Northern Soul is on board Honey, a diesel-powered cutter launch boat first built during World War II.
These days, after decades rich with adventure, Honey is owned and operated by the Friends of Rudyard Lake, in North Staffordshire. Here, as we scud across the water, our enthusiastic volunteer host is waxing lyrical about the heyday of the lake over 100 years ago. The arrival of the steam train made it accessible as a favourite tourist destination for folks all around the North West. Dubbed ‘the Blackpool of the Potteries’, the lake back then would have been criss-crossed by a fleet of boats, its shores thrumming with stalls, attractions and performers. In 1863, it was the site of the courtship of two young locals, Alice Macdonald and Lockwood Kipling, who went on to name their son ‘Rudyard’ in its honour. A year later, it hosted the first of three sensational appearances by Afro-American tightrope walker Carlos Trower, aka ‘The African Blondin’, who, by all accounts, fair legged it across a rope strung right over the lake.
Now, the Friends of Rudyard Lake run these boat trips all year round – and very nice they are, too. But today is rather special. In association with Wild Rumpus, producers of the much-loved Just So family festival, those who love the spot have conspired to conjure up those long-ago glory days right here in the 21st century under the banner A Day At The Lake.
Arriving at the site, appropriately enough, by miniature steam train, visitors are met by period fairground rides, an array of highly tempting food stalls taking in ice creams, paella, chips and crepes, and a bustling arts and crafts market. Last but not least, there’s the wonderful vista of the lake itself, complete with a floating stage and floating speakers, too. Throughout the day, a rotating roster of performances takes the stage, from the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra Ensemble belting out crowd-pleasers like Feelin’ Good, the Wallace and Gromit theme and a Queen medley to the rare and fetching delights of a dry land synchronised swimming troupe.
It can’t be ignored that, through no fault of the poor organisers, the weather currently changes as quickly as a zoetrope image. At times umbrellas are out in force, but then, doubtless Victorian days out were much the same, so at least it’s authentic. Flying in the face of this, around the lake itself roam packs of jugglers and pierrots on stilts. Particularly adept at winning the damp crowds over is Ian Douglas with some zinging, fleet-footed storytelling for children, as well as Dr Butler’s Hatstand Medicine Band, who provide good-timey sounds entirely suited to the cause of nostalgic fun.
The true star turn here, though, is undoubtedly Chris Bull, aka Bullzini. In a direct nod back to the achievements of the African Blondin, Bullzini takes to a high-tension wire across the lake upon which he strides, sits, balances and generally flicks the metaphorical Vs at the notions of fear, gravity and inclement weather. Among the watching crowd, gloves are pulled off to enable full-volume applause. It’s a proper thrill to witness.
No-one can resist a bit of vintage these days, and the more genuinely vintage this gets, the better. One downside here is that, if you happen to have brought a moustachioed hat-wearer along with you, your chances of losing him in the throng are uncommonly high. Odd moments, such as a Metronomy album being piped over the PA between acts, break up the period atmosphere a bit too harshly. There’s a sense, too, of this being a matter of observing turns and performances rather than getting directly stuck in, and an extra layer of interactivity would really add something. It may have that mini-festival feel, but it manages to be very inclusive in terms of age range, with only that tricksy teenage demographic not directly catered to.
That aside, the young, the old and virtually everyone inbetween should find much to enthral them within the gallimaufry of delights here. It’s been assembled with genuine love and attention to detail, and it would be a shame if some iffy weather spoilt the chances of this becoming an annual event. As intended, it’s a grand old day out.
By Andy Murray
What: A Day at the Lake
Where: Rudyard Lake, Staffordshire
When: April 30 – May 2, 2016