Just So was such a jam-packed blast of a ride that when I first sat down to write this review I had no idea how I would fit it all in. It really is a non-stop assault of fun, creativity, the fantastical and the downright bonkers.
Imagine the packed programme of Center Parcs, the weirdness of Glastonbury and the mysticism of Harry Potter, all wrapped up into one joyful weekend celebration of outdoor arts.
Just So is split into eleven distinct areas, each with its own identity. The site of Rode Hall is beautiful and perfect for this set-up. Open fields lead to enclosed forest hideaways, while a meandering path can open into a beautiful lakeside clearing or hidden courtyard. This is a place to wander without ever being lost.
Each year, families are encouraged to choose their tribe from the seven available – foxes, fish, bees, owls, stags, lions or frogs. The tribes compete all weekend to earn golden pebbles.
Maybe they could tell a joke to an opposing tribal leader. Maybe they will be picked out for demonstrating a particular talent or skill. All this leads to the Just So Tribal Tournament on the Sunday evening, when the pebbles have been counted and the winning team is announced.
This year, my daughter was seduced by some fish scale leggings and so it was decided. We would be fish.
We spent a lovely day in the summer holidays making some fish scale tops in preparation. That’s one of the great things about Just So – it spills into your family’s life long before and after the event. So many people dress up. Lots of the costumes are extremely creative and people-watching becomes a sport.
This is the hub of the festival and where the tribal leaders update the all-important scores. Here we met our fishy tribal leader on the first day and learned our chant of, “blub blub, splosh splish, blub blub, go fish!”
The Just So Pillow Fight
Oh yes, you have to make sure you pack your pillows if you’re going to Just So. The pillow fight is pure feather-filled fun and madness that you wouldn’t want to miss. It takes place in the middle of the Village Green. Kids and adults thumped and bumped and smashed and bashed each other until they were exhausted.
Look Up: Hickabee
On the Sunday we watched an awesome show that combined mesmerising puppetry with daredevil trapeze.
We had been heading for the Great Just So Sports Day, an old-fashioned sports day that takes place on the Village Green that we’d all been keen to take part in. But we were drawn in en route and before we knew it we were frozen, entranced. No one wanted to leave.
I think the best festivals have the ability to draw you into one thing that stops you getting to something else you had previously thought to be a priority.
At Just So you can miss out without ever missing out.
The Forgotten Courtyard was hosted by The Week Junior magazine. Here you could take part in a debate, do a journalism workshop or poetry class.
Both my children love drawing, so the cartoon drawing workshop was high on their priority list. Unfortunately, they turned out not to be the only ones who this was true for. It was very busy and hard to get a spot where you could see unless you had turned up early.
Cartoonist Mark Jackson was quick to explain that as long as you could hear, you didn’t need to be able to see. The organisers bustled around, ensuring every child had a pen and piece of paper.
Mark guided them verbally into drawing a robot. He emphasised there was no right or wrong way it should look and would not let the children see his or each others until the very end.
They were really proud of their final pieces.
Playground of Illusions
This was a really fun area that you could dip in and out of any time over the weekend. We spent a lovely half an hour wandering the different illusions, confounding our brains. Lines moved when they didn’t; circles popped and slid back out of view without ever changing position; a pendulum wave machine swung hypnotically.
The High Seas area is set on a bank next to the beautiful lake. Due to the low water levels this year, rowing boats were not available to take out. Next year, we would love to do this as it’s such a serene setting. Still, there was more than enough to occupy us…
There Be Monsters
We were very excited to see that the wonderful people from The Fabularium were back at Just So. This year’s theatre show was a hysterical knightly romp through the forest.
For each new chapter, the performers asked the audience to move along to a slightly different area of the woodland. The songs were great and when I lost sight of my seven-year-old at the end, it turned out he had been telling ‘the man with the guitar’ how awesome they were.
Last year we watched longingly as the stunning lantern parade wove its way around the Just So site at dusk. I vowed that when we returned, we would be sure to fit in some lantern-making so we could be a part of the parade.
With hindsight, we should have made our lanterns on the Friday when it was much quieter. Because the parade is on the Saturday evening, the cut-off time for making them is Saturday afternoon. We got there at about 1pm and it was very busy.
The lanterns are made out of willow frames, covered in papier-mâché. They are absolutely beautiful, but do take quite a bit of work. We enjoyed creating the frames, using masking tape to bind the willow.
Unfortunately there was a lot of waiting involved. I stood in a queue for around an hour waiting for a papier-mâché station to become available. When we went back later to collect the lanterns for the parade, there was another 20 minute wait.
