The problem of how to create social spaces in public places is a well-known one, and there’s lots of attempts at regeneration that fail to make public spaces work.

At a recent workshop in Stoke, artists tried to wrestle with this problem. Sarah Nadin was one of half-a-dozen artists I worked with, and her solution was #chumbrella. Perhaps best known for her sculpture remembering Stoke’s connections with Lidice, which she produced as half of Dashyline, #chumbrella is a more light, agile and nimble approach to creating art in public places.


Inspired by the act of sharing an umbrella with a stranger the day before, Sarah imagined a place where a distinctive hashtagged umbrella was a sign that the person was willing to share it with a stranger.

During the workshop, Sarah created a black-and-white prototype and took to the streets. It started conversations and got people’s interest.

So when I was looking at my own London Road project in Stoke, I could see a natural fit. London Road is one and a half miles long, but – and despite being plentiful in parks, gardens and green spaces – it’s not a very social place. People in shops stop and talk, but the street is all about bustle as you’d expect on the main road in and out of the city.

So as part of the London Road project, with funding from Appetite, I asked Sarah to move #chumbrella from prototype into production. She created a yellow and white design, the umbrella split in half rather than the more conventional segments, and had a first batch manufactured. It’s a move from big sculpture to being a social artist, so I feel like the investment is in the artist as much as the artwork. And if this idea spreads, she’ll be creating literal pop up social spaces in streets across the country.


The first public outing for #chumbrella was a walk along London Road. Half a dozen artists agreed to be the first to carry #chumbrella, and they started a dozen conversations, as well as making lots of people smile as they walked from Campbell Place to The Boulevard and back again.

#chumbrella will be back on London Road in September, and I’ll be carrying one as a useful tool in my work there. But the aim is also to see how far it can be rolled out, creating a simple How To guide and distributing the first batch of #chumbrellas to people around the country who can use them. Open source, freely available public art? The medium is, as they say, the message.

Endnotes; The Canal, London Road

Sadly, the document I’ve been working on has been corrupted by a virus, so all that remains of this chapter of the London Road book I’m writing are the endnotes. I hope you can reconstruct the chapter from them.


1. About halfway between Manchester and Birmingham.
2. The same latitude as Bremen in Germany, Petropavlovsk in Russia and Venison Tickle on the east coast of Canada.
3. 3 miles, or 4.82 kilometres.
4. In 1795, after an Act of Parliament made it possible, giving permission for ‘the making and maintaining of a navigable canal from and out of the Navigation for the Trent to the Mersey’.
5. Which had the only licence to carry coal.
6. Incidentally, completely unrelated to his namesake whose Flying Scotsman was the first steam train to travel at over 100 mph in passenger service, and whose A4 Mallard is still the fastest steam train in the world.
7. It can be found in early Stone Age pottery, making it more resistant to thermal shock.
8. Nicknamed The Knotty.
9. Over 130 miles or 209 kilometres of canals, waterways and the Rudyard Lake, named after a local man reputed to have killed Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field.
10. They liked it so much, they named their son after it.
11. In 1921.
12. By now, completely abandoned. Elsewhere this year, Alcoholics Anonymous is founded in Akron, Ohio, the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill On Sea opens and the world’s first parking meters are installed in Oklahoma City. Meanwhile, Adolf Hitler starts the rearmament of Germany.
13. Although there as late as 1971, these sidings have been removed.
14. A dry section remains at Oakhill behind the Cottage Pub.
15. Although the exact location is unclear, it seems the far end of this tunnel was near the Spode Factory site.
16. Near Glebe Street, where it joined the Trent and Mersey Canal. A stretch here remained and was used as moorings by the Stoke Boat Club until the 1970s.
17. Local councillor Andy Platt believes that springs running from the top of the hill adjacent to London Road mean that water was an important part of life here for a much earlier community, too.
18. Jumping from his footplate and over iron railings to reach her.
19. “Barathea is a noble cloth – a dense and heavy cloth of deepest navy blue
It has clad with distinction policemen and figures of authority for decades
And Timothy Trow is proud to wear his uniform
But barathea is a great soaker-up of water
And Timothy’s coat of office has now become a sodden coat of lead”
Ray Johnson, ‘Ode To London Road’
20. “It was lucky for the girl that the tram had stopped. In those times the engine was powered by steam and it would have been extremely noisy,” local historian Simon Birks suggests.
21. Although known by this name locally, it is officially called Coronation Gardens, and was opened in 1953.
22. Known as ‘The Boothen Boat’.
23. Although he was then a community artist, he is now the Cultural Development Officer at Stoke-on-Trent City Council. He trained as an artist in Coventry, around the same time that the 2 Tone scene was emerging there.
24. Ordinary terraced houses, except that each has two lines of glazed tiles running above and below the upper windows, each tile having the words ‘Gold Coin’ on them.
25. Francis Michael Moran, from the 1st Battalion of the North Staffordshire Regiment. Formed as the 64th Regiment of Foot in 1758, this regiment’s soldiers served across the British Empire. The 1st Battalion served in France from 1914-1918, and Moran saw action during the Battle of the Somme, the assault on Messines Ridge and the Third Battle of Ypres.
26. Built in 1920, this was the tyre company’s first factory in the UK. It was designed by Peter Lind and Co, who had offices in Central London and in Spalding, Lincolnshire. The company also built Waterloo Bridge and lter, the iconic BT Tower in London.
27. It reopened in 1987, housing Sir Terence Conran’s Bibendum Restaurant & Oyster Bar.
28. Originally known as the ‘X Tyre’, it was designed with the Citroen 2CV in mind.
29. He argues that post-industrial decline happened later in Stoke than elsewhere in the UK.
30. In fact, there are still more than 20 active potteries in the city. With names like Wedgwood, Moorcroft, Dudson, Emma Bridgewater, Portmeirion, Spode, Royal Doulton, and Royal Stafford still in the city, Stoke is still a major centre for pottery.

