Mother Town miracle as local people shine for Christmas

Burslem's Christmas lights campaigners celebrate their success.

Burslem’s Christmas lights campaigners celebrate their success.

Campaigners determined to bring a little festive cheer to the Mother Town have smashed their fund-raising target to pay for Christmas lights.

Saddened by the fact that Burslem was the only town in the Potteries with no public decorations, they set about trying to raise £3,200 to pay for three sets of tree lights and seven sets of street lights.

But in just nine days campaign organisers Louise Worthington, John and Jayne Flint, June Cartwright and their families and friends raised more than £5,000 to light up the streets.

Their remarkable success means the town will now have four lit Christmas trees and eleven sets of street lights.

What’s more, the group have pledged to do the same again for 2013 and are planning a meeting in the New Year to kick-start 12 months of fund-raising.

Jayne, aged 43, who lives in High Lane, Burslem, said: “We are so proud of everyone who has been involved. This is a genuine example of a community pulling together.

“The generosity of people really does bring a tear to you eye and, as a result, Burslem will shine this Christmas.”

The campaign was prompted by council cutbacks of £84,000 which meant that only Hanley received local authority funding for Christmas decorations.

Traders and local people in Stoke, Fenton, Longton and Tunstall organised their own trees and lights but it was looking like Burslem would be left in the shadows.

Then last week Burslem locals began their campaign by creating a page on social network Facebook which quickly attracted more than 1,300 supporters.

Various events and collections were organised – including a disco and raffle at Burslem’s oldest pub, Ye Olde Crown – and Port Vale fans donated more than £1,000 on away trip coaches and before Tuesday night’s home game against Bradford City.

The 67th Burslem Scout Group and Vale mascot Boomer were among those rattling collection buckets at Vale Park.

Businesses across the Mother Town also contributed including: Kelly Molyneux & Co. Accountants; New Image tattoo parlour; Chillz bar; the Bull’s Head pub; The Swan pub; The Leopard pub and Barewall art gallery.

Autonet Insurance, based in Nile Street, spent £550 to purchase an additional set of Christmas tree lights and its managing director Ian Donaldson said the firm, which employs 600 people, was looking forward to working with the campaigners next year.

Meanwhile, the owners of the Artbay gallery in Fenton also donated a special print which was auctioned off to raise £150.

Stoke-on-Trent Markets gave £300 but the largest single donation came from recycling firm Acumen, based on Hot Lane, which donated £1,500 to the cause.

Contracts manager Adrian Moore said: “I read about the campaign in Friday’s Sentinel and wondered if we could help out.

“We are a company which employs around 35 people from the local area and our owner John Hodges was very keen to contribute. It is terrific the way local people and businesses have worked together for the common good to make Christmas special in Burslem.”

*The lights will be switched on tomorrow when Santa Claus emerges from The George Hotel.

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Community spirit is alive and well in Burslem this Christmas

