I’ll admit now that I had mixed feelings about going back to Larmer Tree Festival after their year-long hiatus. I was excited of course, as the festival has always been one of our family favourites. The organisers, however, had taken a year off to ‘reassess‘ their direction and ‘refresh‘ their offering.
Those loaded words hint at big changes and fill me with dread. The website had been completely revamped, and I wondered if the Larmer Tree we had loved so much, may now be pandering to a new and different audience.
I can tell you now, we had nothing to worry about!
Our arrival at the Larmer Tree Gardens was reassuringly familiar: flag-lined avenue, zero queues, and plenty of helpful happy stewards. We breathed a collective sigh of relief that the revamp had not instantly eroded all comforting sense of familiarity – we have been coming to Larmer Tree for a decade and it feels a bit like our festival home!
It was after discovering Larmer Tree Festival that I founded Festival Kidz with my Glasto-loving friend, Louise. She was always banging on about her family’s love of festivals and, until I discovered Larmer Tree, I just didn’t understand why anyone would ever want to subject their kids to a festival experience.
All the festivals I knew were too loud, too busy, too dirty, too unsavoury, too tiring, too unsafe, too anything for little ones… but my first visit to Larmer Tree was all it took to convince me that family oriented festivals can also offer something incredibly unique and wonderful to kids. I felt moved to spread the word and support other wary parents in undertaking their first forays into the wondrous world of family festivaling… and hence Festival Kidz was born!
Anyway, I digress… back to 2018: We had arrived fairly early… just before 5pm on the Friday, only to be told that the van field was ‘already full’ and we should head to an overflow field. I was not too happy about this at the time and may have grumbled a little, but in fact we had really lucked out.
The field we ended up in had a gorgeous view of the festival, was quiet and spacious, and wasn’t actually much further away from the festival entrance than the original van field. The overflow field did not have a shower block, but we were allowed to use the glamping showers in the adjacent field.
Feeling relaxed and happy, we were soon pitched up and ready to venture into the festival itself, with plenty of time to familiarise ourselves with the new layout, before watching Songhoy Blues and Jake Bugg. Both were absolutely brilliant. I love that it’s so easy and safe for younger members of the audience to watch performances close up. It allows them to experience such a connection with the music that is much harder to achieve safely at a larger festival.
From the positive start on Friday, the festival just got better and better each day. There is always so much to do at Larmer Tree and this year was no exception. Every corner we turned revealed a new surprise – an interesting debate, a beautiful song, a chance to create, or simply something to enjoy. As I flick back over my festival programme I wish I could go back in time and do it all over again – there are so many things I missed. I just couldn’t be in two places at once and, even if I could, I was enjoying the moment too much to move on!
For me, a good family festival is colourful and attractive, friendly and safe, interesting and relaxing. It should offer a wide variety of engaging entertainment and activities for both passive and interactive participation. It should have plenty of shade and shelter to cope with all weathers. Above all else, a festival should be fun and memorable – for every member of the family. It’s a tall order but Larmer Tree ticks ALL my family’s festival boxes and has become our benchmark.
Larmer Tree attracts every generation from people in their later years to young families with tiny babies. Everyone is made to feel very welcome here and many return year after year after year after year… Larmer Tree is very relaxed, safe, creative, chilled, inclusive, warm and friendly.
The atmosphere at Larmer Tree is always cheerful. There are smiles and laughter everywhere you turn. It made me smile when I overheard a dad talking to his little girl “… yes, you’re right, that was very kind… that’s what Larmer Tree is all about: people being kind and caring…”
Even without all the site art, Larmer Tree Festival would be a beautiful one, purely by virtue of its stunning Victorian pleasure gardens venue. This unique setting offers many natural sub-venues within the site which are used to create:
- Lostwood (toddler play area with bell tents, picnic tables, toys and sand pit, art installations, campfire, chill out spaces, woodcraft, interactive theatrical surprises)
- The Wilds (Larmer Spa by Kernow Springs, therapists, little library, late-night silent woodland disco)
- Larmer Lawns (workshops, acoustic tent, Ecotricity, cafe/bar)
- Secret Garden (cafe, shady picnic areas, 6 o’clock gin bar and workshop)
Families with younger children often tend to hang out either in the secluded Secret Garden, magical Lostwood, or in the pretty Larmer Lawns area where the children can free-range along with the resident peacocks.
The main stage can be clearly heard from both Larmer Lawns and the Secret Garden areas, but at a more child-friendly volume. As with most festivals, ear defenders are a good idea if you are planning to spend much time watching main stage acts.