Once we had the lanterns, we were shepherded into a field. Here, we were guided into a huge, snaking line to wait for the parade to begin…
My seven-year-old does not really do standing still. So what ensued was around half an hour of him trying to poke his sister with his lantern and lob his tea light into the surrounding grass. While complaining. Loudly.
I distinctly remember at one point shouting, “Yes, I think the whole field knows you don’t want to do the lantern parade anymore. You have made that abundantly clear!” When he started (genuinely accidentally) poking the people in front and behind with his lantern, I gave up trying to force the moment and I took the thing.
We did the lantern parade eventually, but I think we were all a little lanterned-out by that point. I’d like to think I did a good job of brandishing my son’s lantern as he took his shoes off and threw them into a bush in his final wave of defiance.
I’m sure others had a much more serene experience of the parade than we did. It really is a beautiful thing to be a part of.
Luckily, our evening returned to form in no time at all. We turned a corner to find ourselves joining a sitting crowd in front of a vast tightrope suspended ridiculously high in the air between two poles. What we were to witness was absolutely amazing.
Eisoropia by the Bullzini Family
One of the best things I have ever seen at any festival was the extraordinary high rope performance by The Bullzini Family. All lantern woes floated away in the night sky as this phenomenal show began. The children are still telling people how they watched a man with a bag over his head walk a tightrope ‘miles up in the sky’. It was such a special event to share as a family.
The Flamingo Lounge
The Flamingo Lounge is dedicated to all things dance. There were a number of fabulous dance workshops taking place here over the course of the weekend. Then, when darkness fell, the lights came on and the retro disco began.
Modern Warrior by The Rosie Kay Dance Studio was part performance, part workshop. After an introductory performance, the children and adults who wanted to be involved chose a side. You had to decide if you were a trad (traditionalist) or a mod (modernist).
The enthusiastic performers then took each side through a martial arts-inspired dance which ended with the two sides fighting for which way of dance should prevail.
Both my children loved wearing their special T-shirts and concentrated really hard. They thoroughly enjoyed the performance. They were then able to sit and watch the dance troupe bring the dance / fight to a peaceful conclusion.
If the name of this area alone stirs anything in you, rest assured, Just So is the festival for you.
The Spellbound Forest is a magical, calming place to be. We listened to camp fire stories by the wonderful Ian Douglas and we snuggled on logs wrapped in blankets when darkness fell, swaying to the sounds of the bonfire bands.
The Woodland Theatre is a beautiful clearing in the wood with seating carved into the banks. On the first day, the four of us watched a vintage pram puppet show. Like a Tree from Hocus Pocus Theatre wove a beautiful tale of how the life of a newborn child and a newly sprouted sapling were so intrinsically entwined.
The handmade puppets were captivating and the music entrancing, all in such a gorgeous setting.
The cinema had moved to the Woodland Theatre this year. My two children excitedly ran there to watch Fantastic Mr Fox on the Saturday evening. We bought them churros and hot chocolate as a treat and gave them a blanket each to snuggle under.
My son, who seems to find shoes an unnecessary bother, was a little obsessed with the Barefoot Walk. This was an area in the Spellbound Forest where children could take off their shoes and socks and walk through a sensory area. They experienced various sensations under their feet, from sand to mud to scratchy rock.
I thought it was the kind of thing you would do once and that would be it. But any time we turned around and couldn’t see our son, he would be doing the Barefoot Walk yet again. He talked about it all weekend!
Hammer and Chisel
Both my children enjoyed this area. We spent a lovely hour or so in here on the Sunday afternoon, hammering, sawing and helping to create a play area of climbing frames and forts.
My seven-year-old, especially, became completely immersed in the activity. He was over the moon to be awarded a golden pebble for his achievements.
Here you could take part in family yoga, tai chi, play a cardboard harp or join a ukelele chorus.
The Woodland Library
My daughter and I spent some lovely quiet time browsing The Woodland Library within Idelwood. When she had chosen a book, she patiently waited for the younger children to finish playing on a hammock.
When one became available, she made herself comfy and took a quiet half an hour to herself reading some poetry in the woods.
Peekaboo is the charming area dedicated to under-fives. Set in a gentle valley, a packed programme of stimulating and calming activities for the youngest guests ran all weekend.
There was Baby Yoga, Harp Lullabies, Baby Book Club and Mud Play, to name but a few.
A beautiful carousel stood in the middle of Peekaboo for little ones to ride, held by a grown up.
Baby changing was available here and pregnancy classes such as pregnancy yoga also took place. I would have loved to have found a festival as inclusive and inspiring as Just So when I was either pregnant or had a pre-school child.