Stories from pub corners

IMG_20140707_224242Art shouldn’t be something precious, kept in galleries and opera houses; real art. true art, the stuff that grabs you and shakes you and sometimes makes you cry belongs out in the world.

That’s been a recurring theme in my work, so it was great to be on the other side during my last trip to Stoke, and to be part of the audience as something really interesting unfolded.

Potboiler are a small theatre company, and received a grant from Appetite’s Kitchen fund which supports people to try and test new work in public places. ‘Stories from Pub Corners’ is their new work, a series of confessionals in the style of Alan Bennet’s Talking Heads written by Kat Boon, Gary Abbot and Alex Townley. The stories are the kind of thing you could overhear in a pub.

So the six short monologues were performed in a pub, the performers sitting amongst the audience, hidden in plain sight. I actually produced a similar play, an ‘overheard’, for Buzz Theatre in Worthing. And even though I know how it’s done, it’s still jarring when you find yourself sitting at the same table as an actor.

The stories were simple, universal, but also incredibly personal. The cast of Janie-Lou Morrey, Jamie Robertson and Bennedict Shaw all carried their characters perfectly, and the evening – in true Bennett style – moved the audience from belly laughs to moments of touching poetry.

Of course, this was an early performance and there were wobbles, but that sense of being part of the creation of something, rather than just a passive spectator, made the evening even more special. It’s really good to see Appetite taking a risk on the creation of new work, rather than just commissioning existing pieces. Watch out for more Potboiler performances, and for more good things from Appetite’s Kitchen.

Pottery memories

IMG_20140601_133829“I miss the company of the women in the potbanks. We had a good Union, good conditions, and we’d have a singsong in the afternoon.

I did piece work on the bench, on lithographic. When I started training at Spode, I was cutting prints first. Mrs Bolton was the forewoman, that’s what they called them. We learnt on easier patterns. Just before I finished the training, the law changed and they brought in a shorter week. We didn’t have to work Saturday mornings, I liked that.

After twelve months I was put on the bench. You had to be good. Everything at Spode had to be spot on. It was the best. We were all on piece work. We measured how hard we worked in money then – now it’s in minutes.

We started at 8 o’clock. We had breakfast at work, toast from the canteen and there was a boiler for tea. If you work in a shop, you have breakfast before, but we had it at work.

I started working in a shop first, a corner shop on London Road, for £3 10 shillings a week. But at Spode it was £10. At Woolworths it was £5, and nobody every left Woolies.

It was hard work. I was an underglaze sizer first. You had to put on two coats to make the print stick on when fired.


