A few weeks ago a friend and I headed up to Stoke-on-Trent to the Emma Bridgewater Factory to try our hand at painting a mug!
The Emma Bridgewater Factory is based in Stoke, the centre of the UK’s pottery industry and the factory was first opened by the Meakin brothers in 1883. Now it produces over 1.7 million pieces of pottery decorated in the distinctive Bridgewater style per year.
Each piece of pottery is made from clay sourced from Devon, Cornwall, Wales and even nearby Staffordshire before it’s piped into different casts where it is left to dry. Each piece is smoothed off before firing – over seven hours at a 950-degree heat. The factory has 50 decorators who hand paint each piece of pottery using brushes and sponges to create different designs – including the famous polka dot.
Emma Bridgewater High Tea
Maxine and I first had an afternoon tea at the Emma Bridgewater tea room. It’s everything you’d want, lots of the iconic crockery plus delectable leaf tea served in large family-sized teapots. Rather than the three-tier stand you often get, here sandwiches, cake including a shot of Eton mess, scones and crisps are served on a large cake stand just waiting for you to dig in.
It’s all prepared on-site and you can see the team assembling sandwiches and cake as you walk in. The tea room is filled with the inspiration painters use for the pottery and to really set the scene a range master Aga decorated in that classic polka dot print is placed centre stage.
There’s also plenty of room. I sprained my ankle pretty badly a few weeks beforehand and was still hobbling on a crutch, which does not make you the most nimble of people. I felt there was pretty good space for me and my crutch or maybe a mama and pram.
The afternoon tea is very popular, as you’d imagine, so I would recommend booking in advance. We went on a Saturday and the restaurant was full by the time it reached peak afternoon tea period (3 o’clock). It’s £12.50 per head for the High Tea and is available from 12 noon at the weekend and from 2pm on weekdays. We booked about 6 weeks beforehand to get the slot we wanted.
The cafe is also open for breakfast plus hot and cold lunches, so if afternoon tea is not your thing, there are other options – but you’d still probably need to book a table.
Had I not been on crutches, I think we would have opted to do a Factory Tour which is free but also needs to be booked in advance. You can walk through the whole process, meet the jigger, jollier, fettlers, casters and decorators and see their traditional skills in action.
Decorating Studio at Emma Bridgewater
After our high tea, we had a session in the Decorating Studio (because you remain seated for most of it!). A session costs £2.95 which secures your booking and basically covers the costs of your decorating materials. It then costs extra for the items you wish to decorate which you pay for on the day. I found it quite difficult deciding what to decorate – in the end, I opted for two quarter pint mugs, whilst Maxine tackled a star-shaped bowl and an egg cup.
It is worth bearing in mind when making your selection that you have an hour and a half to complete your paint job. There are lots of different items to paint including a 50-gallon teapot. I did hear a staff member say to a lady painting a GIANT jug that she could have an extra 30 minutes due to the size of her piece!
After an introduction from a professional decorator, showing you how to use the specialist paints and pencils, it’s time to take a look at the offer tools on offer. There is a whole host of sponge stamps, like the equipment the professional decorators use, everything from mermaids to leaves to the alphabet.
With the paints the trick to remember is that the colours will end up darker than when you apply them – there’s a plate on each table to show you how they end up and with all painting, you apply lighter colours first and end with the darker ones.
It can actually be a bit overwhelming, so they have plenty of inspiration for designs on the shelves around the studio. I’d also recommend maybe having a bit of a Pinterest spree before you go – you could even save a photo on your phone to save time. (I definitely saw at least three versions of this mug being painted – clearly going down the Pinterest route, and who could blame them!)
I liked using the sponge stamps as it meant that we created a design at the end which was reminiscent of the classic Emma Bridgewater looks but with our own twists. You can, of course, go completely rogue! We were explicitly told to not paint the bottom of our pieces so that the official Emma Bridgewater stamp could be seen.
Once we’d finished pretending to be Picasso, our pieces would then be fired a final time. It takes about two weeks for the finished product, which you can either collect from the factory or they will post to you for £5.
Factory Outlet shop
Lastly, it’s definitely worth mentioning that the factory has both a factory outlet shop, which sells seconds and final buys, and a showroom, which shows the latest ranges. You can certainly get a good buy in the outlet shop but do check that although it is a second, that you pick up a piece that’s not cracked or chipped. Despite checking several dishes, I managed to buy a butter dish with a hairline crack in it!
There’s plenty of parking at the factory and in the summer, it has a courtyard area which would be lovely for sitting in if it’s warm. You can also book a complete experience day at £30 per person – which includes the afternoon tea, tour and half-pint mug to paint in the decorating studio (and a 10% shopping discount in the showroom).
Visit https://www.emmabridgewater.co.uk/products/afternoon-tea for more information.