Having missed the first two Atomic Vintage Festivals because it was just too far to make in a day, our relocation to within striking distance looked like failing us thanks to a diary clash until a waterlogged site forced the organisers to delay the event from April to August. Even then, the weekend dawned with dire warnings of apocalyptic hurricanes, plagues of frogs etc but, having promised ourselves the trip and egged on by the prospect of sharing it with our best chums, we hit the road for Sywell Aerodrome, just outside Northampton. Our journey there was pretty exciting in its own right as en route we joined a group of motorists who, in pioneering spirit, were dragging a recently fallen tree clear of the narrow road it was blocking – already we were in the mood of a simpler time.
Atomic is a great concept from the fertile minds of Jerry Chatabox, Miss Mary Ann, Robin and Colette, who between them are the masterminds behind the Rockabilly Rave, Rhythm Riot and Hot Rod Hayride and are thus responsible for keeping all sorts of dubious characters away from the unsuspecting British public on several weekends throughout the year. As they put it, imagine you’re at a State Fair in 1958 (though presumably not one of the ones with lots of animals). Take a bunch of 1950s original funfair rides and stalls, put the Wall of Death in the middle of them to coat the air with the heady fumes of 1920s Indian motorcycles being ridden sideways at high speed, add in a village of market stalls selling all kinds of vintage and retro ‘stuff’ and surround it with a whole bunch of big 1950s US cruisers and hot rods doing the kind of thing they’re definitely not allowed to do in the car park at weekenders, and you’ve got the core of the weekend. Then, as the day goes on, fill the big top in the middle of it all with a succession of bands and DJs, and replicate that in each of the function areas that make up the aerodrome buildings, and you should have enough to keep anyone amused until the small hours.
The beauty of Atomic is its family appeal. As the girls headed for the market stalls, the boys and Miss M headed for the dragstrip, where the not-so-wee beastie got instantly hooked on the clouds of burned rubber smoke pouring from the back of the gassers as they warmed up for the 1/8th mile strip. It’s a proper ‘run what you brung’ meet, with the organisers juggling entrants both to allow individual timed runs and to match up likely pairs for one-on-one drag races. Some nasty squalls of rain sent us running for cover, but as soon as the strip was dry, the racers were back, joined by one intrepid soul braving the crosswinds to hammer a classic Triumph motorbike down the tarmac. With the original art deco aerodrome buildings, control tower and servicing area as a backdrop, the whole scene looked just right.
A bit of record shopping (well, they were there and looked lonely), hot dogs, a jaw-dropping Wall of Death display and some very windy crazy golf, saw us heading indoors to watch the heats of the jiving contest (brave folk – I wouldn’t like to be trying to impress with a row of judges and several hundred spectators watching my every move), then emerge just in time to grab a ride in a powder blue 1955 Caddy, just like the one Elvis had. That kind of typifies the atmosphere of the day – a whole row of beautiful original American 50s cars, fresh from the eagle-eyed judging of our pal Dave Woodfield, queuing up to take complete strangers up and down the runway for no more reward than to see the big grins on our faces!
By this time, the wind had reached gale force and the flapping sides of the big top were drowning out the music, so we headed back indoors to catch Lew Lewis and the Twilight Trio, just one of the eleven bands playing the Saturday, interspersed with a baker’s dozen of DJs. Fancying a jive ourselves, we then nipped across to another of the indoor venues in time for an all-vinyl record set from Kaz Fowler. We could easily have spun the evening out to the end – not to mention hanging around for an even better line-up of bands the following day, but the long road home was calling.
Putting on this kind of event takes weeks of organisation, immense faith in the appetite of a fickle scene for something a bit different, and a whole lot of guts in the face of the British weather that must have left Jerry and co wishing at times they’d just shoved everything in a big hall and had done with it. Certainly there was no sitting back and reaping the plaudits for them – wherever you looked, there was one or more of the team making sure everything was going smoothly, even down to ushering us to our chauffeur-driven Caddy. Thanks for a great day out, guys. Let’s hope for the sunshine you deserve for next year!