After spending two days and two nights at the Just So Festival, no, no one is ever going to be able to convince me that camping is enjoyable. However, the festival itself? It was amazing. Completely and utterly magical from start to finish. It was like stepping between the pages of a children's book with both weird and wonderful worlds and characters brought to life in the most enchanting fashion. The boys said it was the highlight of their summer holidays. And I have to agree with them. 2am fights with an airbed aside, it couldn't have been more perfect.
Here are a few more in-depth details about our Just So experience (you can see our highlights here) and our tips as first-time festival-goers and reluctant campers.
When we first received the programme through the post and saw the sheer amount of games, activities and performances, it was hugely exciting but a little bit daunting. How to narrow it down? And how to get four people to the same place ... on time!
I read blog posts and watched YouTube videos from seasoned Just So-goers and there seemed to be a divide with some saying go with the flow, and others suggesting that it's better to plan your schedule in advance.
We did a bit of both. We picked out a handful of things that we definitely didn't want to miss and took in the rest of the activities at leisure. Certain shows were such a huge hit, the amazing Tales of Animalia, for example, that we made sure to head back to the forest to see it as many times as possible.
Other things, like lantern making (although the lantern walk itself was a MASSIVE highlight), we soon realised possibly weren't for our two, so we crossed them off our list and moved on to something else that they would prefer instead.
One of the joys of the Just So festival is stumbling across so many amazing things as you amble around. Campfire songs and stories, fairy-filled dens, dancing classes, great bands and also, quieter spots to take a seat and collect your thoughts (and energy) for a while.
My personal recommendation would be to plan a few things but mostly to relax and enjoy it. Even if you have something pencilled in, if you and your children are having fun, don't be in a rush to move on to the next thing. Shows and activities tend to repeat over the couple of days so you're pretty much guaranteed to catch everything during the course of the weekend.
Picking a tribe - be that owls, foxes, fish, stags, frogs, lions or bees - is a really sweet part of the Just So experience. Don a full costume, a pair of ears and a tail, a t-shirt with your chosen animal, or simply wear your own clothes if dressing up is not for you. You can get involved in the tribal tournament and attempt to win golden pebbles for your chosen team as much or as little as you want.
My boys were super enthusiastic about it when we first arrived on the Friday but once they'd both won a golden pebble each, their interest waned somewhat. Costumes were worn and then discarded back in the tent after a couple of hours simply because they were so excited by everything else on offer.
The tribes and tribal tournament are a fun part of the Just So experience but if sourcing or making costumes is one more thing to add to your horrendously long to do or packing list, you won't completely miss out on the excitement if you don't fully embrace this part of the festival.
Rode Hall and Gardens, there really couldn't be a more beautiful setting for a festival. And that's in spite of the fact that it rained for a lot of our time there. It's not such a big place that we found ourselves lost or a trek away from different activities. But then again, there was enough space that we easily found a quiet spot away from the hustle and bustle when we needed to.
A lot of the events took place in and around the Village Green, The Social, and the Spellbound Forest but as a family, we all loved the Silver Screen area best. It was a bit quieter with lots of open space for the children to run around and the cutest little beach area where my four year old could have happily spent the weekend playing. It was a brilliant for all things music, theatre and dancing related. It was also home to a Prosecco bar and a wood fired pizza van. I'm not suggesting that these two things had anything to do with our love of spending time there but we did frequent both rather often.
Hmm, the camping. Now this is going to make me sound like a massive whiner because we didn't even do proper camping, we stayed in the boutique camping area in a bell tent. But, it wasn't really for me. The tent, I can do. The noise and surrounding revelry, I loved. But the air beds and the proximity to the floor, nope. Oh no. No. Nope.
I'm fully aware that this makes me sound a bit precious but chasing two excited children around after little to no sleep reduces the fun of the whole thing for me. And the kids didn't sleep all that well either meaning that they were exhausted and ready to go home before lunchtime on the Sunday.
Next year, as we're less than an hour's drive from Rode Hall, we're planning to book day passes and probably not stay over.
Because of the expense associated with buying tickets, camping gear or paying to stay in the boutique camping area, I know a lot of people bring their own food and drink to the festival and that's perfectly understandable.
For us? The amazing food and drink on offer played a huge part in our enjoyment of the weekend. There was so much to choose from and all so, so good. I think we sampled something from every truck and the boys tried so many new things simply because it was such a fun environment.
Price-wise, we found everything really reasonable and other than juice/water for the boys, won't be taking anything additional with us next year.
The Final Verdict
All four of us had a truly brilliant time. Just So is a festival that makes it incredibly easy for families to spend quality time together and take in part in so many amazing and unusual things. It's a really special weekend with a definite feel of magic in the air.
Tempted? Early bird tickets have just gone on sale.
My advice is to snap them up.
I can assure you, you'll leave with incredibly happy children and somewhat nostalgic for your own childhood.
We received our festival tickets free of charge in exchange for an honest review but paid for the boutique camping and all food and drink ourselves.