lights

If we’re being honest nobody really understood what the Prime Minister was talking about when he first used the phrase ‘Big Society’.
Call-me-Dave’s press office dressed it up as the idea of taking away power from politicians and institutions and giving it to local people.
But many cynics felt it was little more than a smokescreen to hide the Coalition Government’s butchery of the public sector.
Cynics like the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, who described the Big Society as ‘aspirational waffle designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable.’
Well here in the Potteries we have what I believe is a prime example of the Big Society in action – whichever definition you believe.
You see, the Scrooges at Stoke-on-Trent City Council have decided Christmas is only happening in Hanley this year.
To be fair, amid care home closures and job losses one can understand why fir trees and baubles aren’t perhaps high on the local authority’s list of priorities.
Except in the city centre, of course.
The other forgotten five towns are receiving no council funding for their Christmas lights this year – saving taxpayers £84,000 as the authority attempts to cut millions more to balance its books over the next financial year.
However, in Fenton, Longton, Stoke and Tunstall traders have done their best to spread a little festive cheer by making the Christmas lights a DIY affair.
Which just left little old Burslem in the shadows.
But not for long.
I’ve no idea what their political persuasions are but I’m pretty sure David Cameron would be proud of the way locals Louise Worthington and John Flint have taken it upon themselves to brighten up the Mother Town of the Potteries over the festive period.
As, I’m sure, would the Archbishop.
If the Big Society means getting off your backside and doing something positive for your community rather than moaning about your lot then Louise, John and their pals should be its poster boys and girls.
They organised a meeting, set up a Facebook page with the help of their friend June Cartwright, and began collecting donations from individuals and businesses.
They’ve held raffles and will tonight stage a bucket collection at Vale Park ahead of the cup game against Bradford as they hope to close in on their target of collecting £3,500 to pay for three trees and seven sets of lights.
It may not seem like a lot of money in the grand scheme of things but it is £3,500 that needed to be raised quickly and this could only have happened if people could be bothered enough to make an effort.
One can understand why Louise and John were reluctant to let Christmas pass by in a place like Burslem which has a thriving night time economy.
I have nothing but admiration for the people who are taking it upon themselves to fill the vacuum left by council cutbacks.
The campaign to save Tunstall Pool was ultimately doomed to failure precisely because success would have meant the victors making an undertaking to run a large leisure facility full-time – with all the ongoing funding, time commitment and expertise that would require.
But once-yearly events or causes like putting up Christmas lights in a town are eminently achievable because the sums of money involved are relatively modest and people have 12 months to raise the necessary funds.
I sincerely hope that by tomorrow’s deadline Louise and John have raised the money they need to brighten up Burslem.
If they do they may well find themselves in a similar boat next year because it is highly unlikely the city council will play fairy godmother and find the money for Christmas lights in every town.
At least they can start fund-raising in January.
The problem that Burslem has is that it is a town where, with the odd notable exception, the only businesses faring well are the pubs.
Thirty years ago, when yours truly was growing up, it used to have a market, shoe shops and a Woolies.
Mum used to take me and my brother there on Saturdays to do some shopping – rather than making the trip to Hanley.
Nowadays you would struggle to buy much more than a pint, a kebab or some craft item in the Mother Town.
Yes, it’s a brilliant place for a night out but the truth is it has never recovered from the loss of big employers like Royal Doulton.
Stroll through on a week day and it is a veritable ghost town, dotted with empty shops and cursed with the great white elephant that is the old Ceramica building/Town Hall.
Burslem has the finest architecture in the Potteries, some nice craft and gift shops, some cracking pubs and a few too many takeaways and restaurants.
And that’s about it.
What it desperately needs is a plan.
Perhaps a rejuvenated Port Vale – or rather the business plans the club’s new owners have for Vale Park – will help to breathe new life into the town.
What is clear is that Burslem, its businesses, and the people who care about it, can no longer rely on the local authority for either the finances or the strategy to drag it out of the doldrums.
Instead, people like Louise Worthington and John Flint are going to become more and more important until new employers come along to restart the town’s economy.

Brushing up on skills from a proud industrial heritage

‘You’d make a very good forger’, was what an expert from the Victoria and Albert Museum in London once told Tony Challiner.

An unusual compliment it may have been, but it summed up just how good a china painter this lad from Chell had become.

At the time, Tony had been given special access to a priceless, if somewhat time-worn clock once owned by Marie Antionette in order that he could copy its style and colouring. Not bad for a young man who, by his own admission, would go home ‘almost in tears’ every night when he first began his apprenticeship – convinced he wouldn’t make the grade.

Tony began his seven-year apprenticeship at Royal Doulton’s headquarters in Burslem at the age of 15 in 1957.

He was following a family tradition.

His auntie and uncle had both worked for Royal Doulton and his father, Ben Challiner, had also been a china painter at Nile Street and went on to become chairman of the Royal Doulton Arts Society.

Speaking to me at Burslem School of Art where he had been a student some five decades earlier, Tony recalled the early days of his apprenticeship.

He said: “I suppose I was always destined to become a china painter. I actually didn’t touch a figure for the first six months then when I did I thought I’d never get it right and would often go home really upset.

