The large red balloon glows like a radioactive tomato, enticing visitors with its voluptuous beauty. Children run up to it and gaze in amazement. Photographers try to capture its scarlet vibrancy, cyclists glance at it as they whiz past – and an unobtrusive guard ensures no-one damages its fragile form. Artist Steve Messsam created ‘When the Red Rose’ one of a series of beautiful artworks he’s making for Lancashire. It’s all the more impressive as it’s only here until November 2nd 2016.
I’m in Blackpool for the launch of LightPool, a festival of light and joyfulness running from October 29th to November 2nd. Barry McCann, Visitor Ambassador, explains what #Lightpool is all about. “Lightpool is a wonderful celebration that ties in with Blackpool Illuminations. It was decided to expand what we offer at this time of year to include art installations along the promenade, live performances and also a special exhibition of Neon at the Grundy Art Gallery. We’ve also got brilliant 3D videos projected onto Blackpool Tower including Chasing Stars: our adventures in Space from British astronaut Tim Peake and a very quirky one called, ‘Down the Rabbit Hole‘, loosely based on ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Yoko Ono has a couple of installations including ‘Imagine’ at the head of the North Pier.
“At Lightpool Village, you get a drink and watch the live performances that go on every evening on the Comedy Carpet in front of the Tower. You can even have your photo taken and projected onto the Tower! The festival is FREE, as of course are the illuminations and it’s bringing loads more visitors who are spending more time here. We’ve got so much to offer, and it’s great to have a bigger cultural offering for the town, but still linked to our seaside heritage.” Barry offers to show me round; our first stop is Neon; The Charged Line at the Grundy Art Gallery.
Bringing together one of the biggest collection of Neon artworks ever seen, it’s a feast for the eyes. There’s a ballerina wearing a tutu of neon tubes, a trio of art-deco style moving panels, a bright red triangular installation that gives a dramatic 3D effect and much more. Upstairs in the Rotunda Gallery are ‘images of original designs for 1930s neon Illuminations, taken from Blackpool’s unique and historic archive of working drawings,’ including some by Georges Claude, inventor of Neon. Education Officer Taneesha Ahmed says the exhibitions appeal to all ages, especially younger children. One of the big draws is ‘I Know, I Know, I Know’ created by Tracey Emin in 2002, but every exhibit is a delight.
We leave the Grundy and walked down towards the Promenade. It starts to drizzle but nothing serious. I’ve not been to Blackpool for a couple of years and the town is looking a lot smarter than it used to. It’s mid-afternoon on a half-term Friday and there a loads of people, mainly on the prom but also in the shops, bars, restaurants and cafes. As we near the North Pier I can see ‘When the Red Rose’, its redness brightening up the grey day. Steve Messam has taken one of the Victorian shelters that line the Golden Mile and enveloped it in a red ‘balloon’ of material. No idea how he has done it but the effect is delightful.
We walk along the shore to Blackpool Tower, that icon of British seaside exuberance, visible from all over North West England. We go upstairs to the Tower Ballroom where we watch couples of all ages dancing and enjoying afternoon tea, and I dream of appearing on Strictly Come Dancing …
From the window we get a great view of the beach and people starting to mill about for the start of the main #LightPool events this evening. I’m getting peckish so we queue for ages at Harry Ramsden’s, but it’s worth it as the fish and chips really are very good. It’s going dark and soon the Illuminations will be turned on and #LightPool will come alive. Barry takes me over to SnapCast, where Manager Tom Westcott explains how visitors can get their photo taken, as if turning on the Blackpool Illuminations and other poses. If they buy a photo souvenir they can then get their photo projected onto the Tower. Barry and I have our picture taken – what do you think?!
The Illuminations come on and Blackpool is doing what it does best; giving its visitors the best light show in the country. The Tower suddenly bursts into a rainbow of light announcing LIGHTPOOL in glowing neon. A band starts to play lively music. People jig about in time to the music. A brightly-lit heritage tram trundles past, looking like a gaudy old American steam-train and LightPool Village does a roaring trade in light sabres and fluorescent wands. Barry’s colleague Annette clears a space through the audience to make way for the first performance: Captain Kronos: Return to Planet Earth. There’s a carnival atmosphere that is enhanced by the dramatically innovative attractions that Lightpool brings to Blackpool.
All too soon I have to leave to get a train back to Carnforth. As we walk back along the Promenade, we pass a memorial for Remembrance Day. The face of a young sailor gazes out at us from a huge poppy. In the distance, When the Red Rose, glows in the dark beside the sea. Only in Blackpool, only at LightPool …
More about the LightPool Festival, on until Wednesday, November 2nd. Blackpool Illuminations are on until November 6th 2016. Thanks so much to Visit Lancashire for inviting me to experience this unique festival and to Barry McCann for showing me round and sharing his knowledge and love for his home town.
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