Just So is a land where, for one weekend each year, the line between childhood and adulthood are blurred. This is a place where real and fantasy blend into a smorgasbord of the weird and wonderful. Where pillow fights and midnight feasts compete with live arcade games and roaming theatre. And most importantly, where families can be families without the commitments or worries of the outside world.
A Tribal Welcome
From the moment we started unloading the car upon arrival at Just So, we were given a glimpse of the weekend ahead. Yellow and black striped bees tumbled out of cars; feathered owls pulled carts of luggage towards the camp site; sequinned fish grappled under the weight of tents and camping chairs; fox tails danced along the grass; stag antlers stood proud; lion manes poured from tiny heads, while green tutu-adorned frogs skipped up the hill.
Families are encouraged to choose their tribe from any of the seven above before attending Just So. Over the course of the weekend, the children take part in various activities to earn coveted golden pebbles for their tribe.
This all leads to the Tribal Tournament on the Sunday evening where the winning tribe is announced. Families put so much effort into their costumes and the abundance of creativity thrown into them is perfectly fitting, given the vast array of creativity that swarms the Just So site all weekend.
Just So is set in the beautiful grounds of Rode Hall, Cheshire, and this is a festival that celebrates outdoor arts. With twelve distinctly different areas, each hosting a multitide of different events, there is so much to do, it would be impossible for kids to ever be bored.
It also means you are bound to come home thinking of the things you never managed to make it to, such is the breadth of what’s on offer. I would never be able to fill you in on everything that took place over the weekend, so instead I’ll offer you a snapshot of our experiences. The rest I will leave up to your imagination, or maybe for you to discover for yourself next year…
The Forgotten Courtyard
This was a new area to Just So this year. Aimed at over-eights, there was a multitude of really cool activities taking place here, including journalism, photography and debates.
My daughter took part in the journalism workshop. It was a 9 a.m. start on the Saturday, and so, as she was confident she could find her way around, we let her go off by herself with a camera. The children were given time to roam the site interviewing and photographing visitors for their chosen article. This was great for my daughter’s confidence. She told us it took her five minutes to pluck up the courage to approach people, but once she did she was really proud of herself and, of course, everyone she spoke to was lovely.
The Spellbound Forest
I don’t know who loved the Spellbound Forest more – the kids or me! As soon as we walked in, I felt as though we were entering a place where magic could be possible. A camp fire glowed in the centre, surrounded by hay bale seating.
We first visited The Spellbound Forest on the Friday evening while camp fire songs were taking place. My children loved singing along to the “Everywhere We Go” chant, joyously joining in with, “We’re at Just So (We’re at Just So), Mighty mighty Just So (Mighty might Just So)” getting louder and louder with each verse until I thought they would lose their voices.
Over the weekend, we spent lots of time in the forest, sitting around the fire, listening to stories, singing songs or watching music acts. Later on the first evening we even spent some time celebrating at the Wedding Feast.
Exactly as it sounds, the Wedding Feast was a wedding reception and celebration. Ian Douglas, the Just So storyteller had proposed to his partner Jo around the Just So camp fire last year, and they then married on-site this year. Ian was the most engaging and endearing storyteller I have ever had the privilege of watching and it was a wonderful event to be a part of.
The Woodland Theatre
Part of the Spellbound Forest, the Woodland Theatre is a stunning bowl-shaped clearing. On the Saturday we were wandering through the woods, both adults and children feeling a little tired and crotchety from a late night on the Friday. Suddenly we heard the sound of laughter. Lots of laughter. Curious, we followed the sound until we stumbled upon the Woodland Theatre. A quick glimpse into the rather wonderful programme informed us that the man on stage was comedian James Campbell.
Wow, what a sudden transformation of our moods. In less than a minute, the children had walked through the adults on the periphery to find a spot they could see from, us adults had got ourselves into a good position and all four of us were giggling like crazy things.
I have to admit that if you’d have asked me beforehand how funny I would expect to find a comedian pitched both to children and adults, I would have thought, not very. But this turned out to be a shining example of the whole weekend. Because the thing with Just So is that everything is suitable for everyone. Whether it’s stories, theatre, music, poetry or in this case, comedy, it never felt like it was an effort to make it appropriate for all ages; it just was. It works.
