Jane Stuart – Writer

Writer on beer, football culture and Blackpool FC.

A Football Tourist’s Guide To Stoke

We’d initially planned an overnighter for Stoke – heading down on the Friday – but the following circumstances conspired to turn this into a day trip:

  1. I hadn’t got round to booking a hotel;
  2. The cost of living crisis rendered a day trip more appealing;
  3. I’m very much on my diet at the moment and wanted to avoid a Friday night sesh;
  4. Stoke isn’t really that far, so is easily doable in a day.

This meant an early start on Saturday, with an 0620 alarm. I was accompanied in the shower by The Hot Sardines and promptly consulted Alexa for the weather forecast for Stoke before deciding on my outfit. It sounded like a tee, jeans and cagoule day. I opted for my BierCaB tee, which I bought in their fab craft beer bar in Barcelona.

I’ve lost weight the last seven successive weeks now and was determined to remain on track. Lee and I joined the gym this week and had an induction and went to a spin class. My legs were in so much pain for days afterwards but seemed to be functioning fine today (phew!). I recently bought a cool bag and flask to help with healthy eating on the move so I packed these full of food before heading out this morning. We’d done a little food shop last night so had plenty of healthy snackage. My current snack of choice is frozen blueberries with fat free fromage frais and my flask of this for breakfast was a particular highlight.

Lee had filled the tank earlier in the week so we were able to head straight off down the M55 and M6.

Aside from Lemmy from Motörhead, we hadn’t heard of any of the artists from Stoke that weren’t Robbie Williams, so we stuck Take That on to accompany us on the short journey (having travelled two hours from Walsall for every home game for years, anything closer than that is deemed a local match for me now).

The purpose of the cool box was to avoid service station food but nonetheless we did stop at Sandbach because we were slightly ahead of schedule and quite fancied having a little picnic seated on a bench at the services. That plan was foiled immediately on stepping out of the car and being hit with a strong waft of ‘country aroma’. I popped inside for a comfort break anyway. Loo review: doors tricky to open (outwards?!), cheap toilet roll and many of the soap dispensers lacking soap. Would not recommend.

We soon headed back on the road in the direction of the first stop on today’s itinerary.

Titanic Brewery

It was quite the treat to find this place opened at 0900 – and we arrived not long after that. Unfortunately the brewery bit wasn’t open – although there are brewery tours at 1200 and 1500 on Saturdays – but I was more than satisfied with what I found on sale in the shop (including the above tee).

I bought the English Mustard and Chutney.
This is one beer I cannot resist when I see it on in a pub.
Can’t get Staffordshire Oatcakes in Blackpool but I can now make them with this!
Nice jugs in the Potteries.
The Cherry Gin sounds particularly lush but sadly gin makes me catastrophise so I can’t drink it.

There were also bottles and cans galore of lush Titanic beers. This is a fab little shop in an industrial unit in Burslem – particularly handy for Port Vale but also on the way into Stoke if you’re heading down from The North.

We had a chat with the sales rep who covered the North West and delivers regularly to No 10 Alehouse and also dropped at Fifteens in St Annes earlier this week. There always seems to be Titanic on somewhere on the Fylde Coast, which is most pleasing. Top bloke, top beers, top shop. This was a wonderful start to proceedings.

Now my friend Louise had visited this area recently and recommended our next port of call…

Trentham Monkey Forest

During my planning of this trip, I had been excited to find baby dinosaurs at Foxfield Railway. Dinosaurs win bonus points on any away trip and I couldn’t miss out on this…except I could because the dates didn’t tally. Following that disappointment, there was no way I was going to miss out on these monkeys.

Trentham Monkey Forest is home to over 100 barbary macaques who live in separate groups. They are free to roam around the forest and are not caged. There are staff on hand who provide unprompted but welcome information about the macaques.

This 26-year-old is the oldest in the forest.
Feeding time invites birds…
…and squirrels.
A youngster.

We learned that the natural habitat of barbary macaques – in the mountains of North Africa – is being eroded. This, together with hunting, has led to numbers living the wild rapidly dwindling. Here’s how you can help them.

