A few years ago we made a Time Team film in an 1870s railway navvy camp high in the Yorkshire Dales, on the Settle-Carlisle railway. Navvies, like archaeologists, were known for their boozy lifestyle and we fully expected to find massive evidence for drinking. And we did! There were trayfuls of sherds, but they weren’t glass. No, they were mostly pieces of blue-on-white china, usually from teacups and saucers. Tea, it would appear, was the hard-bitten navvies’ tipple of choice. And I have to confess that as I get older I find tea and coffee are getting more and more inviting. Which is why I’m writing this rather unusual, for me, blog post. Time for another memory.
Sometime in the mid-1990s I went with English Heritage (now Historic England) on a trip to Stoke-on-Trent to look round a rare working pottery. During the late 20th century many manufacturers of English china moved their factories from Stoke to China, where labour was massively cheaper. Ironic, in a way, as we originally pinched the technology of making porcelain from the Chinese. But I must not digress. Anyhow, one firm had re-established a small pottery in Stoke and had made use of an existing building, which still had its kilns and workshops more or less intact. This building had been protected by Listing – which was why our party from English Heritage visited it. And I have to say we were very impressed with what we saw. I think I even bought a teapot.
More recently, other firms have re-established potteries in Stoke, including one of the most famous companies of them all: Spode. The early history of the English Potteries is fascinating and it includes some very remarkable people, one of whom was Josiah Spode I, who invented Bone China in 1796. Bone China is essentially a version of porcelain which can be produced commercially and is remarkably strong, heat-resistant and attractive. It is made from china clay and calcined (i.e. burnt) ox bone. Josiah I was succeeded by his son, Josiah Spode II, who went on to improve the original Bone China. He also had a good grasp of marketing and introduced some very attractive new lines including blue-on-white designs in what would later be known as Willow Pattern Plate. Many of the broken teacups and saucers we excavated on that Time Team navvy camp dig were Willow Pattern Plate.
I know that nowadays we all live increasingly busy and frantic lives, and we drink our tea and coffee from mugs (sadly we are discarding teapots, which I regard as the first step of Humanity’s descent into Oblivion). But for Maisie and me, breakfast has always been different. It doesn’t matter how rushed we might be, we always drink our coffee from breakfast cups. To a non-Brit, breakfast cups look, for all the world, like large tea cups. But they’re not. Yes, they are more capacious and I think that encourages the drinker to sit back and take stock of his or her world. Maybe it’s the steamy aroma that inspires both introspection and concern for others. You cannot possibly think selfish or greedy thoughts when you’re holding onto a full breakfast cup. Mugs belong to a grab-it-while-you-can mentality. But not breakfast cups They are quite different: they’re all about magnanimity and grace. Nobody, but nobody, could possibly gulp their coffee from a breakfast cup.
Our old breakfast cups were getting cracked and unreliable. They were dear friends, but the time had come to relegate them to the cupboard where we keep things that only see the light of day on rare occasions. We both knew more or less what we wanted, but couldn’t find them in shops – not even in John Lewis. So Maisie went on the internet and eventually came across the Spode website. And there she discovered a blue-on-white design in their Italian range that has been in continuous production since 1816 – the year after Waterloo. It was love at first sight – and we bought four. They were also remarkably cheap, given various introductory offers.
In 2007 the old Spode company moved its production to China, which proved a big mistake and the company closed. In 2009 it was bought by the Portmeiron Group who have always had an enlightened approach to craftsmanship and maintained a pottery in Stoke. It’s near the original Spode works and that’s where our breakfast cups were made. It’s a shame the clock can’t be turned back 100% and re-open the old factory, but the Portmeiron take-over of Spode is undoubtedly very good news for Britain, for Stoke and for breakfast cup fanciers, everywhere. It’s a huge stride in the right direction.
But now it’s time to lift the cup, raise the little finger and cherish another lingering, sensuous, steamy sip… Ahhh, what bliss!