The prints were all in the print safe, behind locked doors, kept at a certain temperature. Ten prints were stapled together to cut. We had a new German perforating machine once. The instructions were in German and they had to get someone over to show how to use it.

The work for the two ladies doing the Willow pattern was harder, bloody hard work. There were two women on that. It was below glaze work, and you had to work hard to rub the print through the glaze. It took a long time to get the print off. They earned their money.

Our work went to all four corners of the world, and we had visitors from all over. We had to be quiet when they came, no singing. Soon as they went we all started nattering again.

I left Spode when an American company took over. They moved everything around. People were unsettled.

I worked at Sadler’s after, up in Burslem. I thought the Greek Key pattern was Portmeirion, but it wasn’t, it was Sadler’s. The money at Sadler’s was not good and I left to have a baby.

I went back to Spode to learn on glaze lithography. But then Spode wanted to drop my money so I left. It was easy then, you could just walk into another potbank. Except Mintons – I’d have loved to work there but nobody ever left unless they died. I reckon Minton’s was good if you could get on there. And Doulton’s, up Burslem.

I went to Portmeirion. Everything was mustard and green, dark colours. The only white ware were rolling pins and those things you put under the bed, then. Susie Cooper took over and it went up. But Portmeirion was low paid and there was a bad atmosphere. I didn’t know the women there.

So I went to Crown Staffs, in Fenton. They brought in conveyor belts. You did your work, lithographed it, and put it on the conveyor belt and it went to the end of the line to be checked. It was really good there.

But I went back to Portmeirion. It had picked right up, with the Botanic Garden. I was working there aged 55.

It all seemed like hard work at the time, but it was all good in the 60s, with hindsight. I have happy memories from the potbanks, looking back – good times.

Working for potbanks, I still look for patterns everywhere.”

Memories of working in Stoke’s potteries (in local dialect, ‘potbanks’). In the big industrial manufacturers – Spode, Portmeirion, Sadlers – the women were the highest earners, skilled in finishing and decorating the pottery made.

This story has been collected from an anonymous lady who worked in the potbanks, as part of London Road, a year long project commissioned by Appetite with SWOCA and Second Look Stoke.

Struggling to find life in shiny public spaces

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody.” Jane Jacobs

Can artists build a real relationship with city planners, regeneration professionals and perhaps most importantly, the people who use our streets? That was the question raised by Beneath The Pavement, a two day workshop for artists who want to work in public spaces.


Organised by Airspace Gallery and supported by Appetite, the day brought four lead artists together – Anna Francis, Emily Speed, Mark Gubb and me. We each presented our approach to working as an artist in public spaces, which were similar but slightly different. The overlaps were significant, and probably represent the way most artists at the same stage in our careers work; we’re all interested in spotting gaps, all looking to make temporary interventions, all have an eye for the derelict corner, all enjoy a light humour, all find ourselves weighted down by the history of a place, and all question whether more formal urbanism really works.

Stoke’s problems – and opportunities – were laid out for us and the twenty or so artists attending in a series of walks around the city centre, taking us through old streets, abandoned buildings, back alleys, community spaces and into public buildings. That walking and talking made it clear that Stoke has two big hang ups, it is obsessed with the idea that its six original towns can’t make a coherent city, and it believes that its industry is dead. Both of these ideas are wrong.

All cities are a jumble of older places, loosely connected, threaded together across the years but still holding onto their original identities. Stoke has held onto this ‘we’re not a city’ like an article of faith, but, coming from outside, it feels irrelevant. Chanting it, ‘we’re not a city, we’re not a city, we’re not…’ makes no difference. Stoke is a small-scale city, permeable and human-scaled. Nowhere does it overwhelm a person. The city twists, turns, tumbles up slight rises and through informal spaces (not formal squares, but wide and curving public spaces). This does, sometimes, make it difficult to navigate – it’s not a legible city centre, doesn’t move you to a big central space, doesn’t allow you to navigate by landmarks and statues.

The buildings are good, across the decades; there are beautiful proud Victorian commercial buildings, as you’d expect, but also some great mid-century modernism – the curved arches in an abandoned shopping centre, the fine typography on Tontine Buildings, the bold space-age fins of the BBC building.