It was a lovely sunny day today (not too hot at the time of our visit at 1000 when it opened) and we enjoyed a delightful walk around the forest, enjoying the environment and the macaques. I couldn’t believe I’d been to Stoke so many times – and lived so close – without ever visiting this forest.

We didn’t stay for feeding time (the first was at 1115) as we had caught the macaques eating their breakfast and Lee had interviewed one of the staff anyway for the accompanying video to this Football Tourist Guide. We still had a couple more places to hit before the match so moved on to the next place on our itinerary.

On our approach, I was charged with filming some place-setting action, so we turned off Take That so the music in the car wouldn’t appear on the video and give Lee a music strike. But then the radio turned itself on intermittently for a few seconds at a time. How odd. Was there a ghost in the car?

Gladstone Pottery Museum

Do these chimneys remind you of anywhere? On our visit to Stourbridge during our Football Tourist’s Guide To The Black Country last season we visited a glass furnace and were advised that we might see something similar in Stoke. Well here we were at the Gladstone Pottery Museum, which is situated at an old pottery factory which is largely as it was when it was working.

On entry we were advised that there was an activity centre where you could paint your own pottery and were asked it we wanted to do that. My eyes widened and I signed us both up for it for an extra £3 each.

We were directed through to a room showing a short film about the history of the Potteries. I love learning about the local history of these towns and cities that we visit. This deeper understanding makes me feel more a part of these places and they henceforth occupy a little place in my heart. Far from seeing our hosts as ‘rivals’ as we are apparently supposed to on a Saturday afternoon, I see opposition fans as human beings native to these towns and cities we are beginning to fall in love with (which of course is who they actually are). And – coupled with us having had a joyful time on the tourist trail – humanising (and empathising with?) the opposing fans somehow makes it less painful when we inevitably lose on the road. It’s a genius awayday strategy, really, and I wish I’d thought of it years ago.

But back to the video. I was amazed to see the footage of the Potteries in its full smoggy flow, with the skyline dominated by chimneys. Here’s an image from another room in the museum.

There appeared to be some sort of gnome trail in the museum which I’d have been all over had this not been a whistle-stop tour today.

We learned that the locals moved away from farming as the land wasn’t great in this area, so they turned to pottery instead. Sometimes up to 50% of the working population (men, women and children) were involved in the industry. We learned what their working day looked like.

Tangerine and white always catches my eye.

I’d have been working in the office (and perhaps did in a former life) and I was taken by this piece on the office desk.

Definitely me with feet not touching the floor…

We found it fascinating how designs were printed onto plates. How innovative and clever these people were.

There was a room full of moulds.

This model inside one of the furnaces made me jump.

All of this was fascinating but what we were really looking for was where we could do our painting! We found a door marked DECORATING but that was locked. Hmm. Next door was an activity centre with children painting – could that be it? We did a bit more mooching round before deciding it probably was. Mercifully now the children had left and there was just one woman sitting at a table painting in peace as well as one staff member tidying up. We were advised that she was going on her lunch at 1230 and wanted to get the place tidy before she left. It was around 1215 now and we didn’t want to wait around until after lunch as we still had another stop to make before the match. We managed to convince her that we’d be quick and tidy so were allowed to get painting.

I chuckled as I noticed the glasses of water (for cleaning brushes, not drinking) were from a local beer festival.

Painting proved a very mindful exercise and we wondered why we didn’t do more of this. I soon realised that my eyes weren’t really up to this close work though. Still, I enjoyed it very much – and here’s what I painted.

Happy that we’d seen enough for the Tourist Guide and had fun painting, we headed for the gift shop on our way out.

Hmm aren’t these the same people…?

Now it’s not often I fall in love with artwork. Indeed it took me years of active searching to find a seascape that I liked (eventually finding one in Greece in 2019). But in here I stopped in front of a piece that held my gaze. It was unpriced so we had to ask for further information. We were soon advised that this artist had a display in the next room and we were led in there. There were three that I really couldn’t decide between (I really wanted all three but cost of living crisis and all that). I knew I couldn’t leave without one of them. But which one? They were all wonderful images that perfectly illustrated The North, with grey skies, rain, cobbled streets and chimneys. I eventually settled on the one with the ginnel. Here’s a link to the Potteries Nostalgic section of the gallery of Steven Howard, the artist so you can see (and possibly buy) for yourself.

