Friday, August 22, 2014

Musings on.. the Just So Festival

In our risk-averse, logical and statistic obsessed culture it's easy to become so cynical and rational that we miss the simple, childlike wonder of the world around us. 

The Just So Festival is a family arts festival in the grounds of Rode Hall in Cheshire, and in many ways it's the perfect family antidote to school targets and staid normality!  It’s also a completely bonkers mix of dressing up, making things, dancing, music, and the entire creative spectrum in between – if only our schools and workplaces could capture the festival's energy and enthusiasm!

Branch tunnels in the Spellbound Forest
This year's festival was a fine vintage and a perfect celebration of the event’s fifth birthday! For us it was our second visit, and it proved even more of a whirlwind rollercoaster (or whirlycoaster?) than our previous experience (in a good way!). The programme is bursting with stimulation for all your senses: encouraging thinking, doing and learning in all ways, shapes and forms. There really is something for everyone, and it's an event to savour together - the perfect place to create treasured family memories.

Together with our four year old daughter and two year old son, this year we squeezed about as much as we possibly could out of the festival.. and we STILL didn't do everything there was to do. It runs from Friday afternoon to Sunday night, and rather than list our meandering itinerary I'm going to try and sum it up in themed sections. 


Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra
This year the festival organisers sent out a Just So soundtrack CD with the tickets, which we loved (and danced around to in our lounge), so we tried to see some of the acts whose songs had particularly captured our attention.

We loved the energy and smooth jazzy vocals of the Fresh Dixie Project. Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra brought an old fashioned 1930s vibe with their own North-Eastern twist, whilst the three-piece exquisitely named Goat Roper Rodeo Band provided rich harmonies and graciously allowed themselves to be interviewed afterwards by my daughter for her Arts Award (more later on that). Perhaps Contraption's version of the Oompa Loompa song is gloriously quirky, and we love their unorthdox brass playing (and giant sousaphone).

Gabby Young and Other Animals provided a perfect soundtrack for dancing the evening away, especially our favourite song of theirs "I've Improved". The last band we saw, bringing the whole festival to a close, was Rusty Shackle - their cover of Dizzy Rascal summing up our whole philosophy "Some people think I'm bonkers, I just think I'm free!". Great music to spin a four year old round to!


It seemed that at any given moment throughout the festival there was a show or performance going on. Some of the mobile performances came to you, and acts roaming the site included the bizarre but hilarious 18th Century Lady (who's theatre was her giant dress) a musical Insect Procession and the Tea Club - a pair of dancing tea ladies! 

Shows which stayed still that we caught included the colonial capers and rare-animal hunting of the Imaginary Menagerie by Les Enfants Terribles,  a whimsical and delightful production of childrens' favourite Arthur’s Dreamboat by Long Nose Puppets (I'm still singing "tippity tappity tip", and there were some great cameos from various sea creature puppets), an engaging musical interpretation of Stanley's Stick by the Northern Chamber Orchestra, and a Hunger Games inspired production by Cheshire Dance - with the opportunity to join in at the end (my daughter was off like a rocket!). 

Part of the Shadowplay installation

Over at the High Seas area, we chuckled all the way through the Zooted's Edwardian Bathing Jugglers' routine, whilst a pair of real mermaids entranced children and dads alike! Not to mention passing encounters around the site with the Gruffalo and a Blue bear (both available for hugs and high fives with small people). 

As night fell, the curious campfire was lit in the Spellbound Forest for singsongs, stories and ad-hoc marshmallow toasting (bring your own bags), whilst back at the High Seas the mesmerising steampunk Shadowplay installation (by Walk the Plank) came to life, which was well worth a visit.


Aside from music and performance, there was a plethora of hands on activities and play spaces to keep the whole family engaged for hours. You might need to bring an extra bag to keep everything you make in though! Our kids loved the mirror maze in the spellbound forest, the epic branch tunnels and the musical sheet fort, and when the heavens occasionally opened we were grateful for the numerous Field Candy tents scattered around the site which we could dive in to. These were equipped with cushions and story books, so always a good opportunity to catch our breath, open the thermos and read a story together. 

On the Friday and Saturday you could participate in making giant lanterns, in advance of the magical twilight lantern parade around the site and through the woods in the evening. 

In the build up to the festival, and at the event itself, everyone was encouraged to join an animal tribe and dress accordingly (last year we were lions, this year we chose to be frogs). Each tribal leader animal roamed the festival passing out golden stones to members of their tribe - these gave the tribe points for the tribal tournament. 

