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Pottery at Stonham Barns Park, near Stowmarket, where it’s always time for tea

What connects a canal boat, a telephone, a beach hut, a box of chocolates, a man on a tractor, and a toilet? Ask anyone that question and one thing they are very unlikely to think of is teapots.

But that’s the link between those apparently random objects plus hundreds more including the door of No. 10 Downing Street, a dog in an armchair, a caravan, and a 1920s typewriter.

They are all among the brilliantly quirky designs in the repertoire of artisan teapot makers Carters of Suffolk.

Left to right: Carol Bridges and managing director Valerie Baldry at Carters of Suffolk
Left to right: Carol Bridges and managing director Valerie Baldry at Carters of Suffolk

The unique creations - all designed by the firm’s original founder Tony Carter - have been loved by collectors and tea drinkers for almost 50 years.

Tea arrived in Britain in the 17th century. Once something only the very wealthy could afford, it gradually filtered down through society until the British were known throughout the world for their devotion to their favourite brew.

Today - although its claim to be the nation’s top beverage is challenged by coffee - it still has legions of faithful fans.

Tracey Maskell adding printed details to a teapot
Tracey Maskell adding printed details to a teapot

Whether it’s a fragrant Earl Grey sipped from a delicate china cup or a sturdy mug of classic builders’ brew millions of us still insist nothing hits the spot like tea.

And while just popping a tea bag into a mug is now the norm, there’s still something special about brewing it up in a proper teapot.

All Carters’ pots are glazed inside and out and made to be used, although to a lot of people they are simply to be collected and admired.

And they are especially popular in America where their quintessential quirky Britishness goes down like a fine cup of perfectly-infused Darjeeling.

Carol Bridges meticulously paints a Jane Austin teapot
Carol Bridges meticulously paints a Jane Austin teapot

In the teapot pottery in the heart of Suffolk pre-Christmas is the busiest period with orders flooding in.

Everywhere there are teapots in different stages of production. Some still in their moulds, others drying out on shelves, or being painted. At one end of the room are two kilns where they are fired at temperatures of up to 1160C.

All the production work is done by just three people - Jill Davey, Carol Bridges, and Tracey Maskell. Jill and Carol have both clocked up more than three decades with the company.

Jill Davey trims excess clay from a newly-moulded teapot
Jill Davey trims excess clay from a newly-moulded teapot

Carters of Suffolk has been based at Stonham Barns Park in Stonham Aspal since 2013. But the story begins in nearby Debenham where former owner Tony Carter and his late wife Anita set up a pottery in 1978.

Tony, also a long-time teacher of pottery and design, says: “It was quite an avant garde pottery in those days, our products were very brightly coloured.

“We used a slip cast technique which is an industrial technique, not what you would expect in a studio pottery.”

Pottery staff (L-R) Carol Bridges, Jil Davey and Tracey Maskell in the pottery at Carters of Suffolk
Pottery staff (L-R) Carol Bridges, Jil Davey and Tracey Maskell in the pottery at Carters of Suffolk

More than 40 years later that is still the method used to create the teapots, from Tony’s original moulds.

“The pottery very gradually grew,” he recalls, “and we did start with a few teapots but they didn’t really come in until about 1980. Before then we had been doing all sorts of other things.

“Then it really, really took off. My reputation and the reputation of the pottery, Carters’ Ceramic Designs, was built around these collectable teapots.

“When I was studying at Bath Academy of Arts, I wrote my thesis on teapots, but I never expected to make a living out of them.

“The pottery grew and grew. Anita and I were both very, very involved and the two key staff were Jill and Carol.

“We peaked with 20 staff, and exported 80 percent of our production worldwide, supplying top stores like Harrods, Liberty’s, and Bloomingdales in America. We also built up a very big tourist centre in Debenham.”

Carters chocolate teapot
Carters chocolate teapot

After Anita died in 2013, he sold the production side of the pottery and it moved to Stonham Barns. He stayed with it for four years running it for the new owner. Soon after moving the business survived a devastating fire.

Tony, who now has a pottery school in Debenham, also spent many years as a part-time lecturer at Colchester School of Art.

He still loves tea. “I am a tea drinker - I love proper builders tea. I sometimes use one of my collection of teapots but only if friends come round,” he adds.