As I happened across these books on toilets, I suddenly remembered something…

…we were here because Christine (of Martin and Christine fame) had recommended it as ‘The Toilet Museum’. And we hadn’t seen any toilets! We asked the staff to hold the painting and provide directions before rushing back into the museum courtyard in search of the toilet exhibition. How could we have forgotten? I think we’d been distracted by the painting.

Found it!

Regular readers will know that I’m fascinated by toilets – and indeed have been since a train trip across Europe in 2008 introduced me to a whole array of flushing mechanisms. This exhibition was therefore the cause of much excitement.

The first exhibit was smelly! I headed into trap two while Lee stepped into trap one.

‘Ew there’s poo in there!’

‘There’s a chicken in this one!’

We then headed into a room which told the story of the evolution (evo-loo-tion?) of the toilet over the years. And it was fascinating! From chamber pots to the first flushing toilet built for Queen Elizabeth I.

Once upon a time people filled up large pots with excrement and Night Soil Men would come round and empty them. What a horrible job that must have been!

We then moved on to a display of decorated toilets and chamber pots.

I was intrigued by the concept of the female urinal, which got me wondering how practical this was.

But what about toilet paper?

But the best was yet to come: there was a quiz corner!

We pressed the buttons as we guessed the multiple choice answers. Incorrect answers got a farting noise and correct answers a flushing noise. Did you know the Digestive biscuit was originally invented to reduce excessive wind?

I found the answer to the below question quite remarkable.

I didn’t even know this was a thing! However a quick survey of a few females I know (who correctly guessed 90%) now has me questioning whether I’m in the minority here. Please could any female readers comment below with HOVER or SIT because I’m still not convinced this is such a prevalent thing. I mean, how do people KNOW?

I was so pleased we’d made the effort to hunt down this fascinating toilet exhibition. What a day we were having here in Stoke! But there was one final port of call that we needed to fit in before the match, so we quickly collected our purchase from the museum shop, whizzed to the away car park and headed towards the Britannia Stadium (or whatever it’s called these days) – and beyond…

The Oatcake Boat

I’d found out about this place en route to Stoke last season and had bookmarked it for a visit on our Tourist Guide this season. After all, we couldn’t possibly miss that delicious local delicacy.

The uninitiated/Scottish/Northern among you may know oatcakes as some sort of stodgy rusky thing but those are Scottish oatcakes – and the Staffordshire version are something quite different; they’re light and fluffy like a pancake and they are bloomin’ lush!

The Oatcake Boat is based at the cut, just over the bridge at the front(?) of the stadium on matchdays. And there’s a beer barge right next to it too. How delightful!

Ooh Titanic!

We arrived around 1400 and there was a slow-moving (well pretty much stationary) queue at The Oatcake Boat. Each oatcake was freshly made and seemed to take about 10 minutes per order. Lee soon became frustrated at the length of time it was taking to make any progress here but I assured him that it would be worth the wait. Lee had never had an oatcake before so had no idea what was coming!

‘But don’t you like to be in the ground by 2 o’clock?’

‘Nah it’ll be reet. We’ve got ages until kick off.’

Eventually we made the front of the queue and I was greeted by a friendly man peering up at me from a hatch on the barge.

‘Ooh it’s not often I feel tall! Can I have two single oatcakes with vegan cheese and bacon please?’

‘With what?’

‘Yeah I know it sounds odd but vegan cheese and bacon please.’

Aside from my new-found obsession with fromage frais (and the occasional yoghurt), we’re pretty much dairy free in our house, enjoying oat/hazelnut/almond/cashew milk and vegan cheese. I haven’t even had chocolate in ages, having lost the cravings for sugar a few weeks ago. This doesn’t augur well for the Lucky Orange Aero, which I was asked about THREE TIMES at the match this afternoon. I need to identify another (healthier) lucky talisman for this season. A tangerine, perhaps?

At length we were seated with our oatcakes and Lee agreed that they were absolutely delicious. Which was just as well as I’d be making them at home now I’d got my hands on that oatcake mix from Titanic.