“As an apprentice I was everyone’s gofer – being sent to fetch turps and the like – but I made use of my time around the factory. I observed things, asked questions and learned about all aspects of pottery manufacture which, ultimately, helped me in my work.”

If you own a Royal Doulton figurine there’s a chance Tony painted it. Look for the initial ‘C’ near the backstamp or ‘TC’ for his work after he finished his apprenticeship.

Tony said: “I became something of a perfectionist. I’m from the ‘wash it off and start again’ school of thinking. If I feel something isn’t right I would rather start over.”

The 70-year-old worked in the pottery industry for 50 years – spending many years with Royal Doulton and Spode and also working for nine years in America for the Franklin Mint Co. before returning to his native North Staffordshire in 1988.

By that time, according to Tony, the landscape had changed.

He said: “I always felt that pottery manufacture and sale went in 15 year cycles. There were good and bad times depending on the state of the economy. In my opinion the best period for the industry was between the mid 1960s and mid 1970s.

“There simply was no recovery in the Eighties. It felt like all downhill from the mid-Seventies onwards.”

Tony explained that in its heyday Royal Doulton would have employed more than 500 painters and paintresses.

He said: “When I joined my ticket number was 4,071 so at that time Doulton’s were employing more than 4,000 people in the Mother Town.

“It’s hard to believe that all those jobs have gone and, of course, it really saddens me when I drive past the site of what was the factory in Nile Street and just see piles of bricks.”

Thankfully, Tony is helping to keep traditional skills alive through his work leading Burslem China Painters.

The group meets regularly at Burslem School of Art where Tony and other former china painters pass on their knowledge and expertise to those interested in an art which, if not dying, is certainly endangered.

Tony, who lives in Bucknall and used to teach pottery skills to students at Stoke-on-Trent College, said: “China painting is a skill that can be taught but obviously some people are more gifted than others because they are born with a degree of artistic ability and flair. We have around 12 members in the group and it’s nice for me to be able to pass on some of the things I’ve learned.

“Many people who worked in the pottery industry were messed about, made redundant and, I have to say, let down by bad management.

I’m one of the lucky ones because the pottery industry gave me a good career.”

The Burslem China Painters are staging an exhibition, entitled ‘Keeping The Skill Alive’ at Burslem School of Art and it runs until next weekend.

Anyone wishing to learn more about the group can contact Tony Challiner on 01782 274215.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

A salute to The Duke and other lost Potteries locals

I was 17 when I first walked into the Duke of Wellington pub. Little did I know that the innocuous little boozer in Norton was to become my ‘local’ for the next decade – even though I lived in Sneyd Green.

There was nothing fancy about ‘The Duke’, as we referred to it. Yes, it was an old pub dating back to the 1840s but the interior was nothing to shout about.

It had one proper toilet for us blokes (which had seen better days) and a bunch of urinals.

The Duke was a good size though – boasting a lounge and a bar, a pool table, jukebox and a couple of fruit machines.

The clientele was genuinely mixed and on Friday and Saturday nights it would be rammed.

My friends and I came to know it as our second home – supping Lowenbrau at 89p per pint as the Eighties drew to a close and the indie music scene really kicked in.

My mates Rob, Richie and I were part of The Duke’s away pool team back then and I’m pleased to say I’ve still got my cue.

I have hazy, fond memories of New Year’s Eve parties, Christmas Eve celebrations and many a lock-in with the curtains closed.

It was a pub where young and old co-existed quite happily. A place where you could still have a conversation and hear yourself think – even if yours truly had stuck the Stone Roses or the Wonderstuff on again.

Sadly, unlike my pool cue, The Duke hasn’t survived. The last time I ventured into the place it was 1999 and quiet as the grave. It closed not long after.

Like so many pubs across the Potteries it fell victim to changing lifestyles and poor management and, although the building remains, it is now a private as opposed to a public house.

As historian and spokesman for the Potteries Pub Preservation Group, Mervyn Edwards explained, it is a familiar tale. He agreed that we have probably lost around a fifth of public houses in North Staffordshire over the last quarter of a century.

