Nestled in the heart of England, Apedale Heritage Centre exhibits three million years of local history of the county North Staffordshire, and the city Stoke-on-Trent. Located in Chesterton, it is based in a country park that is home to an abundance of wildlife and picturesque trails that span 184 hectares of open space.
At the base of the country park lies Apedale Heritage Centre, next to one of North Staffordshire’s last working coal mines. The coal mine, as it stands, closed its doors in 1998 but the heritage centre conducts underground tours that are unique to North Staffordshire –one would have to travel around a hundred miles to experience an underground tour in a real disused coal mine. The heritage centre is run completely by volunteers and is also host to a wonderful museum that includes history of the local area from the formation of coal to the mid-late twentieth century.
The museum is open 10:30am to 4pm every Saturday and Sunday, the café is open every day between 10:30am and 4pm with both indoor and outdoor seating, and Surface Mine Tours are conducted on Sundays – no need to book, just turn up! Sunday would be the recommended day to visit as the museum, café and Surface Mine Tours are open and running, this way you will get the full Apedale Heritage Experience. Toilets, baby changing, and accessible toilet facilities are located in the reception area, and to the left one will find the café selling a wide range of hot and cold food and beverages; the café also serves a North Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent delicacy – the Staffordshire Oatcake, which one can taste to obtain the full North Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent experience.
Inside the centre, to the right, there is a reception desk where admission can be purchased for underground mine tours, maps for the country park can also be purchased and there is a small gift shop. As of the time of writing of this article, the museum is free to enter.
When visiting, the underground tours were still unable to run due to Covid-19 restrictions, however a Surface Tour of the site at the rear of the heritage centre where the mine entrance stands was offered in replacement. (Underground tours are now being permitted with a limitation of six people to a tour, and face coverings must be worn underground! However, Surface tours are still available!)
Visitors are guided around the exterior of the site, shown exterior tools, out buildings and artefacts such as a wonderful original man riding car. At the end of the tour, the superb volunteers will pass you to an ex-miner who has an amazing display of underground lamps and safety equipment from BC to modern day. It is an extremely fascinating tour, especially as things like lighting and safety underground are often looked over! Dave has an amazing collection of safety and lighting equipment that is very unique to him and thus the centre! The passion of all guides resonates when doing a surface or underground tour; the passion for their own heritage and keeping it alive for others is clearly of importance to each and every volunteer.
Surface Tours are £3 for adults and £1 for children under 15 and OAPs. The ground can be uneven for those not steady on their feet and would be tricky to access for those in wheelchairs. However, the volunteers will cater the tour as they see fit and the centre has recently opened an accessible replica mine that is on the surface. Visitors who are unable to go underground can be shown into the small building which has been well planned and made to replicate what it is like underground at Apedale. Underground tours are £5 for concessions and £7 for adults, suitable footwear and clothing must be worn!
Returning to the heritage centre itself, near the reception desk is the entrance to the indoor museum. The museum is free to enter. Due to Covid-19 regulation there is a one-way system in place which is clearly labelled with stickers and tape. The first exhibition is the Roman exhibition.
The Roman exhibition explains the local Roman history of Chesterton, the town in which Apedale is located. It displays Roman finds from the town and the remains of the Roman fortress which is located under the high school in Chesterton. It contains much detail of the life and times of Roman Britain whilst also detailing the local Roman history. This gallery is particularly fascinating as it emphasises how long the local area has existed, many things such as scraps of pottery and oil lamps have been found just a couple of miles from the museum and they are on display here. In this gallery there is also the foundations of what is thought to have been a rather large building – indicating that Chesterton was once a very large Roman settlement!
The next exhibitions one will come across are those surrounding the importance of brick and tile making in North Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent. In the local area there is a great industrial heritage surrounding clay, so prominent in fact that Stoke-on-Trent is also known as The Potteries – once swamped by an abundance of pottery factories it hosted names such as Wedgewood, Clarice Cliff and Royal Doulton and is still host to names such as Burleigh, Emma Bridgewater and Churchill; it is a well-known fact that the best pottery comes from Stoke-on-Trent. These exhibitions explain the importance of clay in the industries of brick, tile and chimney making and reveal information surrounding the once operating local brick and tile factories.
Continuing through the museum, there is an abundance of information surrounding the local canal systems and how they have changed over time. The inventor of the canal system, James Brindley, also grew up in North Staffordshire. There are also several small locos ( a loco being a powered vehicle that is used for pulling train carriages) on display, one dating back to the Great War, with information about the role the railways played in the first world war and how locos were used in underground coal mining too. Past the locos, there is an extensive display on the formation of coal, its uses, and the landscape of North Staffordshire 3 million years ago. There are many animal and plant fossils in this exhibition – be sure you don’t miss them!