Carters' Jane Austen teapot
Carters' Jane Austen teapot

At Stonham the pottery operates alongside a tearoom, which serves hot and cold drinks, cream teas, cakes and light lunches.

Carters of Suffolk managing director Valerie Baldry joined the company earlier this year after 27 years with BT, excited by a role that could hardly be more different from her previous job as a delivery, operations and support engineer.

She and Stonham Barns owner Alan Forward are 50/50 partners in the business. “I was approached by Alan a few months ago to see if I would like to take on the running of the tearoom and pottery,” said Valerie.

Carters’ sleeping dog in an armchair teapot
Carters’ sleeping dog in an armchair teapot

At the time, she said: “I jumped at the chance to bring my experience to the team and see how I can help to enhance the business as it continues to grow and develop.

“Tea is the one thing that will never go out of fashion – particularly with the increase in demand for afternoon teas – and so we have a bright and colourful future ahead.”

“I am passionate about good service and that’s what I know how to provide,” adds Valerie, who currently shares tearoom duties with Beverley May, and is in charge of dispatching with help from Tracey.

“Ninety-five percent of our sales go to the USA currently,” says Valerie. “Disney is a big customer. They use and sell them in the EPCOT theme park in Florida.”

Carters' toilet teapot
Carters' toilet teapot

The moulds used to produce the teapots, still the originals created by Tony, are stacked on shelves alongside the packing area.

In the pottery the clay arrives in large blocks. Jill. who has worked for Carters for 38 years, says: “I started straight from school on a Youth Training Scheme.

“At first I absolutely hated it but my mum said stay until Christmas and see how you get on. I stuck it out and it began to feel a bit better, and the rest is history.

“We mix the clay with water in a machine called a blunger, which is a bit like a big food mixer and turns it into liquid.

“Then we pour the liquid clay into a mould. The moulds are plaster so they absorb moisture from the clay.”

Carters' canal boat teapot
Carters' canal boat teapot

Solidified clay clings to the mould, forming the shape of the teapot. “We leave it for one to one and a half hours, pour out the remaining liquid, and leave it again for another hour because at that stage it’s very wet, before releasing it and lifting it out very carefully,” said Jill.

Excess clay is then trimmed off and the pot is left to dry. Wet clay is dark grey and turns white as it dries.

They make one cup pots as well as full size ones. “They’re all made to be used, they’re glazed inside and out,” says Jill. “But a lot are just bought as collectors’ items.”

Valerie says what Jill doesn’t know isn’t worth knowing, adding the whole team are all tremendous.

Carol, who joined the firm 30 years ago, is meticulously painting highlights in real gold onto teapot locomotives, before turning her attention to adding the colours to Jane Austen pots which appear as a stack of novels by the iconic author. Both are among their best-sellers.

“I was a full time mum and needed a part time job when the children started school,” says Carol.

“I took a part time job at the pottery which was then based in Debenham, then went full time.

“I started off doing fettling, which is cleaning up the pots before they are painted. Then I went on to doing other things as well.

“I’m semi-retired now, and usually do three days a week, but at the moment I’m back doing full time because we’re so busy.”

The whole fascinating process can be seen from the sales area, and visitors are also able to talk to the staff.

Tracey Maskell is currently learning all the processes. “I’ve been here almost two years so I’m known as the baby of the group,” she says as she carefully cuts out printed flowers to apply to the latest batch of Jane Austen pots.

“They’re then dipped in water, where the backing floats off, put onto the pots and given a good rub to get the water off. The water makes them stick,” Tracey explains.

The pottery is also now doing “paint your own” ceramics sessions, which can be combined with refreshments in the tearoom.

Individuals, families and groups can book to come in. “After painting we process it from start to finish - it takes about a week, then we either send them out or they can collect them,” said Valerie. “They can also talk to the ladies in the pottery and have a tour of the pottery.

“We are also planning to take the experience out into the community, for instance to sheltered accommodation, care homes, schools and groups. Painting is very therapeutic. We are trying to take it to a bigger audience either here or in the community, including WI groups, or the u3a.”

For more information visit cartersofsuffolk.com

Carters of Suffolk has received a number of prestigious awards including the latest one from LuxLife for Best Handmade Ceramic Giftware Producer Award 2022.

As well as their American fans they supply department stores, museums, gift shops and tearooms around the UK and Europe, and online retailers.