Mervyn said: “I thing that may even be a conservative estimate. We’ve seen many, many pubs close and many be demolished over the last 30 years or so.

“The reasons are multifarious but a key one is the loss of jobs in traditional industries. Take Longton, for example. Right up to the end of the 1980s and even later pubs were a key part of the infrastructure of the town.

“They existed to serve employers like the potbanks and even at lunchtimes you would see pottery workers from places like John Tams going to the pie shops and then in to their favourite haunts for a pint.

“When you lose industry like the Potteries has then it is impossible for many pubs to remain profitable. At the same time, people’s habits have changed. They can buy cheap alcohol from supermarkets, rent or buy videos and DVDs or use the internet and play computer games.

“People simply have far more options and have perhaps fallen out of love with simple pleasures like conversing with friends in a pub.

“Then there was the smoking ban of 2007 which really was a hammer-blow for pubs. I was one of the people who thought there might be people who would start going in to pubs as a result of them being smoke-free but it seems that just didn’t happen.

“Add to all of these things the high taxation on alcoholic beverages and the fact that a night out at the pub is actually quite expensive and you can understand why so many have closed or are struggling.”

Off the top of his head Mervyn lists a number of good pubs which we’ve lost in the last 25 years.

Most recent is The Cavalier at Bradwell – built as a one of a number of estate pubs in 1963.

Also mentioned in despatches are the once flagship Joules pub the King’s Arms, in Meir, the Oxford Arms in Maybank and pubs like The Great Eastern, The Staff of Life and the Ancient Briton in and around the Mother Town of Burslem.

I asked Mervyn what the biggest difference we would notice if we went back 30 years to a 1980s pub.

He said: “We would be acutely aware of the lack of what I call ‘creature comforts’. These days pubs have all sorts of gadgets and gizmos – from wall-to-wall satellite television and free Wifi to game consoles like the Wii to keep people amused.

“Thirty years ago you would have had the odd telly and perhaps a jukebox or a fruit machine but they weren’t intrusive. I think it’s very sad how things have changed, really.”

He added: “I think that the bigger pubs will survive. What really needs to improve, however, is the level of customer service. Very often it is poor. There are exceptions – such as The Holy Inadequate at Etruria and The Bluebell at Kidsgrove – but generally speaking many pubs could improve”.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

The night Lemmy and Ozzy rocked Vale Park

Last weekend around 12,000 people packed in to Hanley Park for 2012 Live – a summer pop concert which brought the some of the biggest names in British music to the Potteries.

I have to admit I hadn’t heard of most of the acts because I’m a crusty old rocker who was weaned on hair metal and pays no attention to the contemporary music scene.

My first concert was on August 19, 1989, at the Milton Keynes Bowl.

I was 17 and it was my first taste of live rock music – courtesy of the mighty Bon Jovi.

But eight years earlier there was a gig right here in the Potteries that teenage me would have given my right arm to be at.

It was a concert that very nearly didn’t take place at all because of objections by local residents who sought an injunction to prevent it happening.

Originally, families in the Louise Street area of Burslem threatened to withhold payment of their rates to the council in the gig went ahead.

Indeed, the concert only happened because at the eleventh hour the event’s promoters paid for a bus trip to Blackpool for the disgruntled folk of Burslem who didn’t much fancy having their Saturday ruined by some of the loudest bands on the planet.

Heavy Metal Holocaust took place at Vale Park on August 1, 1981 – a blisteringly hot summer’s day in Burslem.

More than 20,000 rock fans paid £7.50 for tickets in advance or £8.50 on the day to see their heroes in action.

It was a time when heavy metal bands such as Iron Maiden regularly featured in the charts – making the genre fashionable. Well, almost.

Black Sabbath had originally been scheduled to top the bill alongside Motörhead but had been forced to pull out just weeks before the gig.

Thankfully, former Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne – accompanied by ex-Quiet Riot guitarist, the legendary Randy Rhoads – stepped into the breach.