I’d also secured one bottle of water between the two of us but, by the time we had walked to the ground, that had gone and I was still thirsty. Bacon does that.

Stoke City v Blackpool

On approach to the ground we could already hear the Blackpool fans in full voice. Knowing them, they would be congregated on the concourse – and I was now beginning to dread wading through the sea of Seasiders to get to the toilets, buy a bottle of water and get into my seat. I now remembered WHY I liked to be in the ground for 2 o’clock…

The stewards were ushering us towards the right hand entrance (‘you can go in any gate’) so I went where I was told and happily found myself entering the ground on a quiet concourse. Result! I spotted Sonny Carey’s mum but didn’t attract her attention as I always say stupid stuff when I encounter any member of that family (see Peterborough, Huddersfield, Christmas Day, etc.). Instead I headed straight for the Ladies. No female urinals or anything photo-worthy.

I simply could not face entering the busier concourse (suddenly remembering that beer helps in these situations – but I hadn’t had any). My eyes scouted desperately for another way out of here into the stand. A-ha! There was an exit over there. I headed in that direction. As I tried to make my way through, a steward broke off his argument with another female Seasider to block my path with his arm.

‘You’ve got to go through there.’ He pointed towards the busy concourse.

‘Why have I got to go through there?’

‘Computer says no.’

Oh it was one of THOSE stewards, was it? Much as I’m frustrated by stewards who do nothing when you want their help (see Nottingham Forest), I think these jobsworths are worse.

‘But I’ve got bad anxiety in crowded areas. Can’t I just go through here?’

‘No. You’ve got to go that way. There’s nothing I can do about it.’

‘Well there is something you could do, isn’t there? You could try being sympathetic. You’re not even looking me in the eye when you’re speaking to me.’

Meanwhile the other woman he’d been ‘computer says no’ing’ before me (who had her arm in a cast and also wanted to avoid the busy concourse) went to a police officer for help (‘he’s blaming you for not being able to allow us through’) and they immediately spoke to a steward who escorted us through. Football clubs really ought to be more sympathetic in these situations. It’s very poor that we should have to fight to preserve our health in such situations. But I’ll start getting to the ground early again and manage my mental health myself in future because there doesn’t appear to be a realistic alternative.

Finally in the stand (with no water) I got chatting with some friendly Seasiders including Ashleigh, who said she hoped Villa lost today because she wanted Critch out of a job by Christmas. Harsh but fair, I thought. She also raved about the Chicken Biryani now on sale at Bloomfield Road as ‘great hangover food’. I’d never thought of it in that context but it’s another bonus point for the biryani.

Blackpool started with the same line-up as last week but the match wasn’t as enjoyable – mainly because Stoke were stronger opposition than Reading. We lost 2-0 and couldn’t have any complaints. We were away from home and I got to watch Josh Bowler so it wasn’t a disaster.

The Tangerine Army has a new song about new signing Charlie Patino which went on and on and on (and I suspect will go on and on and on all season like THAT one did last season). I couldn’t make out all the words but I’m sure they’ll be engraved on my brain within the next week so I’m in no rush. I’ve never really been a singer at matches (because I’m female, I think, and always felt conspicuous starting chants surrounded by men in the smaller crowds of the 1990s). I am, however, a writer and baulk at the words to some of these songs (Kenny Dougall gives the ball away LOADS – and there’s nothing eccentric about white boots). Can you at least allow me to rewrite the sexist one?

‘Oh Lancashire (oh Lancashire)

Is wonderful (is wonderful)

Oh Lancashire is wonderful

It’s full of chips, gravy and Blackpool

Oh Lancashire is wonderful.’

Anyway, game over, we headed back to the car, tucked into some fruit and ham, headed back north and were home by 1900. No points but we’d had a great day out in Stoke with the brewery and monkeys and toilet museum and oatcakes. And that, dear reader, is why the Football Tourist Guide was born: to make happy memories in spite of the football. It only took 30 years to figure that out as a coping mechanism. Spread the word (and share this blog) and more travelling fans can enjoy their matchdays too.

Next Up: Blackpool v Barrow. And some pubs!