The rest of the museum’s exhibitions are all about the development, safety and dangers of coal mining, and the lives of miners in the late 19th and 20th century. The first exhibition about safety goes into detail about the importance and training of the Mines Rescue team; a Mines Rescue van stands pride of place, and opposite a number of pictures and safety artefacts are displayed.
Tools, NCB work jackets – also known as donkey jackets as coal miners expressed they were ‘worked like donkeys’ – lamps, pit checks and images of the many mines that once filled the landscape of North Staffordshire can be seen. There is a lot of information here so be sure to take your time and look at everything carefully! The museum and reception staff are always eager to give more information to visitors and are happy to answer any questions you may have to the best of their ability.
Following the one-way system around, one will then come across the reconstruction rooms of the home of a typical miner during the first half of the twentieth century. This seems to be a popular area with visitors and school children alike as one can see how family life would have been nearly one hundred years ago. Firstly, the parlour replication allows a comparison to one’s home and shows how things were different, emphasising the make do and mend society of the 1940s. A typical lounge/living room is next in the reconstruction, showing what life was like with no indoor plumbing and electrical aids such as washing machines. There are a lot of artefacts that may be missed if one looks over this room quickly, make sure to look on the shelves around the range cooker and see delicacies, household items and entertainment that would have been the norm back then. Moving further, one will come to a replica scullery and outdoor toilet and coal shed, again showing the realities of no electricity and no indoor plumbing whilst also emphasising the importance of coal to the household during the time in which the reconstruction is set. Many artefacts can be spotted in the scullery and again volunteers are more than happy to answer any questions surrounding them.
Further along, one will learn how dangerous the coal mining industry was, as some major disasters are displayed here. The Diglake and Minnie Pit disasters are detailed here, many come to find relatives names who were involved in the disasters in these displays. Original newspaper pages, disaster fund tubs and details of the disasters are all on display here, highlighting just how dangerous coal mining was and to show how proud North Staffordshire is to remember those who gave their life to its coal field. The Minnie Pit disaster was the worst mining disaster in all the years of the Great War, the display is very emotive and brings up many mixed emotions particularly when one realises some who died were just aged 14.
Before leaving the museum, don’t miss the small display on the second world war which hosts many artefacts and newspaper pages about bombings and how the war affected the local area. An interesting fact to know before viewing this exhibition is that Reginald Mitchell, the creator of the Spitfire plane, was also born in North Staffordshire.
Leaving the museum, there are several donation boxes that would be ever so grateful for a donation of any amount, particularly as the museum survives solely on donations. All proceeds go towards the maintaining of the coal mine and the tours around it, and the café are run completely by volunteers and rely on donations to stay open.
Apedale Heritage Centre is a full day out that will expand your knowledge of not only the coal mining industry in North Staffordshire, but the prehistory, Roman history, and industrial history of the area. It is a standing testimony to the once thriving coal mining industry of North Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, and it also stands as a memorial to the industry and those who died, worked hard, and saw the horrors of working underground throughout the late nineteenth century and twentieth century. Finish your trip off by purchasing a hot meal, snack or drink from the café and then go for an adventure in the country park, make sure to plan for a full days outing as you will need a lot of time to appreciate this wonderful museum and all it has to offer!
The Heritage Centre is best accessed by private vehicle or taxi – the main road will transition into an access road that will lead to two carparks to both the left and right. A bus stop is located nearby on Loomer Road, but it is a 1.1 mile walking distance to the centre. The Apedale Heritage Centre website provides further information regarding public transport and which buses to board to visit the centre from different areas in Stoke-on-Trent and North Staffordshire.
Educational trips can also be booked through the centre, including school trips and for those who wish to bring a work group or club to the centre for a day out. School trips for children cost a small price of £95 for up to 40 pupils (teachers and support staff do not count towards this price), and the children will be split into three groups and alternate between a mine tour, museum tour and country park walk – many volunteers have experience working with children, Ofsted or in a school environment.
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Annabel has been volunteering at Apedale Heritage Centre since April 2018, primarily leading museum tours for educational trips and volunteering in reception on weekends since the Covid-19 pandemic. She graduated with a 2:1 in a Dual Honours degree of History and Education from the University of Keele, specialising in the local Anglo-Saxon history of Staffordshire and is soon to be graduating from the University of Keele with a Master of Arts degree in History specialising in the role of music in the twentieth century black freedom struggle in America. More of her postgraduate academic work can be found on her recently created blog - https://weremakingprogressbutsoisthesun.wordpress.com/. She also has a twitter account to connect with fellow academics and history lovers - @annabelpolles