John Wills ran Skew Bridge in its heyday and thinks the Rushden Lakes scheme could bring back the glory days. Chief reporter Stephanie Weaver went to meet him back in 2014.
The man behind Skew Bridge in its heyday thinks Rushden Lakes could be the development to put the town back on the map.
John Wills, who used to own the site just off the A45, welcomed the decision to approve plans for a new £50m shopping and leisure complex on the site which is now a shadow of its former self.
Mr Wills, 91, has fond memories of the time he owned the gravel pits there, a site where he went on to introduce water skiing on the lake and a ski slope.
The venture was a huge success, with people enduring a strict admissions process to secure membership at the club which had about 1,200 members when he was in charge.
Mr Wills, who now lives in Northampton, said: “We drew up a book of rules.
“I was made president and had six other members.
“They all knew each other but nobody else knew who they were, they kept it a secret.
“You had to apply in person to pick up the application to join and see my wife or myself.
“We had the last word. If I liked the look of them, they could join.
“Having done that, they had to be counter-signed by two founder members before they could get in. I didn’t like members with long hair.
“Men and women were allowed provided they met the rules. If a member worked for his boss, his boss couldn’t become a member, and if a boss was a member his employees couldn’t become members.
“The more difficult it was to join, the more people wanted to join.
“It cost a fiver payable by bankers order on the first of April every year and it was guaranteed that membership would remain at £5 for as long as they lived.”
Mr Wills remembers good times in the clubhouse, with the magistrates being good to him when it came to the licensing laws.
Drinks were supposed to stop at 10.30pm but sometimes drinking time ran over into the early hours.
The club became a social hub, and maybe history will repeat itself when Rushden Lakes is built and opened to the public.
Among the attractions will be a lakeside visitor centre, marina and boathouse.
But this leisure offering is nothing new as the site used to have water skiing, after Mr Wills saw people doing it in Frinton-on-Sea and he wanted to take the sport back to Rushden.
He also had the ski slope built there.
Mr Wills said: “Some friends of mine went skiing but I had never been and never realised it was so much fun.
“It was very good fun so I wanted to build a ski slope.
“There was a big hill there but it was pointing in the wrong direction so I had to have it moved.
“I had some bulldozers on it for a few weeks and I went to Lillywhites in London, parked my car outside and they had an indoor slope to try out.
“We bought the kit for the children and everybody else provided their own kit. It was running for about 10 years.”
After Mr Wills retired and sold the site, it was taken on by a succession of different people before the site became derelict.
Mr Wills said: “In the end it caught on fire and it’s like it’s now ready for development.
“It’s all trees and you can’t see much.
“I think Rushden Lakes will be wonderful. I wish them all the luck with it, I think they will probably make a lot of money out of it.”
With so many tales to tell about his time at Skew Bridge, Mr Wills is currently writing his autobiography.
He has been working on it every week since November and is hoping to have it finished by Christmas.
He was born in Ipswich, but moved to Rushden at a young age and is not the only member of the Wills family to have made his mark on the town.
He said: “My father owned Wills in the High Street.
“I worked there for about two years, but I always wanted my own business.”
Looking forward to work getting under way on Rushden Lakes, Mr Wills said: “I hope this new development could be the one.
“Rushden used to be on the map but with all the shopping there, perhaps it could be again. All I can do is wish them the very best.”
Mr Wills died aged 93 in April 2016.