Ozzy was introduced to the sweltering crowd by Motörhead bassist and vocalist Lemmy Kilmister for whom the concert was something of a home-coming as he had been born in the Mother Town on Christmas Eve 1945.

Also on the bill were Triumph, Riot, and Vardis but it was the joint headliners who took most of the plaudits – although some felt it was the set by Frank Marino, of Canadian hard rock outfit Mahogany Rush, which stole the show.

Many attendees recall the incredible noise levels generated by the headliners and what was reputed to have been the largest PA system which had ever been used in Britain.

As Motörhead finished their set, six sky-divers parachuted on to the pitch to close the show in spectacular style.

The 10-hour concert, which cost £250,000 to stage, has since attained something of a cult status among rock fans – partly because of the line-up (this included a rare appearance by guitar god Rhoads before his tragic death the following year) and partly because, astonishingly, it was a ‘dry’ gig – i.e. no alcohol was sold inside Vale Park on the day.

This presumably explains the presence of a Samaritans ‘quiet tent’ on site which didn’t see many referrals as their counsellors couldn’t make themselves heard.

The gig was a roaring success and police praised the crowd for their exemplary behaviour.

Port Vale made £25,000 from the event which left chairman Don Ratcliffe eager to stage more as it had allowed the cash-strapped fourth division club to buy two new players – Ernie Moss and Ray Deakin.

Unfortunately, rock bands haven’t appeared at Vale Park since – although I’m half tempted to suggest the idea to new owner Keith Ryder the next time I see him.

Pick up a copy of the Weekend Sentinel every Saturday for 12 pages of nostalgia

‘Close Ceramica? I thought it shut ages ago…’

It gives me no pleasure whatsoever to say that the writing was on the wall for Ceramica from the moment that eyesore was tacked on to Burslem’s beautiful Town Hall.
When news of the venue’s potential closure broke, The Sentinel’s editorial suggested that Ceramica’s epitaph may read: ‘a good idea, badly executed.”
I have to say that I disagree: It was a flawed concept, badly executed.
Proud as I am of the city’s industrial heritage and even my own family’s role in the pottery industry, I never thought Ceramica would succeed.
While the finished design of the new-build element may have pleased architects and arty types, many of us thought it looked completely incongruous.
In addition, estimates of visitor figures always seemed ludicrously optimistic to me.
‘Experts’ predicted Ceramica would bring in 100,000 visitors a year to the Mother Town. In actual fact, just 7,400 people visited the tourist attraction over the last 12 months. That is an appalling average of 28 visitors per day.
During the last four years the city council has given grants totalling £560,000 to Ceramica while the venue itself has generated just £75,000 in admission fees.
That’s just since 2007. In total, since the venue opened its doors, it has leeched more than £1 million from taxpayers who are still scratching their heads as to what the big idea was.
One wonders how else that money could have been better spent to help breathe life into Burslem.
What’s more, the historic, Grade II-listed Town Hall is depreciating in value by £57,000 a year because of this great white elephant.
So why did I doubt the Ceramica vision?
Because the fact is that a visitor centre and pseudo-museum that is dedicated to the ceramics industry was always going to be dull as dishwater to locals, never mind most visitors from outside North Staffordshire.
Let’s face it, many of us have cupboards full of crockery and – as much as we may be plate-turners at breakfast time in a Costa hotel – most of us can think of better things to do of a weekend than wandering around looking at pots.
When I told a friend of mine that Ceramica could face closure she replied, in all sincerity: “I thought it had shut ages ago.”
Enough said.
On reading that Ceramica was under threat, one newsroom colleague had an idea.
He suggested, given the shape of part of the venue – which is not too dissimilar to the prow of a ship, that it be turned into an exhibition centre dedicated to the memory of Captain Smith of Titanic fame.
You know, we could perhaps have a plaster cast of Celine Dion – arms outstretched – hanging off the pointy bit, that sort of thing.
Joking apart, if Ceramica is to close then the information and exhibits it contains should be retained – perhaps up at the excellent Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Hanley.
More importantly, it is essential that very quickly a new use be found for this iconic building in the very heart of Burslem.
The Mother Town simply can’t afford to have such a focal point standing empty.
I suppose it is too much to expect anyone to hold up their hands and admit that they got it wrong with our three-year late Millennium project.
But the very least we must do is ensure that Ceramica’s legacy isn’t simply to bequeath another empty building to a town that is already flatlining.

