Last year it was lions, this year we went fish. At Just So festival you choose your tribe, you dress as your animal and you try to collect golden pebbles to help your tribe win.
It may all sound a bit pagan and ‘Wicker Man’ but believe me, this family arts festival in rural Cheshire is a magical out take from everyday life for kids and adults alike. The setting is beautiful, in the grounds of the private Rode Hall estate near Stoke-on-Trent, and as family festivals go this is small enough to suit the first-timer and relaxed enough to take it easy and not feel you’re trying to tick off a list of shows you want to see or bands you’d like to see.
You can do this of course, as there is a packed programme of activities throughout the weekend. But it’s not like the bigger festivals like Camp Bestival where (I’m told) the sheer scale of it can be overwhelming and pretty full-on.
I’d love to go to Camp Bestival (hey maybe next year) but I must admit the distance from our house in West Yorkshire would sway me. Just So, however, is only two hours from ours and we have lots of friends who go too, so it’s an easy one for us to go to for a fun weekend away.
It’s a festival I’m happy to spend the £125 entry fee on (£45 for children for the weekend, including camping) and will continue to do so year after year. Read on to find out why.
For the second year in a row we camped with our friends Caro and Dickie and their twin boys (From The Twinkle Diaries), and this year were joined by Karen (Mini Travellers) and family too. There were more friends nearby, in Caro’s friend Sharon and her children, who Sam really hit it off with, and bloggers Jenny, Katie and Colette.
Two of our best friends from Wirral were there too, so it really made it special – and easier – to have lots of people we knew around us. Being a single parent with two children who want to do different things can be tricky, as they can both only happily compromise for so long! When you go away to an event like this with friends, you can easily trade children for a while so they get to go to the parts of the festival they really want to see.
The best thing about the weekend for me was hanging out with other families, letting the kids have that freedom and being around in fresh air in fancy dress. As a family we all love dressing up and when I have the time and the motivation I really like making costumes.
After our first year at Just So last year we all knew we wanted to go back again, and there was no way Sam and Flo were going to miss out on their favourite event of the summer. We got our tickets early on (you can get an early bird rate if you book before a certain date) and planned to join the shiny, fun and sequinny fish tribe. Still, it didn’t stop me from leaving the costume-making until the last few days! I always work best under pressure, must be all that breaking news practice and love of a bit of adrenaline…
I took photos as I went along so might do a separate post on the costumes, although they were pretty simple and cobbled together with a few trips to Primark, H&M and our ultra-handy local discount shop Boyes.
For now though, I want to tell you about the highlights of the weekend for each of us.
The Spellbound Forest was my favourite area of the festival and I think it was last year, too. Being in the trees, in nature, is just so lovely and good for the soul. There is space but around every corner there is an activity, a spectacle, something to discover.
The main part of the forest is the campfire, where there are shows to either make a date for or stumble upon throughout the day. We saw Professor Pumpernickel’s science show, a captivating display of coloured smoke, fun science and comedy, and Ian Douglas’s wonderful campfire stories.
A few trees away lies an area where you can grab a piece of clay and make a face with it on a tree, an activity which was really relaxing and loved by the older kids (and us).
Next door was the Toolshed, where you took a tool of choice like a saw or hammer, and got stuck in cutting and fixing wood into whatever creation you fancied. It seemed pretty terrifying to let my son loose in there but there were safety measures and he absolutely loved it!
Flo was captivated by the Fairy Queen, who just around the corner in another part of the forest she sat in a tent ready to grant wishes to anyone who cared to pop in. The fairy dust (glitter) she sprinkled on her hair is still coming out despite several washes, but the memories will be there forever. For both years Flo has visited the Fairy Queen for both days of the festival, even buying the story that there are different queens on duty (ahem, on shift) at different times!
Each year there is a lantern parade on the Saturday evening, and you can go and make a lantern to carry during the day if you like. Now I can’t say it isn’t a really special and creative, fun thing to do, but this year it just seemed to take so long to do, much longer than last year. I think we started at 9.15 and finished at about 2pm! This kind of took the shine off it but maybe only for the adults; the parade itself was lovely as the lights in the paper lanterns went on and the night grew dark. It ended in a truly amazing tightrope show, where a man cycled over a high wire and had us with our hearts in our mouths.
It’s moments like this that make the weekend so special; you don’t have to go home, you don’t have to have plans, the fields are yours and the kids are always amazed and entertained. Even the disco tent was a hit for adults and kids, with plenty of gin bars around the place you could easily have a few drinks and a dance and know your children are safe, happy and boogying alongside too. Even if they do look at you and go ‘Mum, that is too cringey!’.
I never thought camping on my own with two kids would be so much fun but I’ve grown to love our weekends under canvas and feel it’s a manageable thing to do. This may be because my friends are always nearby to help out, but I love that I’m giving them the camping experience while they’re young. Packing up a tent as a solo adult is not the most fun I have to say, and there were moments where I was muttering about being on my own, but mostly I managed, I coped, I did it and I loved it!
There is so much I could say but I want to let the photos tell the story, from the fun on the children’s faces to the colours in the fields to the gorgeous healthy food we had and the elderflower gins (oh hang on, I don’t have pictures of those, but they were good!).
Until next year’s Just So,