The Downs Bristol was a great example of how children and adults can mix at a festival. I love how, at 2.00 in the afternoon we were painting rocks and making bicycle-powered smoothies in the kids’ area. Yet by 10.30 the kids were on our shoulders in a large crowd of very merry gig-goers, singing along to Wonderwall at the tops of their voices.
The Downs is a one-day event that was formed in 2016, originally as a homecoming gig for Bristol’s Massive Attack. It has come a long way since then and is fast becoming an important date in the Bristol calendar.
The site opened at 1.00 and we arrived around 2. It was pretty quiet at this time. The site started to fill up properly around 6 p.m. so lots of people clearly hung on for the evening acts.
We were glad to be there early. It was nice to be able to wander the site freely with no toilet queues. It also meant we could spend a good amount of time hanging out in the kids’ area.
How was it for children?
I have to be honest, I was a little dubious as to how child-friendly the event would be. I’m only too well aware how us Bristol people like to party! But when I saw the hefty family programming, including activities organised by the fab Junkfish, it was clear that the organisers had thoughtfully and thoroughly considered children.
In the end, it turned out to be great for kids. The children’s area was spacious, large and jammed full of interesting and fun activities. Its positioning meant you couldn’t be involved with the music on either stage, which was a shame. However it did also mean it was nice and separate, so retained a chilled atmosphere.
We were happy to do kids’ stuff during the day, then watch bands in the evening, so it wasn’t a big deal.
The only time the children got bored and started complaining was when the kids’ area shut at 7 p.m. There was at least another hour of daylight and I think it would have been better if it had have run on for that hour. But once we got set up near the main stage and the bigger evening acts began, they were happy dancing along with us.
So what did we do?
So much! There was such a fantastic array of activities running all day that there was always something to do.
There were lots of activities in-situ all day that you could dip in and out of. Then there were programmes of shows, workshops and activities that ran alongside these at scheduled times.
My seven-year-old enjoyed scrambling up and jumping off the wooden climbing equipment. Children played here all day supervised by the fab Ape Project staff.
An MDF board, a hammer and some nails was another great example of an activity that was simple but engaging.
Both my children loved making the bicycle-powered smoothies and kept going back for more! Chopping their own bananas again really engaged them.
Younger children spent ages rolling plastic balls down a makeshift tube. They watched them roll all the way down and then pop out the bottom.
There was also a badge-making tent. These fab little badges could include the child’s guardian’s contact details, which was a great idea as some children (my youngest included) don’t like wearing wrist bands.
My seven-year-old was desperate to have a go on the bike spin-painting. He remembered making a painting like this at a pre-school event with me when he was tiny.
It was super-cute that he remembered and he took his time choosing his colours, then watched proudly as it was hung to dry.
The Hair Salon Caravan
This was a huge hit with both my children. At one end of the kids’ area sat a cute little caravan, filled with hair-styling delights. The children were given a book of styles to flick through for inspiration while watching the person before them be worked on.
For some, watching was as much a delight as seeing their own results!
We saw some incredible styles, replete with ribbons and glitter. My daughter wanted to carry on wearing her hat, so the ladies crimped and glittered her up accordingly.
My son is always lusting after footballers’ hair and so had a clear idea what he wanted. The two women were so lovely with him, using hairspray and a hairdryer to achieve his look. They even gave me tips how to do it for him at home.
The Jungle Rave was so much fun. I’m not sure who was enjoying it more – the kids or the adults. It was a great way to close the kids’ area.
There were performances going on all day. We didn’t stick to any rigid schedule, but fell into whatever looked interesting at the time. As the kids’ activities were all close together, it was easy to wander in and out of activities and shows.
We watched a fantastic juggling act, which the children loved.
The Headstrung Puppets show, Cryptid Petting Zoo had the children mesmerised as they were introduced to mythical beasts from abound the world. The Great Beast (seen at the very top of this review) was so cute.
We also really enjoyed Drag Queen Story Time, which was as literal as it sounds – a drag queen reading stories. She looked amazing.
The Information Area
This was an area run in collaboration with The Big Issue. Over the course of the day, discussions and debates took place here as well as performances, all with a political or social leaning.
We watched the wonderfully funny Shappi Khorsandi. We showed our children where we were sitting and let them play away in the children’s area. It’s really nice now the children are getting older to have little bits of freedom like this at a festival. Of course, we love being interactive with them, but snatching a bit of time as a couple to watch some comedy was fab.
