WEDGEWOOD, MINTON, Spode, Royal Doulton, Copeland -- magical names revered as fine examples of pottery and porcelain. Yet for most people, the names are known only as an imprint on the bottom of a cup or saucer.

Those beautifully decorated wares emanate from a relatively small area in Staffordshire, and a visit to the source of these objects is like paying the ultimate tribute to a beloved author by visiting his region of England. But while thoughts of Wessex, Cumbria, or Shropshire -- the very names are poetic -- produce images of incomparable beauty, the unpoetic Potteries region evokes images of thick clouds of black smoke pouring out from ugly factory chimneys.

Why go? Would it not be wiser for the tourist to remain content with reading the Staffordshire labels in a London china shop and save energy for the popular Cotswolds?

Despite unpromising images of industry, the Potteries has much to offer the small numbers who venture there. In a corner of North Staffordshire, in the valley of the River Trent, lies a chain of six towns called "the Potteries": Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke-upon-Trent, Fenton and Longton. Linked from north to south by a long road (Route A50), this is the only region in England named for the work that is done there. The industrial conglomeration was incorporated in 1910 as the city of Stoke-on-Trent.

The attractive and undulating countryside offers views of the six towns from distant hills. But some 50 years ago the view from the same hills overlooking the pottery towns would have been obscured by dense smoke. Old-fashioned kilns, known as bottle ovens because of their shape, were ubiquitous. When they did their coal firing, a dirty covering blackened the entire area. Now the bottle ovens have been dismantled and replaced by modern kilns using gas or electricity. Of a total of some 2,000 bottle kilns after the war, only about 50 remain to give the Potteries landscape its unique -- and yes, appealing -- character.

Seen against the backdrop of a blue sky, a huddle of obsolete brick ovens makes a pretty picture, as architecturally satisfying as a dovecote or Kentish oasthouse. The industrial nightmare that it once symbolized is gone, and the area is a smokeless zone. In fact, when Arnold Bennett's "The Card" was being filmed on location in 1951, crews experienced technical difficulties because they could not achieve a realistic picture. It was suggested that the local fire brigade be called in, not to put out a fire, but to produce one!

A tour of the six towns, known familiarly and simply as Stoke, reveals a continuously built-up area, although the countryside is almost always visible. The most northerly is Tunstall with a small clock tower and Victorian Town Hall in the central Tower Square. Burslem is interesting for its unique Old Town Hall with golden angel on top and for the Wedgwood Institute with an ornate pink frieze, the most handsome edifice in the Potteries. Hanley has the big shopping center, while Stoke is the administrative center of the city.

At the railway station in Stoke, the visitor from London's Euston Station disembarks, as did buyers in the past who came from places as remote as Sydney or San Francisco. Chances are they stayed just opposite the station in the north Stafford Hotel, with its attractive forecourt and statue of Josiah Wedgwood. Fenton has little to see, but Longton has a seemingly endless line of pottery facades along the main road and many more in the side streets.

My own visit left me feeling bewildered and uncertain where one town ended and another began. Pottery works of all sizes are everywhere. Some have familiar names, others are unknown. A few firms announce themselves as "sanitary specialists" a reminder of the wide range of ceramic ware being produced in Stoke -- tiles and fireplaces, breadbins and chamber pots, sinks and lavatories -- not just elegant china. Dudson Brothers of Hanley, with a non-working bottle oven, potters since 800, are makers of vitrified hotelware. Aynsbury has been going since 1775. The Enoch Wedgwood site is a reminder that Josiah Wedgwood was one of 13 children. Everywhere are ovens, chimney stacks, slagheaps and dreary rows of identical houses.

Amid the variety of factories and proliferation of pottery places, the Wedgwood name stands out, and visits to the Wedgwood works and museum at Barlaston are highly organized. There the visitor can see a range of the lovely items produced by the master, the result of his ongoing experimentation and discoveries.