These two periods – grand Victoriana, mid-20th century (Art Deco through to 60s Brutalism) track Stoke’s industrial wealth. The potteries which spread teapots, cups and saucers across the Empire adapted well, post-1945, as both expressions of New Elizabethan optimism (look at Spode’s RCA range, for example) and as high-tech industry, manufacturing ceramics for electrics. The decline came later.

And that’s Stoke’s second myth – that the big, empty sites mean Stoke’s industry is dead. That’s simply not true; it’s moved on, there’s no ripping coal and clay from the earth here today, but Spode, Emma Bridgewater, Portmeirion – these are still big names and they’re still be produced. That’s more major manufacturers, all well-known-names, than most British cities can muster. Be proud of your history – Minton, Clarice Cliff, Wedgwood, Susie Copper – for sure, but also be very proud of what you’ve got now.

Stoke’s city centre is undergoing something of a transformation. It’s being given a massive public realm makeover. The work is well-intentioned, and is much better than what went before. If you compare the way the new layout gives the car less authority over roads, to areas in the city which are still waiting for improvement, it’s going to change the way people use the city centre and make it a much better place to spend time.


But it still lacks focus, still lacks legibility and worst of all, includes too much Pointless Public Realm – space without purpose. The problem, really, is that while planners talk about ‘vibrancy’, and creating ‘mixed use’, and encouraging people to ‘linger’ – they also want to control space. So they try to plan out real vibrancy, allow only certain types of mixed use, and stop some people lingering. As a result, benches are split in two, to discourage rough sleeping, and seating is designed to be uncomfortable, so that teenagers and street drinkers don’t linger too long. There’s lots of space, but not in useful places, and not focused – empty space, waiting to be reclaimed and reused.

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The council’s presentation of this work to Beneath The Pavement was interesting to watch; an example of two world’s not so much colliding, but existing in parallel universes, and surprised by a sudden glimpse through a window of each other. The council know that the work is needed, have given it a decent budget, and are working to a high quality. But in thinking of city-as-engineering-challenge, they’re missing the point made by good thinkers like Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford and Francis Tibbalds. They’re creating a blank, neat city not one for people to fill. This is where the artists working at Beneath the Pavement became most frustrated, but it’s also where they’re needed most.

“There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.” Jane Jacobs


Stoke’s future must be in these spaces being useful being part of life, being filled again with bustle and life. For Beneath The Pavement, the artists I worked with made small interventions in other parts of the city; a series of stickers saying a polite ‘thank you’ for following instructional signs, a sign to ‘Seize Your Space’, a series of chalked cartoons and #chumberella, a shared and social space to keep the rain off (which, I reckon, should become an international movement).


But all of them avoided working in the neat, new spaces. And that’s where we need to go to work right now; before they become tomorrow’s failed visions of a better city, things we look back at and say ‘what were they thinking?’. The city’s planners might think that, in a year or two, they’ll have finished, that the job of work is over; that building new places is a process with a start and an end. But the truth is, the layers on top of them, the gradual accretion of life and disorder, are what really make a city live. And that’s up to us. Let’s get started.




London Road

P1130382Stoke’s London Road connects the buzzing, active communities of Boothen, West End and Oakhill to the town centre along a long, straight road that’s full of history, unusual buildings, old architectural features and public spaces waiting to be brought to life. It’s a beautiful street, as the photos I’ve taken so far show.

So it’s going to be a great place to spend the next year as artist-in-residence for the whole road, collecting stories, working alongside local people, and making connections between communities. I’ll be living for a quarter of the year in Penkville Street, one of the steep terraces that climb off London Road.

To see some of what I’ve found so far, you can download a map of London Road’s significant people and places.

P1130397This year-long artwork commissioned by Appetite uses the whole street as a venue. As I uncover stories from London Road, they’ll be marked by the reanimation of unloved spaces, restoration of original features, reinvention of forgotten buildings, gentle reminders of why the road is special, and regeneration from the bottom up.

It will end in the publication of a book. This will be a psychogeographical, slightly fictional telling of the story of London Road, from one end to the other, from the Roman to the modern day. In that writing, focused on one special road and the people who use it, I’ll tell the whole story of Stoke.

You can follow the progress, and join in with the project, with the Twitter hashtag #allabouttheroad or on a Facebook page.