What is an oatcake? If you find yourself in Staffordshire then you will taste something utterly unlike the Scottish biscuit variety. Stoke on Trent’s oatcake consists of a soft crepe style pancake, traditionally filled with savoury fillings such cheese, ham and mushroom.
According to 20th century poet Arthur Berry in his ‘Homage to The Oatcake’ it should be ‘an obedient and suppliant cheek/ That will bend any way you want it’ and it can also be called the ‘Potteries Poppadum’, the ‘Tunstall Tortilla’ and ‘Clay Suzette.’
I discovered this and many other deliciously intriguing secrets about Stoke-on -Trent during my visit to the city courtesy of the Appetite programme which aims to develop a taste for arts amongst its residents as well as attracting national and international attention to the city.
The name Appetite was developed to describe the individuality of personal tastes, whether regarding food or art. Theresa Heskins, artistic director at The New Vic, Stoke’s thriving theatre, compares her first memory of going to the theatre in London with her first time eating ketchup at a local fast food chain, ‘that exciting moment when you try something new and you love it.’ Ketchup and theatre continue to play a big part in Theresa’s life. Through trying new varieties of arts events, Appetite hopes that Stoke’s residents will find something they love. Theresa is one of the programme’s strongest advocates, aiming to ‘bring work made in Staffordshire to the attention of a national audience’ as well as ‘making the area a better place to live.’
In recent years, Stoke-on-Trent has been somewhat overlooked. Once a thriving industrial town famed for its pottery, the closure of the big names such as Royal Doulton and Wedgwood caused economic suffering and subsequently caused a falling off the national map. It has suffered from high levels of unemployment and poor school results. Appetite is a three-year program launched to regenerate the city through the arts and inspire both locals and outsiders to believe that Stoke-on-Trent is a great place to be a part of. Last year Appetite ran a series of arts taster events, followed by a large-scale festival this summer. There is a focus on free pop up events in public spaces within the community to make the events accessible to everyone. The New Vic theatre is leading the Appetite programme in collaboration with other local organisations.
The programme ran throughout August with community events by local groups running through until the winter. August highlights include performances by NoFit State Circus who provide ‘a weekend of fun and frolics in the city centre.’ Ongoing projects include ‘Play me, I’m yours’ for which custom decorated pianos are installed around the city for anyone to play. The final ‘Big Feast Weekend’ will include a modernized performance of Faust by Southpaw Dance. Events are either free or inexpensive and many will be held in public spaces, aiming to make them accessible to all locals.
Walking through Stoke, the city’s industrial history is everywhere. You can wander through cobbled streets past rows of Victorian terraced houses and imagine the hive of industry this city would have once been. The canals once used to transport pottery to Liverpool are the best way to view the old brick pottery buildings and industrial sized kilns shaped like giant beehives. London Road, the original passage to and from the capital, is at the heart of the city’s history. Artist Dan Thompson is so fascinated by this street’s eclectic history that he has started a project based on it called ‘All about the road.’ He has already discovered some unusual stories. As we stroll down the street he draws our attention to small details that might otherwise go unnoticed: a statue of an elephant commemorating the time an elephant cantered down this street, thought to have escaped from the local circus, and Electric lane, named after its most famous resident who invented the spark plug. London Road hosts Rubber Soul records, a treasure trove of ’60s and ’70s vinyl. It acts as a reminder of Stoke’s prominence in the Northern Soul scene.
Local resident’s organization SWOCA recently organised a festival on London Road which included a series of banners, displayed along the street referencing the street’s hidden history as well as pop up art and music events. The organization has been running for seven years and is an amazing example of local residents’ passion about their city. I was lucky enough Liz Perry, one of the main organisors. She talks enthusiastically about their recent festival as well as her love of Stoke. Another of Stoke’s less desirable claims to fame is that the captain of the Titanic, responsible for the ship’s collision with the iceberg, was born here. There is a local pub and brewery called the Titanic which commemorates this rather dark fact. I finished my day in Stoke with a drink of their delicious house brewed Plum porter.
Stoke on Trent has plenty of hidden secrets to discover and the Appetite programme this summer would definitely tempt me back, or perhaps the promise of another oatcake…
For more information about the Appetite programme head to their website
words Helena Goodrich