The sun was intense this year, but fortunately there are lots of big trees to provide shade and plenty of tented venues to provide shelter such as The Social (talks, theatre, comedy, music, hanging out, bar next door, DJs), The Arc (seated venue for music and comedy), The Village Inn (pub with great live music) and the Artists’ Quarter (cafe and craft stalls). A permanent building, The Pavilion, is also used by the festival and hosts further workshops (dance, music, poetry).
Over the last few years I had had a niggling feeling that the festival had a little less magic and perhaps felt a little more commercial than it used to… but this year I truly felt that Larmer Tree had got its former sparkle back.
The changes greatly improved the cohesiveness of the site and were very in-keeping with the rest of the festival as we have come to know it. In many ways, particularly within the Village, the layout seemed to revert back to Larmer Trees of old, with the Social and Artists’ Quarter back where they used to be, and the Arc taking the place of the Big Top.
There is loads for little ones to do at Larmer Tree. Just wandering the woods or playing on the lawns in the beautiful gardens will keep most children happy, but there are also heaps of organised activities. These included storytelling, craft workshops, firelighting, kids shows, role-play props, play and chill spaces, and pop-up theatre.
The main craft workshop marquee in the Larmer Lawns seemed more grown-up this year and had a mix of ages participating in the crafts on offer. Personally I preferred this as it seemed calmer and more focused. Adults and children worked together side-by-side and produced some lovely wire trees, paper quilling designs, boho banners, upcycled plastic flowers and clay cats.
Many of the adult-oriented workshops were also open to teenagers. These included writing workshops, tango, merengue, yoga, tai chi, ukulele, clay, felting, calligraphy, espadrille making, Dorset buttons and a host other crafts. Most workshops are free, but some more specialist ones cost extra and are bookable.
Family friendly activities could be found all over the festival site which is great because you don’t get ‘stuck’ in one area and are able to experience the overall atmosphere and spend time enjoying the whole site. It also means you have more opportunity to accidentally stumble upon something you may have missed in the programme while you wander the festival.
Big names for little ones this year were CBeebies stars Cerrie Burnell and Gem from Swashbuckle. Dan the Hat was genuinely funny and made us all laugh out loud – even the moody teenagers! Dan also commented that out of all the 26 festivals he had performed at, that Larmer Tree was the most beautiful setting and that he felt like he was at a giant birthday party!
The Larmer Spa
Festival spas are usually ‘adult only’ affairs, but at Kernow Springs, they actively welcome families. The lovely family team behind the hand built wooden hot tubs and sauna are super-friendly and accommodating.
The temperature of the hot tubs was just perfect, and if you hire a whole tub to yourselves (at the rate of 7 people) you get a free bottle of chilled Prosecco too! We spent an indulgent couple of hours in the spa, mainly just easing away our camping aches and pains in the hot water, but also tried out the beautiful new wooden sauna on wheels that Martin had recently built. The man has skills – it was a work of art. Under-18s are not allowed in the sauna for H&S reasons but my kids still had great fun braving the icy cold bucket shower after their hot tub.
There were nice hot showers and organic herbal shampoo and body wash to finish off. Bean bags and rugs are also provided in a bedouin-style chill out area. We hadn’t intended to spend so long at the spa, but once inside we couldn’t help but relax – it was absolutely blissful.
The music bill at Larmer Tree is always eclectic and rarely includes many bands I have heard of. Headline acts for 2018 were Jake Bugg, First Aid Kit and Public Service Broadcasting – they all delivered and were excellent choices for the Larmer Tree audience. The cosy garden setting of Larmer Tree makes for a very intimate gig and it was easy for my young teens. Many times I walked past the full to bursting Village Inn with the sound of great bands going down an absolute storm inside but, not wanting to battle the crowds, I listened from outside without really figuring out who they were.
Between us we also made many new music discoveries: Naaz, IDER, Broken Brass Ensemble, JONES, Songhoy Blues and Arcade Hearts all gave stand-out performances, each in a completely different genre. I really enjoyed the strong female line-up this year too. Naaz actually made me cry as she sang ‘Pretty’, a song about self-acceptance, and I hoped my daughters were absorbing her beautifully poignant words.
Watching live music close-up is one of my favourite things; a pleasure I seem to have passed on to my kids. At Larmer Tree the audience is so friendly and considerate that I feel safe letting the girls go off on their own to get right to the front and enjoy the full barrier experience without fear of them being crushed in a mosh pit. Everyone looks out for each other, politely stepping aside to let people move through, or letting shorter people stand in front so they get a better view.
