Vision Ministries in Burslem and a passionate local historian.
He’s a bit like TV favourite Simon Schama… having taken the drug ‘speed’.
In 25 minutes Robert raced through his presentation on the history of what we now call ‘the Potteries’ from the time of the Celts to 2009.
The truth is, he could have talked for hours. And hours. Such is the fascinating story of how North Staffordshire became the unique, diverse and ultimately flawed conurbation it is today.
Simple things stood out for me. For example – do you know where the name Stoke-on-Trent originates and what it means?
I have to confess, I didn’t.
Well, the first centre of Christian preaching and worship in the area (as early as the 7th Century AD) was situated in the valley at the place where the infant River Trent met the even smaller Fowlea Brook.
Stoke Minster now stands on this site. The name given to this ancient place of meeting and worship was ‘Stoke-upon-Trent’.
The name ‘Trent’ was originally Celtic and meant ‘the trespasser’ or ‘the flooding river’. ‘Stoke’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘stoc’, which meant in the first instance ‘a place’, but carried the usual, secondary meanings of ‘a religious place, a holy place, a church’, and ‘a dependent settlement’.
Thus the name Stoke-on-Trent could actually be translated as ‘the holy place upon the flooding river’.
I don’t know about you, but I quite like the sound of that. And the fact that the city’s roots can be traced back more than 1,400 years.
Of course, North Staffordshire’s history goes back much further than that.
Chesterton was a Roman fortress which archaeologists estimate was probably occupied from the late 1st to early 2nd Century AD.
Which means we have almost 2,000 years of history to talk about.
So why don’t we? Why are we so poor at trumpeting our rich past?
Is it because we are so often told that we shouldn’t keep harping on about the past?
Is it because critics blame our current social and economic difficulties on our inability to embrace change?
‘Why call yourselves the Potteries’, they say, ‘when there is so little of that industry left to be proud of’?
We may be resistant to change, but – conversely – there is certainly also something in the DNA of the average potter which makes him or her reluctant to crow about the area’s history and achievements.
Why? We should be shouting it from the rooftops.
Why isn’t every local school teaching Roman history through the eyes of the legionnaries based at Chesterton during the Flavian period?
Why aren’t all our children taught about the monks of Hulton Abbey?
Why isn’t the most important period in North Staffordshire’s history a bigger part of the curriculum in local schools? Aren’t Josiah Wedgwood, his mate James Brindley and the roots of the Methodist Church (which have direct links to trade unionism in this country) worth talking up?
What about the stories of the tens of thousands of local people who lived and died around the pits and pots on which the city built its worldwide reputation?
What about Burslem’s Second World War Victoria Cross winner Lance-Sergeant Jack Baskeyfield, and Butt Lane’s Reginald Mitchell whose Spitfire turned the tide of the Battle of Britain?
Shouldn’t they be lauded in our classrooms? I think so.
I had a truly brilliant history teacher at Holden Lane High, to whom I owe a huge debt of gratitude. (That’s you, Geoff Ball).
Thus, this isn’t a criticism of the teaching profession. It’s more a plea for us, as a city, to strike the right balance between history and progress.
I suspect more tourists would visit us if we simply made more of our heritage.
“Come to see our factory shops”, we should say. “But don’t miss out on our interactive history trail.
“Learn about the Celts and Romans who lived here, sample the ruins of our Cistercian monastery, walk in the footsteps of the great pioneers of the Industrial Revolution, visit the birthplaces of the captain of the Titanic, an Arnhem hero, and the man whose aircraft defied the Luftwaffe.
“Oh, and don’t forget to pop in for a drink at Phil ‘The Power’ Taylor’s pub, drive past Robbie Williams’s old house and have your picture taken alongside Sir Stan’s statue. Have a nice trip!”
Welcome to North Staffordshire. (Not just that place on the way to Alton Towers).
Read my Personally Speaking columns in The Sentinel every Tuesday