The present Wedgwood factory is a far cry from the original one built by Josiah Wedgwood, the Father of English Potters. Born in Burslem in 1730, he served as an apprentice to his elder brother before joining in partnership with Thomas Whieldon and then striking out on his own. When he eventually built his large pottery works in Etruria (named for the fashionable Etruscan ware), it was derided for its huge size. Those laughing inhabitants would stand in serious amazement if they could see the size of the Wedgwood works today. The Wedgwood Group, with some 20 factories, has acquired such companies as Coalport, Crown Staffordshire, and Mason's Ironstone. Having expanded its range of production to include everything from fine china to detergent-proof casseroles, it is as much of a conglomeration as the City of Stoke itself.

The Wedgwood museum contains the early developments of Josiah Wedgwood. On display are the green-glazed products made when he was Whieldon's partner. oLater experiments resulted in smooth, rich black basalt. But his cream colored earthenware was so well liked by Queen Charlotte (wife of King George III) that it came to be known as Queen's Ware. A tireless experimenter, he even invented the pyrometer to measure heat in the kilns and thereby reduce the guesswork and the number of failures. Jasper was his outstanding creation, perfected in 1774 after thousands of experiments. White classical bas-reliefs on an unglazed fine stoneware of contrasting color are still much sought after and still produced by much the same method. The museum contains a priceless copy of the Portland vase in jasper which Josiah Wedgwood made in 1789.

In the factory, visitors are welcome to watch the process involved in the making of Wedgwood wares. In the decorating shops, girls bend over cups and plates, painting with deft movements and long brushes. Elsewhere, others fit transfers on plates or pots. Chances are that you will tear yourself away from the entrancing work being done to pay a visit to an integral part of this or any modern pottery works -- the factory shop. Here are sold the output from the vast range, including those especially desirable items known as "seconds."

The Minton factory welcomes visitors too. Thomas Minton trained as an engraver, and demand for his well-known designs made him decide to set up his own pottery in 1793. It thrived with the wide range of shapes and styles, mainly with transfer-printed decoration. It continued to expand under his son Herbert Minton, who introduced such new developments as encaustic floor tiles (used in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.) and a white modelling material known as Parian porcelain. The importance of the acid gold process, which made possible rich raised gold decoration, was recognized by nephew Colin Minton Campbell, who took control in 1858. Fine examples of these and other discoveries are on display in the Minton Museum. A gorgeous earthenware lifesize peacock, made in 1873, shows off the rich majolica glazes which they were capable of producing. Minton is now part of the Royal Doulton Tableware Group. Again, there is an excellent factory shop.

The Spode factory stands on its original site in the heart of Stoke-on-Trent where it cherises old traditions, original old buildings, and an antique collection of Spode. It was Josiah Spode II, the son of the founder, who is credited for the production of fine English bone china. The addition of ox bone (reduced to a fine ash) to the china stone and clay body results in a white, translucent, and amazingly strong china. Tours are given, and there is the inevitable "seconds" shop on the premises.

Visits can also be made to the Crown Staffordshire works in Fenton (noted for its traditional fine bone-china flowers and hand-painted birds) and to many other factories which open their doors to offer tours and insights into the industry. Perhaps the greatest revelation is to see how much of the process still requires work of individual artists. As the novelist Arnold Bennett put it:

"A dozen decades of applied science have of course resulted in the interposition of elaborate machinery between the clay and the man; but no great vulgar handicraft has lost less of the human than potting."

It is a world of the past, a world captured by Arnold Bennett and given order and reality in such novels as "Anna of the Five Towns," "Clayhanger," and "The Old Wives' Tale." In the Potteries world he created of the confused and shapeless sprawl, he made six equal five by omitting Fenton and calling the conglomeration the Five Towns, a name which has caught on, as has the world he immortalized. Bennett's picture of the Potteries is often mistaken for the actual one. A plaque on the wall of the Five Towns Cafe announces Arnold Bennett's birthplace.