Roll Up Roll Up
This was a new area to Just So and it was my absolute favourite in a sea of favourites. A walk through the woods brought you out to a peaceful clearing near the lake. Here, a few lovely food and refreshment stalls mingled with all manner of the weird and wonderful.
We played L_ve Hangman, which was a fantastically macabre 70’s gameshow style take on the game. The silent host chose children to go up and pick a letter.
If their letter fitted the rack, a tune played and everyone danced excitedly. But if the letter didn’t fit, a man’s head popped through the velvet curtain on a noose.
Body parts were added bit by bit until he was hung. The whole thing was hysterical and the two performers, who didn’t say a word throughout, were just brilliant.
Here, the children also took part in the Custard Catwalk.
We had wisened up to the popularity of certain activities by this point, so we got our two there a good 20 minutes before it began. That meant they were in the first few to get a go. By that point the queue was really long so it was worth getting there early.
One at a time, holding the hand of an adult, the children got the chance to run on top of custard. They absolutely loved it. And they didn’t sink!
Both my children took part in tightrope walking sessions as well as having access to some more unusual circus equipment than you find at the average circus workshops.
My eleven-year-old spent ages playing with devil sticks perfecting new skills to show us.
My seven-year-old who has never been able to master a hula hoop before, found his newfound flossing skills came to amazing use. One of the staff gave him a golden pebble for his efforts and he was so excited.
The Band at the End of the World
Here, we also watched the thoroughly bonkers show, The Band at the End of the World. This loony bunch of punky brass-players are convinced the end of the world is coming. They welcomed us into their bizarre new dawn with a battle-church, some raucous instruments and even the odd firework.
On the Sunday evening, all the circus sideshow acts from across the weekend came out in force, performing songs and playing with and chatting to the children in character. It was such a lovely, playful and yet peaceful time as the sun was quite literally beginning to set on our weekend.
This is the the main stage and where most of the bands perform over the weekend. It feels strange to say we went to a festival and barely watched any bands all weekend, but I think you’ll understand why having read this review.
Whenever we walked past, the music sounded great and it was lovely to see adults and children dancing together at the front.
We watched the Sunday night closing act, Gary Stewart Presents Graceland. The band gave a fantastic rendition of Paul Simon’s Graceland album and everyone was dancing along. Spirits were high as the band followed the all-important Tribal Tournament, the real culmination of the weekend…
“Fish, Fish, you wish you were a fish. Fish, fish, you wish you were a fish.”
We gathered in High Seas with our fishy compatriates. Scales refracted the early evening sun. With our fish tribal leader, we invented and then practised our chants.
In other areas of the site, six other tribes assembled with their own unique chants.
When it was time, we began our march to Footlights to hear who had won.
I was a little concerned how my son would deal with the waiting around and the march, having previously established these to not be his favourite kinds of activity. True to form, while my daughter dutifully perfected her chants, my son got a bit twitchy and started threatening to take his fish-scale top off that he’d worked so hard on.
It’s worth remembering that if you have a child like this, you don’t have to assemble at the time it says in the programme – just keep an eye out from somewhere nearby and join the rest of your tribe as they begin the march.
Still, my restless boy certainly perked up when a few misplaced lions wandered past.
“BOOOOOO!” he boomed at them. “BOOOOOOOOO!”
Suddenly he was alert and interested. At one point, during the march, he legged it halfway across a field because he had seen the bees coming from another direction and he wanted to give them a good dose of his booing.
My husband and I joked that he would make a great football hooligan.
Luckily it is all in fantastic spirits while still being hotly competitive.
Once we reached Footlights and the six other tribes had arrived, the party was in full swing. Among the ardent chanting and tribalism, there was a lovely moment of togetherness.
The host asked us all, ‘in these times of such division’, to introduce ourselves to a member of the tribe next to us, shake their hand and ask where they had come from. It was a very special way to prove to the children the adage that we have more in common than that which divides us.
The scores were in and there was only one pebble between first and second place. By the time we got to the last two and realised either the fish or the frogs had won, my children were beside themselves.
“And in second place,” came the voice. “Is, the… fffffffffffffffffff…”
Silence. Held breath.
Pandamonium. The frogs took second which meant us fish had been victorious. Both my children were ecstatic, jumping up and down, hugging each other and us, chanting with the rest of the fish. I’m not ashamed to say I shed a tear.
I’m sure every fish child was taking responsibility for the all-important pebble that won it. I know mine were.
“Imagine if I hadn’t got that pebble for my hula hooping!”
“Imagine if I hadn’t sung my Lion King song to the stag leader!”
Weeks later, they are still regaling friends and family with their achievements. Thank you, Just So, for a wonderful weekend of creativity that will live with my children forever.