Although I was born in Congleton (in the county of Cheshire), I moved to Leek, in north Staffordshire – about 12 miles away to the southeast – when I was seven.
So, I grew up in the shadow of the Staffordshire Moorlands, and actually think of myself more or less as Staffordshire born and bred. My father was a Staffordshire man who was born in the brewing town of Burton-upon-Trent.
For me, the Staffordshire Moorlands (on the southern edge of the Peak District National Park – and, founded in 1951, the first national park in the UK) is one of the most beautiful parts of England. It’s wild and rugged, but dissected by the deep, wooded valleys of the River Churnet, and the River Dane (which forms the boundary between Staffordshire and Cheshire for about 10 miles). Among the most famous landmarks are the Roaches and Ramshaw Rocks, outcrops of millstone grit, and home for many decades to a feral population of wallabies!
For seven years from 1960 I attended high school in Stoke-on-Trent – the Potteries. In those days, the Potteries were a dark and dismal city, covered in the grime from the collieries (and steam railways) as well as the smoke from the myriad of bottle ovens found in all the factories (known as ‘potbanks’), where world-famous ceramics were made, such as Wedgwood, Spode, and Royal Doulton.
Now, the pits have closed, and the ceramic industry is but a shadow of its former glory (the Wedgwood family is fighting to keep a priceless collection of ceramics together, in danger of being sold off piecemeal to cover the pension fund debts of the parent company that went bankrupt in 2009). The Clean Air Act of the mid-1950s ensured that the pollution that once smothered the Potteries was a thing of the past. And over the past decades the spoil heaps from the collieries have been levelled (in one part of the city they were referred to as ‘the Cobridge Alps’), and whole areas of terraced housing (once occupied by the workers from the potbanks) have been demolished to make way for new developments.
And one of the businesses affected is The Hole in the Wall.
Well, I guess this means nothing to almost everyone who reads this post. About to close down – on 25 March to be precise – The Hole in the Wall is the last remaining front-room oatcake bakery in Staffordshire.
Oatcakes? These aren’t the crispy biscuits you buy in Scotland. Oh no! They are a delicious, thin, grilled ‘pancake’ made from fermented oat flour, served hot with delicious fillings of bacon, sausages, cheese, and eggs, and have been a traditional Potteries delicacy for decades. Just watch this audio slideshow to learn how they are made (and what is happening to The Hole in the Wall) , and why Potteries folk adore them. It’s believed that the idea of oatcakes was brought back to the Potteries by soldiers of the Staffordshire Regiment who had served in India. They look like the Ethiopian injera, which is made from the indigenous cereal teff (Eragrostis tef). These points are raised in the slideshow and the accompanying article in The Guardian.
I grew up eating oatcakes, and many years ago now, I introduced my wife Steph (an Essex lass) to the delights of the Staffordshire oatcake. And she was hooked as well, found a recipe, and has been making them ever since. And we enjoyed them during the 19 years we lived in the Philippines.
She’s still making them and today, Sunday, we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast of oatcakes and sausages, and freshly-brewed coffee. What a great way to start the day!
But there’s another Staffordshire delicacy – love it or hate it (in my case, ‘hate it’) – and that’s Marmite, a yeast extract by-product of the brewing industry. Marmite comes from Burton-upon-Trent, and the ‘Marmite odour’ is quite rich at times during the summer as you drive through the town.