Born in Hanley (Hanbridge in his books), Arnold Bennett first saw the smoke of the fat black kilns in 1867. The Bennett family had many homes, but the one in which he grew up at 205 Waterloo Road (Trafalgar Road in his books) in Burslem (Bursley) was converted to the Arnold Bennett Museum in 1960. But while he immortalized the area, the area has failed to immortalize him. The locals do not read the books of Bennett, nor did they flock to his museum. So few names were recorded in the register in 1979 that the museum ceased to exist in 1980 and was recently put up for sale as an ordinary dwelling.

No one has done more than this Dickens of the Potteries to make the literary world aware of the region. This glimpse of a pottery works is shown to Bennett's Anna:

"Contiguous with the printing-shop was the painting-shop, in which the labours of the former were taken to a finish by the brush of the paintress, who filled in outlines with flat colour, and thus converted mechanical printing into handiwork. The paintresses form the noblesse of the banks. Their task is a light one, demanding deftness first of all; they have delicate fingers, and enjoy a general reputation for beauty."

Such scenes are still there for visitors to enter. But nowhere can all the aspects of pottery making be better studied and nowhere is the Potteries' past better maintained than at the Gladstone Pottery Museum in Longton.

The Gladstone Pottery is a complete early Victorian potbank. Locals still use the word "potbank" to refer to their place of work, which can be anything from a small back street workshop to a major establishment with a large number of employes and ovens. A variety of buildings and bottle ovens exist in the cobbled yard of this medium-sized potbank, named around 1880 to honor the statesman, William E. Gladstone. Owned by many people who never became household names, it finally closed in the 1960s. The derelict premises were acquired by a charitable trust in 1971 to be maintained as a living museum.

From the beginnings of the pottery industry, living quarters and factories were jammed together, and on this site were houses, shops, a pub, a doctor's surgery and an undertaker's. A potter's kitchen and bedroom of a hundred years ago have been reproduced. The main building of three stories dates from about 1856. Shabby Victorian buidlings and jerry-built structures are still being renovated and made safe and instructive for visitors.

The entire pottery-making process, which turns raw clay into a complete and decorated vessel, remains a singular and mysterious feat. It is one of the oldest arts on earth, and there is no shortage of its raw material which is the earth. "Man hardened clay into a bowl before he spun flax and is the earth. "Man hardened clay into a bowl before he spun flax and made a garment." Bennett reminds us in "Anna of the Five Towns." Indeed, the Gladstone Museum boasts of a collection which includes an ancient fragment of Jomon pottery, more than 12,000 years old Displays of ceramic tiles and ceramic sanitary ware are among other intriguing exhibitions.

The museum allows you to oversee the work being done just as it was in a distant past. You can follow the process, beginning with the steam engine that drives the clay-mixing machinery (in preparation for shaping) to the workshops where slip casting is done. After the clay vessel is fashioned, a "slip" of liquid clay is applied and glazed. There is even a saggar-making shop. (Saggars are large, crude oval receptacles of fireclay that contain the ware being fired.) And workshops where paintresses or engravers ply their craft. Here a woman makes a china flower with deft movements. She presses clay petals against the palm of her manicured hand to simulate the veined look of a buttercup. In an adjoining room someone decorates a bit of earthenware by painting bold strokes of color.

You can enter the bottle ovens (no longer used since the Clean Air Act was passed) to see how saggars were stacked and learn how firing proceeded.

You might remain forever hypnotized by the craftspersons applying their skills were it not for the beckoning gift shop. But at the Gladstone, buying can take on a special meaning, for in addition to the usual shop stocked with bargains, they execute commissions. Not too big to turn down small orders, they might produce dinner plates for that special occasion, perhaps with a personal emblem, or make a limited edition of mugs to commemorate an event. Who knows, it could replace the T-shirt craze.

If the Tower of London reflects the glory that once was England, the Potteries reflect the glory that still remains. Because shapes and decorations defy mechanization, the Potteries remain a bastion against a computerized age of production. If technology ever "progresses" to a high-speed assembly line, the industry may shift from Stoke to Tokyo. Meanwhile, Staffordshire continues the tradition started in the 18th century of producing some of the finest and most famous china in the world.

The smoke of Stoke is gone, but the great names continue to smother the visitor in exquisitely decorated wares -- and history.