I loved watching my six-year-old captivated and laughing away. He hasn’t always been the easiest to engage in this kind of environment, so it was lovely to see. When he came running up to me at the end, a big smile on his face, asking for one of his books, I had to say yes.
He loved taking the money himself, getting in the queue and having his book signed. A little thing, but a great example of how festivals can give children subtle new, confidence-boosting experiences.
The Village Green
The Village Green is in a central position to the festival site, which made it the perfect place for the scoreboard to be placed, updating families as to how many points each tribe had accrued. Each tribe had its own tribal leader, a performance artist dressed as the relevant animal.
We often found the tribal leaders on stage as we were passing through, leading games for the children, encouraging them in ways to earn golden pebbles, or announcing the current scores. We stopped here for a game of musical statues, to tell jokes to the tribal leaders to earn golden pebbles, and we cheered and hooted our fellow owls as our points were called out.
At the Just So Post Office, my daughter wrote a postcard to a pen pal at Just So New Zealand. In the same tent, we spent some lovely time as a family playing board games. The Esdevium Games staff were on hand to explain with great patience how to play the games.
The Actual Reality Arcade by Matthew Harrison was an amazing space set up in the Village Green. Here, children (and adults!) could take part in real live versions of arcade games such as Tetris and Pac Man. My children loved lobbing bean bags at Space Invaders!
One of our highlights of the whole weekend was The Jukeboxes by Bootworks Theatre. We were walking past on the Saturday when we stumbled across the performance for the first time, and we watched it a further two times over the weekend.
The show consisted of a man and a woman who would alternately appear from a window in a portable hut. They were lip-synching snippets of popular songs through the ages, while dressed in character. When one finished, their window would snap up, the other would flip down and we would be treated to a whole new character and song.
In the space of seconds, we went from Eminem to Michael Jackson to Kylie Minogue. It was phenomenal how quickly they went through the prop changes. It was a real spectacle that – guess what – both kids and adults loved.
The Just So Pillow Fight
“It looks like Narnia!” gasped my daughter as we approached the Just So Pillow Fight. Feathers were everywhere. They fluttered through the air, perched on heads and in beards, and carpeted the grass of the Village Green like a layer of snow.
The Pillow Fight is one of the events that epitomises Just So. Take a bunch of families, some pillows, an open space and… go. We laughed so much. We were even treated to an impromptu theatre performance at the same time. The whole thing was thoroughly, fabulously bonkers.
Footlights is the main music stage, although some music does take place around the fire in the Spellbound Forest. We particularly enjoyed the spectacular Carny Villains, a circus band from Bristol who put on a stonking show on the Saturday night.
The Eskies were a great Friday night headliner, and I love how they describe their music as “Sea-soaked gypsy folk.” My son responded gleefully when they announced that they were “basically pirates.” My daughter really enjoyed Laura Oaks’s tuneful country on the Sunday afternoon.
Tales of Animalia
We didn’t come across the Tales of Animalia until the last day, but it was worth the wait. We were lucky enough to catch the theatre show, The Cautionary Tales of Animalia, from the super talented people at The Fabulariam. It was a whacky and magical show in the woodland that featured a cast of animals, some instruments and a rather freaky Little Red Cap. All four of us were entranced. Sometimes the pictures speak for themselves…
The Social is the food hub of Just So, but it’s so much more than a row of food stalls like you might expect at another festival. Yes, the food stalls were present, but there was also a vast array of food-related fun and games to partake in, such as the Just So Jelly Fight, Insect Eating and Jelly Bean Architecture!
On the first night was the annual Just So Bake Off. We were last-minute attendees to the festival, so only had a few days’ notice, but my daughter had been adamant she wanted to bake a cake anyway.
We looked at photos of the stunning past contributions online and decided fairly quickly we didn’t have the time or know-how to produce anything that would come close to winning. However, she was very keen to make something as she had read that all cakes were passed on to the hard-working festival volunteers.