After the main stage finishes for the night, there is still plenty of action for those who want to party longer. There’s late night comedy in the Arc (loved the hilarious Jen Brister… bring her back next year please!) and a new hugely popular silent disco under the stars in The Wilds DJ’d by the fabulous duo of GRLTLK.
Some have commented that there was less on in terms of the programme this year, yet we still didn’t get time to do and see everything we would have liked to. Whatever changes to the balance of programming, I did not feel that corners were being cut. I felt that if anything it had become more streamlined, and all the pieces of the jigsaw fit.
The Food and Drink
The food traders are very carefully selected and are often rebooked year on year due to their positive feedback. There is plenty variety of really good quality food on offer – oriental, pizza, pasta, burgers, curries, burritos, pies, churros, sheep milk ice creams, cream teas, cakes… Most will do child portions on request. There are a number of cute cafes around the festival site. There is also a Farmer’s Market with local produce (including venison and lobster!).
There are several well-stocked main bars and smaller little boutique cocktail or specialist bars dotted around the site. A pint or single G&T will set you back around a fiver, £8-9 for cocktails and doubles. I had the guilty pleasure of joining in the 6 o’clock Gin workshop while my children were busy elsewhere. It was informative, interesting and delicious! Pete and Chris were excellent at presenting the background of the family-run company and details of the distilling process, and served us 7 different tasty samples in 45 minutes (before lunch!!!)
Picnics: Although there are bag searches occasionally, and alcohol is not allowed to be taken into the arena, they don’t seem to stop people taking in cool boxes and picnics. This is great if you want to save a few pennies or need plenty of snacks on hand for your hungry kids. Those on a budget may also like to check out out guide to self-catering at festivals.
Tap water is freely available throughout the site. FRANK Water were on site too with their refillable bottles and carts of chilled fresh water. You buy a bottle or wristband and get free refills all weekend. FRANK Water is a charity funding clean water in poverty stricken areas around the world. In this heatwave, I was very happy to pay the £3.50 wristband charge for chilled water, especially knowing that all the profits were supporting vital life-saving sanitation projects.
The Campsites and Toilets
In addition to Live-in Vehicles and Accessible Camping, there are also areas for Quiet Camping (furthest away), Family Camping (noisy early mornings), Comfy Camping (masses of glamping options), General Camping (close to the arena but noisier at night). Research which area would suit you best and choose accordingly. Campsites are generally very clean and spacious, with plenty of toilets and showers. Expect a small queue at peak times, but opt for an afternoon shower and you’ll have the place to yourself!
On the whole, the toilets at Larmer Tree Festival are among the cleanest and frequently serviced of any of the festivals I have ever been to. They are still chemical toilets though so they’re never going to be as lovely as your toilet at home. They do sometimes run out of paper so always keep some emergency supplies handy. They did sometimes smell towards the end of each day despite the regular emptying. I think this was partly down to the current heat wave. When there were queues, they were not long and moved quickly.
Larmer Tree works hard to make the festival accessible for everyone. The site is flat with good paths so it is relatively easy to get around on wheels or mobility scooters. The festival-goers are a considerate bunch and tend to be aware of their surroundings and very helpful by making space for those on crutches etc. There is a good viewing platform for the main stage acts, however at busy times some of the smaller tented venues are more difficult to access for wheelchair users due to crowds.
The festival organisers are very accommodating so contact them in advance to discuss specific needs like refrigerated medicines etc. There is a designated Accessible Camping area adjacent to the entrance to the arena. Those that need the support of a carer can bring one for free.
Recycling is available by every single block of bins. There is virtually no litter at Larmer Tree which makes it a particularly pleasant place to hang out at. I’m not sure whether that’s due to the fantastic volunteer team, or down to the clientele – probably both.
Phone reception can be patchy, texts can be delayed and 3G/4G can drop at peak times. Arrange meeting points in advance so you can check-in with each other if you are letting your older children roam-free. If you are separated from your littler ones, the stewards are brilliant with lost children.
Larmer Tree Festival has some fantastic festival traders and craft stalls. Make sure you visit the Artist’s Quarter where you can buy beautiful treasures directly from the makers. Larmer Tree is a great place to pick up something unusual so if you are looking for a unique piece of hand-made silver jewellery, or even bespoke wooden garden structures like the one here, then don’t forget to bring your credit card.
Larmer Tree Festival is like no other. After all the years, it still retains a special sparkle and proudly sits at the very top of my ‘best family festivals’ list. It’s a multi-arts festival and is as much about the workshops and other activities as it is about the music – and, in such a gorgeous location, you can do as little or as much of it as you like and still enjoy every moment. We’ve already put next year in our diaries!
Reviewed by Romany and family