We also watched the end of a panel debate called “Brexit 2019 (What The F**k Is Going On…)” Hmm, indeed. It was very thought-provoking.
There were loads of food traders, 80% of them from the South West. The variety was good – from vegetarian and vegan tapas to curries, pizzas, noodles. This included a good amount of options for veggies, vegans and those on a gluten-free diet.
I had a lovely Buddah Box from Gopal’s Curry Shack along with some pakoras. My husband and children all had pizza from Stone Baked – let’s say it didn’t hang around long! Food was averagely-priced for a festival and it was easy to find things most children would like.
There were two stages back to back, with no sound interference. We only watched acts on the main stage but the second stage had a stellar line-up too.
I nipped away from the kids’ area in the afternoon to watch the lovely Nadine Shah by myself. She was feisty, energetic and endearing and I would love to see her again.
Later in the day, we watched the king of mod, Paul Weller, strut his stuff. He played a great set that included some Jam numbers and had everyone dancing.
But the highlight of the day for us was the headliner, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds. Most of my friends disappeared to the other stage at this point to watch Orbital, who I also would have absolutely loved to have seen.
However, Britpop was my time and I was a huge Oasis fan back in my teenage years. More importantly, my children have picked up some of the more popular Oasis songs over the years, as well as hearing Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds on 6 Music, so they were really excited.
We had a good spot, close enough to feel involved, but with enough space so the chuldren didn’t feel too hemmed in. There were a few other children nearby durig the headline set and the other gig-goers were respectful of them.
It was a great set. They played all their big hits and in the middle, when there can sometimes be a slump at gigs, suddenly started belteing out the Oasis numbers.
It was really cute to have the kids on our shoulders as they sang along to songs that I did, errm, decades earlier. They were so excited when the songs came on that they recognised.
For the last two songs, Noel was joined by Paul Weller. They did A Town Called Malice, followed by The Beatles’ All You Need Is Love. It rounded off a crowd-pleasing set perfectly.
In the past, the festival had been criticised for the lengthy queues for the bars and toilets. This year, they had a good queuing system at the bars. I only used the can bar and was served within a few minutes each time.
The queues were reasonably long, but the bar itself was also very long with lots of people serving and stewards manning the queue system, so it was fine.
The toilet queues were fine during the day but did grow as the evening went on. I heard people complaining there still weren’t enough toilets, although the queues didn’t take as long as it looked like they would. I think the longest I waited was about ten minutes.
Towards the end of the night, people were bypassing the queues, which was annoying. The toilets were mostly in a reasonable condition, although they did run out of toilet roll at certain points in the day.
Specific children’s toilets were provided in the kids’ area, which was great. Although signs asked adults not to use them, as the day went on and the general toilet queues grew, this started to be ignored. I think it would have been good to have a steward manning these, as little ones wouldn’t always be able wait in the longer queues.
A Festival with a conscience
It’s always lovely when you can see that a festival is really trying to have a positive impact. And this was one of the most socially conscious festivals I’ve been to.
Through their partnership with The Big Issue, they sold programmes in advance of the event via Big Issue sellers across the city. In the run-up to the day, they ran social media pieces on each of the Big Issue sellers and where they could be found.
On the day itself The Big Issue vendors were onsite, selling programmes to guests as they arrived onsite.
Again, you can tell the team behind The Downs Bristol are determined to leave as positive an impact on their environment as possible. There is a real love of the city of Bristol that runs throughout every aspect of the organisation and implementation of the day.
Local traders are prioritised and Greenbox deal with waste to maximise the recycling, generators are run on HVO (hydrotreated vegetable oil) biodiesel.
The organisers work hard to dissuade people from driving with plenty of public transport plus a bike parking rack. A friend who cycled up at around 6.30 p.m. said he only just managed to find a space for his bike, so maybe this could be extended next year as it’s a great idea.
Would we recommend this festival to people with children?
Absolutely. There is so much for children to do, I’ve barely touched on it in this review. You could easily occupy yourselves all day in the kids’ field and still not see or do everything.
The festival doesn’t allow people to re-enter once they’re onsite, but bends the rules for families so you can leave to take the children home if you have a sitter, then return to enjoy the evening without them.
As lots of people are local, this would be a great way of making the most of both sides of the festival. But if your children are happy watching the big acts, they will be totally fine staying as ours did.
Bear in mind that the festival does take on a party atmosphere as darkness covers. However we found the crowd to be respectfully fun.
My children loved the activities during the day but also buzzed off the evening vibe. It was a great family day out.