We were a little late providing the entry, but when we enquired a lovely steward ushered us through to where the cakes were already being devoured, so she could place her marble cake among the others. This was touching as she had been terribly disappointed to think she had missed the chance.
The entrants were so impressive. As with the costumes, people put so much work into creating such beautiful masterpieces, I’m sure, as a nod to the vast amounts of creativity that go into putting such an event on.
What child would not be desperate to attend an actual midnight feast? At midnight. At a festival. From the second my children knew this was on the cards, they were determined to stay up for it on the Saturday night. A truly magical event in The Social Barn, this was everything you would hope it would be. Cake, storytelling, music, hay bales. Did I mention it was at midnight?
The Tribal Tournament
This is the grand Just So finale and what is built up to all weekend. Following a final flurry to collect golden pebbles for the last count, the tribes are each assigned a place to assemble. Us owls met in The Spellbound Forest, where our wonderful owl tribal leader was rousing the crowd when we arrived. Here, in the company of our fellow owl members, we perfected our chant:
“Owl tribe assemble, owl tribe unite, owl tribe spread your wings and owl tribe take flight.”
From the Spellbound Forest, we marched, wings held aloft and feathers catching the wind, through the Village Green and down to the Footlights stage. My ten-year-old was in her element. At one point the owls passed the bee tribe. Both tried to outdo each other; one side providing a rhythmic, “Bzzzz, bzzz, bzzzz, bzzzz” while we sang “Too-wit-too-wooo-ooo-ooo.” with increasing volume and intensity.
Eventually all tribes arrived at the Footlights stage, where a celebration atmosphere was in full swing. The results were in and we discovered the foxes had won. The owls came in fourth and my children were a little disappointed but only fleetingly before they clapped the foxes and vowed to come back stronger next year.
What Else Did We Do?
Yes, really, there was more. We wandered through The High Seas, taking in Between Stillness and Storm, a large art installation, while watching and listening to the sounds of weather sensors. We gazed at rowing boats out on the tranquil lake. My daughter had a ‘movie make-up’ transformation in Silver Screen. We sat, transfixed by performance poet Joseph Coelho. And we moved and grooved in Jitterbug.
If Just So is sounding somewhat like a mini Glastonbury for families, that’s because that is what it felt like to us.
What Else You Need to Know
The camp site was about a five-minute walk, slightly uphill from the car park. If you got there early enough, you would be able to camp fairly close to your car. We had a tricky journey up from Bristol, got there around 2.30 p.m. (the camp site opened at 12) and had to walk a bit further to find a decent space, probably more like ten minutes. Depending on where you were camped, you could be a fair walk from the toilets and water point, so it’s worth noting this before you pitch up.
The toilets on the camp site, as elsewhere on the site, were a mixture of portable loos and proper flushing cubicles which even had hot running water and paper towels – positively dreamy for a festival. They stayed in fantastic condition all weekend and never ran out of toilet roll or soap.
There was a good selection of food, reasonably priced, with lots of options for children, as you’d expect at such a family-centred event. We enjoyed tapas from the paella stall at £10 for three, pizzas from £6 and, my personal favourite, a “Buddha box” which contained a gorgeous curry, slaw and pakoras, which they made me an individual gluten free batch of.
A barn with long tables and benches provided a great place to eat, especially when the weather was less good. For snacks, my children loved the corn on the cob stall. £4 seemed a bit pricey for a corn on the cob with butter when you could get a whole meal for £6, which was a shame as it was a great healthy snack for them to munch around the fire.
For babies, the facilities were top notch with a baby change tent, as well as an entire area called Peekaboo dedicated to the Under-fours. Full of sensory experiences, it looked an absolute delight and even had a mini garden in the middle for tiny green fingers.
Who Would Enjoy Just So?
If you love exposing your children to all forms of arts, are a big kid at heart yourself and value quality time with your family in the great outdoors, you will lap up Just So. If creativity is important to you, you have a penchant for dressing up and have never forgotten the Enid Blyton books you read as a child, all the better. You’ll love it!
Early bird tickets for Just So Festival 2018 (17 – 19 August, Rode Hall Estate, Cheshire) are on sale now at www.justsofestival.org.uk