08/09/2015
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REVIEW: Just So Festival 2015, Rode Hall, Cheshire

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By Iain Duff

We like festivals. For parents desperate to relive their youth for a weekend while keeping their kids entertained, family-friendly music festivals are great. You can divide your time between the activities that are taking place all over the site and the bands on the various stages. If done properly, it’s the best of both worlds and everyone goes home happy.

Just So is a different kind of festival, in that it’s aimed squarely and unapologetically at children. That means there’s no “main stage” as such and music is very much a minor part of the weekend’s attractions. Instead the entertainment is full-on child friendly: learning circus skills, parkour, fairy tales, pillow fights, lantern making and the like. It’s a far cry from the sort of debauchery you’ll find at the likes of Glastonbury. Calpol is the drug of choice here and there’s definitely no all-night raving – it’s strictly lights-out at midnight

So what exactly is Just So? Well it is billed as an annual weekend-long camping festival for children and their families, held in the grounds of Rode Hall in Cheshire. The concept is to bring art, music and literature together in a natural, woodland setting where children are encouraged to “unleash their creativity.” Over the weekend there’s a range of performances, workshops and installations going on all over the site, with youngsters able to interact, take part or just watch. On the campsite, where bell tents festooned with pastel-coloured bunting abound, the creativity continues. Skipping around the guyropes are little girls in fluffy pink fairy outfits and spotty wellies and packs of slightly feral-looking boys dressed as pirates. If it all sounds like the most middle-class thing imaginable, then you’d be right. Although that’s not particularly meant as a criticism – for the most part everyone is pretty easy-going; friendly, helpful and considerate of their fellow festival-goers.

We arrived mid-afternoon on the Friday, and found the campsite was already filling up fast, so had to scout around a fair bit to find a suitable place to put up the tent. Like most festivals, you have to leave your vehicle in the car park and carry your gear to your pitch. Thankfully it wasn’t too far, but a trolley is essential. Not for the first time, our trusty Outwell Transporter came into its own – it’s frightening just how much gear two adults and two boys need for a weekend, even when you are trying to keep things as a basic as possible.

We found a nice flat area that wasn’t too busy and set up camp. Tent pitched and gear unloaded, we headed up to the festival site and, after queuing for about 10 minutes, got our wristbands and started to explore. The estate was divided into various areas, each with their own character and theme. Grand Central was the first point of arrival, and with its rustic, hand-painted signs and quirky attractions and activities (a fortune teller who uses a bike to predict your future, for example), it set the tone for the rest of the festival.

Good weather is a vital element of any successful festival, and unfortunately for organisers, not one that they have any control over whatsoever. The forecast had been for rain but as we ambled through the Spellbound Forest and Away With The Fairies it was clear skies all the way. A quick detour past the rather sinister looking Owlephant – part owl, part elephant, totally terrifying – took us to the High Seas area, where we spent an hour being taught how to perform Indian head massages. And here’s where Just So comes into its own. You can devote an hour to something like that without worrying that you’re going to miss that indie band you quite liked when you were a student in the 90s. It makes everything far more relaxed when you’re not constantly watching the clock.

With that in mind, we lingered here for a bit longer – one son attempting to learn from a pirate how to play the saw as the other created mini art installations by carefully balancing rocks on top of one another. It is more fun than it sounds, honest! The pirate theme continued in the next field where the Pirate Training Camp was a big favourite as was the super-sized team version of Battleships.

In the Head Over Heels field, the Bullzini Family, a daredevil couple who recently got married 25 metres in the air, gave tightrope walking lessons before putting on an impressive high-wire performance of their own. For those who preferred to keep their feet on the ground as they learned some new talents, the circus skills tent was packed full of equipment for juggling, plate spinning, stilt-walking, unicycling, slacklining and more.

After a spot of samba drumming, it was back to the tent, via the corn-on-the-cob stall, for a bite to eat, then straight back up to the festival to watch Mary Poppins at the outdoor cinema as dusk fell. By the time the magical nanny and her “cockney” sidekick Bert had whipped the dysfunctional Banks family into shape, the campfire was blazing in the Spellbound Forest. After warming ourselves at the flames and taking in one of the bands playing on the stage, we danced the rest of the night away at the retro disco in the Jitterbug tent.

Rain arrived overnight, but by mid-morning it had cleared up and soon we were basking in warm August sunshine for Day 2. Perfect for our kids’ must-do activity of the weekend, parkour lessons. If you don’t know what parkour is, it involves jumping from one platform to another and trying your best not to fall off. Basically real-life Super Mario Bros without the killer turtles.

After an hour of balancing, climbing and graceful leaping they were ready for some lunch, so we headed to the Social, the fast-food hub of the festival. Here you could choose from a wide range of tasty food, from fish and chips and falafel to paella and pizza, and pretty much everything in between. The choice and quality of the food and drink was good and by festival standards not even that expensive. A barn had been converted to a big dining room, giving you somewhere to sit down to scoff your patatas bravas, rather than trying to eat on the move.

Saturday afternoon was all about paper aeroplanes, storytelling and banging on musical instruments as well as enjoying the sunshine for as long as possible. Inevitably the rain arrived with a vengeance, and although the storms disrupted Saturday night’s events, judging by the smiling faces it wasn’t enough to dampen spirits.

Before arriving at Just So, we’d had some reservations about the event, specifically about the lack of entertainment on offer for adults and whether the planned activities would be enough to keep the kids occupied for three days. There’s no doubt, the funtimes are a bit relentless and making children the centre of attention for three days, is for me, just a tad over-indulgent.

Gearing everything towards their wishes is a risky business and can produce some awful, spoiled-brat behaviour, especially if you are the type of parent who wants to let their children, like, express themselves any way they wish – even if it really, really annoys everyone else. Thankfully, though, we didn’t witness much of that type of behaviour at Just So. Yes, everything is geared towards the youngsters, but it is such a fun, safe environment that you don’t feel constantly on edge, meaning you can just relax and let them get on with enjoying themselves.

Just as important is the fact that apart from food and drink (and the inevitable festival bubble stall), pretty much everything is included in the entrance fee, so there is no pressure to spend vast amounts of extra money. And unlike some supposedly child-friendly festivals you don’t feel you are constantly under assault from “corporate partners”. Our fears that we’d run out of stuff to do were unfounded – by the time we set off for home there was still plenty on the “to-do” list that we didn’t quite get “to-do”.

In fact our only real complaint was the campsite facilities. For a festival, the site itself was absolutely fine, and the toilets were clean and well maintained, especially by the standards of some events we’ve attended over the years. But there was only one toilet block and one drinking water point to supply the whole site. There may well be a good practical reason for that, but when you’re camped at the bottom of the site, a 10-minute trek to the loo followed by another 10 minutes of queuing is not ideal, particularly with kids.

Of course, it’s easy to be cynical about such events, but there’s no doubt with six years of experience, the organisers have hit on the perfect formula. Just So is unashamedly trying to provide children with an unforgettable weekend of adventure, where their imaginations are allowed to run wild. The happy faces of the kids (and to be fair, the majority of the parents) is testament to the fact that it works. 

The Just So Festival 2016 will run from 19 – 21 August 2016. Tickets are on sale now, with early bird prices of £110 per adult and £45 per child for weekend tickets (£125 per adult and £50 per child after early birds have sold out). Under 3s are free.

www.justsofestival.org.uk 

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