Finding the Gladstone Pottery Museum was a happy surprise. After touring several china factories in the area - Wedgwood and Spode included - we were driving along when right in front of the car loomed a large red brick bottle kiln (so-called because its shape is like an oversized bottle).
I shouldn't have been so taken in by the kilns as I had seen many old photographs of the potteries. They always showed the coal smoke rising into a black cloud which hung eerily over this area - the six towns that are the center of the famed Staffordshire Potteries.
But there the kilns stood in their solitariness, making me acutely aware that they were relics of centuries of industrial history with a story to tell.
As I admired the kilns, our host, Robert Copeland - who worked all of his life in the Spode factory and whose family owned the factory from the early 1800 s until the late l960s - told me about the Gladstone Pottery Museum in Longton and gave me directions to the site.
Located on Uttoxeter Road, this small working museum is just a short walk from the center of town and the train station. It's on a site where pottery has been manufactured for 200 years. The factory was named for a Mr. Gladstone who owned it in the late 19th century. Gladstone is considered typical of an unmodernized pottery and quite surprisingly, was operated commercially as recently as l960.
The Gladstone Museum, which opened in April l975, was started by a group of factory owners and pottery devotees who formed a charitable trust to preserve the history of the Staffordshire potteries. Gladstone is now maintained as the industrial museum of the British Ceramics Industries.
At Gladstone there are four bottle kilns of the type used for centuries. Their design goes back to medieval times when pots first were placed separately from the heat in surrounding fire boxes during a firing. Incidentally, remnants found in this area show that the early Romans may have made pots here - where clay was discovered and is still dug for use in some crude products today.
It is also interesting to note that this Victorian museum has recently been featured as a setting for a BBC production of ''Anna of the Five Towns,'' a 19 th-century novel set in the potteries and written by Arnold Bennett. For this production, a bottle kiln was fired up and once again black smoke billowed up through its chimney.
The factory warehouses of the museum, reached by outside wooden stairways, and several workshops are now galleries and exhibition halls. A visitor can see the present potters at work, demonstrating skills of the past. On the day I was there a potter was making rough red clay flowerpots in one workroom; in another a woman was making floral china jewelry by cutting out and placing petals together to form a flower. At other times an assortment of inexpensive gift items such as minature bottle kilns, thimbles, mugs, and pitchers might be in process.
Finished pieces are sold in the small giftshop, manned by a local volunteers. A new volunteer talked enthusiastically about the importance of this living museum to the towns and to hundreds of schoolchildren and other groups who visit each year. Over a million visitors have seen the museum, which is open year round, since 1975.
Among the galleries: The Historical Gallery, which traces the history of the Staffordshire Potteries; The Gallery of Ceramic Tiles, which includes an extensive collection of decorative and utilitarian tiles for which the area is famous; an Exhibition of Ceramic Sanitaryware, a fascinating collection of decorated and plain bathroom fixtures with unique plumbing arrangements; and The Gallery of Ceramic Colour and Decoration, which displays decorated wares.
Downstairs an exhibit of enlarged photographs tells the dreadful plight of workers in the potteries: long hours, child labor, harsh treatment, and severe health problems due to the poor industrial environment - problems which lasted hundreds of years.
These conditions led to strikes and emigration away from the factories in the 1800s. Eventually attempts were made to clean up the atmosphere inside and outside the factories. Use of lead in the body of the pottery and glaze gradually decreased and processes involved in production improved. In the end, factory owners and unionized laborers banded together in the cleanup.
After World War II most of the factories converted from coal to electricity or gas and were mechanized by installing tunnel kilns.Thus began the demise of bottle kilns and their gradual disintegration (Spode's one remaining bottle kiln fell with a great crash in 1972, narrowly missing Robert Copeland, who was walking across the factory's yard at the time). And clear skies returned after four centuries of smog.
It's not surprising to learn that the Gladstone Museum was awarded the 1976 Museum of the Year Award as the outstanding living and working museum in Britain. It is well designed and maintained. Brightly painted arrows mark the path across the red brick factory yard leading to each step in making pottery. You're transposed back to the 19th century as you pass carts that once carried coal to fire the ovens. Open basketlike crates and barrels that remain were stuffed with excelsior and wares and wereused to ship the finished products to the outside world.
The kilns are open so you can go inside to see exactly how the wares were stacked for firing and the fireboxes filled with coal. Pictures show firemen tending the kilns during a firing, a process that took some 76 hours from start to cooling.
You need to allow about two hours to see this little museum, to have enough time to absorb the information it has to offer. And to have time to plan the camera shots that you'll be inspired to take. Take it from me - brick bottle kilns are very photogenic.
For readers interested in ceramics, the New Trier Extension, 3013 Illinois Road, Wilmette, Ill. 60091 is offering a special tour this year, ''The Potteries of England II,'' which will focus on British ceramics. The escorted tour includes visits to the best known pottery museums as well as several great houses and cathedrals.