Time to welcome back our Robbie… a proper celebrity

It is the nature of celebrity in 2009 that no sooner has someone become a household name than their star is waning.
These days, of course, some people don’t even become household names.
Reality TV types, for example, are known only to a hardcore of fans for a nanosecond.
Generally, their behaviour has to be either lewd, criminal or unfathomably stupid for them to secure any lasting coverage in the national media – so devoid are they of any real talent… for anything.
Even then, most of us wouldn’t recognise these people if we bumped into them at the deli counter in Morrisons.
You see, there are stars – and there are real stars.
Take our very own UFO-spotting, global pop superstar come-hermit Robbie Williams, for example.
We’ve heard nowt from Boslem’s finest for about three years.
His last album – Rudebox – was, for the Robster, something of a damp squib.
And, during his self-imposed exile only the odd story has leaked out of camp Robbie.
Odd being the appropriate word.
And yet the airplay of the first single – Bodies – from his forthcoming album was greeted in many quarters like the Second Coming.
Why?
Because Mr R. Williams Esquire is a proper celebrity. Love him or hate him, no-one can deny the bloke has talent.
It would have been very easy for him to jump on the Take That bandwagon when Manchester’s ageing pin-ups took to the road again but common sense prevailed.
Now he’s back and – in the absence of any genuine pretenders to his throne – a public starved of his charismatic, snarling, energetic performances and occasionally brilliant music can’t wait to get their hands on the new material by the undisputed king of UK pop.
After his last album failed to hit the dizzy heights of previous releases there were many commentators only too keen to predict the demise of the ‘fat dancer from Take That’ as some unkind soul dubbed him.
However, I suspect our Robbie has a little more backbone than people give him credit for – and a damn sight more talent.
It is a peculiarly British thing, we are told, to build someone up only to knock them down.
And, in doing so, we seem to forget who and what we are dismantling in the rush for soundbites and headlines.
Ironically, none of us really know much about a bloke who – at the height of his powers – commands more column inches than the Prime Minister.
We know Robbie has an American girlfriend with an unusual name who he’s been with for some time now and that, during his sabbatical, he has developed a fascination for the extraterrestrial.
Other than that, we know precious little about the lad from Tunstall who lived above a pub in the Mother Town and whose gran gave him pocket money so he could watch the Vale.
I see quite a lot of Robbie’s dad and his best mate and I don’t ask after Robbie – just as those ordinary Potteries folk who bumped into him during his whistle-stop tour of his home city earlier in the year didn’t pester him.
On all the occasions I’ve been with Robbie’s nearest and dearest I’ve learned the following: those who know Robbie call him Rob; he has a PA called Josie; yes, he does have an interest in the paranormal; he was living on a diet comprised largely of fish as he got fit ahead of the release of the new album.
Hardly the kind of crumbs that would have the national Press offering me wads of cash.
No, the truth is Robbie is something of an enigma. His people do an amazing job of protecting his privacy and, consequently, there are many who hate the fact that he has a life outside of his public persona.
I say good luck to him.
Those who take great delight in knocking Robbie because he chose to live in Los Angeles or base himself down south on his return to the UK would do well to remember a couple of things.
In the last nine years his charity – Give It Sum – has distributed more than £4.5 million to more than 420 worthy causes in North Staffordshire. And it was £250,000 of Robbie’s own money which literally saved a certain local football club from going under a couple of years ago. Fact.
Maybe one of these days Robbie Williams will ring me up on a whim like he did another Sentinel journalist and we’ll have a chat about his latest album and our beloved Port Vale.
Then again, maybe he won’t.
Who cares about his private life? Let’s just face the music and dance.