The culmination of the weekend was the tribal parade - an energetic and primal celebration of the festival - this year the fox tribe narrowly beat the owls.. in our party there was much disappointment at this news, and various little frogs and lions had tear-streaked face paint by the end. This was as much to do with the fact that the festival was over for another year (and general overtiredness) than actually not being part of the winning tribe.

There were plenty of facilitated workshops to participate in. So we stomped our feet to some good-time country tunes in the Flat Footing Workshop, attempted juggling, plate spinning and diablos in the Circus House's circus tent (more than once actually - we loved this, although it was less trippy doing it outside, as the light in the tent was very red!!). The Cardboard Harp workshop with Mary Dunsford was extremely popular (in fact everything was well attended - better that way round I think). We also enjoyed using stamps and ink pads to make our own circus style posters.

In the forest we made elaborate fern headresses, learnt about bees from the Loop magazine and Barnes and Webb (I bet you don't know how long a queen bee lives for?), you could make clay faces for trees and mushroom bird feeders with Barefoot Ceramics. In the High Seas we drew Treasure Maps and had tattoos with Sunsense, made boats for the bath with the lovely people from Marvellous, made dastardly disguises and did dressing up at Fat Sam's Caravan.

There was plenty to do in Games Tent, which also played host to the Arts Council. The festival was an opportunity to participate in the Discover Arts Award, and my daughter enjoyed filling in her special log book throughout the weekend, documenting in word and picture the different activities she'd participated in. One aspect involved finding out more about a particular artist, and on the spur of the moment we decided to interview the Goat Roper Rodeo Band after their performance. Full credit to them for being willing to be interviewed by a four year old, and I'm proud of my daughter for being so brave to do it! 

On the Lazy Days lawn you could often hear the capoeira drummers providing a rhythm to move to. The Institute of Physics were undertaking practical experiments, and there were numerous other activities including making wooden necklaces with the RSPB (a popular choice for earthy young girls and mums). In the Peekaboo area you could play with clay with Eastnor Pottery in their Clay Babies tent and much more - although we didn't spend loads of time there this year as our kids are now a bit older, and this area is perfect for festival babies.


Worthy of special mention were Bear Cereals, who I think single handedly supplied everyone camping at the festival with free nutritious and delicious cereal and fruit based snacks - certainly our family and the other families in our party took maximum advantage of this! They'd also cunningly hidden animal paws around the site to find for a prize - we found three locations quickly but it took us until late on the final day to find the last one!! 

The food and drink offering was, as usual, exceptional, with the distinctive Hoban and Sons mobile bar and a disproportionate amount of ancient Citroen Vans serving tea, toast, coffee, ice cream and just about everything else you might want to eat. Chatting to the various stalls I think they all pretty much sold out by the end, so I guess everyone must have appreciated the menu as much as us!

A final mention goes to the Naty sponsored nappy tent, providing changing space and and endless supply of free eco nappies throughout the weekend. Although our kids are/have been in cloth nappies most of the time, the nappy tent was really convenient and we were grateful it was there. My son thought it was hilarious that the change mats were directly on the grass!

So there you have it - a somewhat epic account of the amazing Just So Festival! I hope you've enjoyed reading it, and perhaps if you were also at the festival why not share your experiences too? Look forward to hearing from you!

Chillin' and thinking about next year..

(If you want to read even more, why not read the review of the festival at Festival Kidz)


Sarah said...

It was our first year at Just So Festival and we had a wonderful time. Such a lovely relaxing little festival and we thought it was excellent value too. Great review.

Luke Strickland said...

Thanks Sarah, appreciate you taking the time to read the review and comment. Agree it's great value too!

Susie said...

Lovely review Luke! Thank you for crafting at the Marvellous Boat Yard, we had such a wonderful weekend! x

Luke Strickland said...

Thanks Susie! Glad you had a wonderful weekend too!

Unknown said...

Hi again. I've included a link to your review @Festivalkidz Feel free to link back in your post if you want to. No worries if not. Couldn't find you on twitter?

Wendy@Naty UK said...

Wendy Schad from Naty UK

Thanks for the mention of the Naty Nappy Changing facilities more details about our products can be found on

Jane said...

Great article Luke. Thanks for the mention.
Cheshire Dance

Luke Strickland said...

No problem Jane and Wendy, thanks for the nice comments. Sarah thanks for the link and I've included your link at the bottom.