Two weeks ago we purchased sleeping bags, dug out our wellies and put the finishing touches to our owl wings and headed to the Just So festival, an annual arts and music festival organised by social enterprise group Wild Rumpus. It was, quite simply, wonderful. Admittedly, we haven’t been to any other family festivals but I have never been to an event where kids are placed so firmly front and centre and absolutely everything is about them. And if you’re wondering why on earth we needed the owl wings, then read on….
Why you’ll love the Just So Festival
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The three-day Just So festival is filled with arts, theatre, dance, music, comedy, literature, and creativity. There are no headline acts, instead you’ll come across sideshows, activities, workshops, bands and much more as you stroll from one enchanted area to another. There are many reasons why we loved our time at Just So (and why we’re planning to return in 2019!) and here’s why I think you’ll love it too. Obviously schedules, performers and acts change but whatever you see and do at Just So, I have no doubt that your experience will be every bit as magical as ours.
The Setting at Rode Hall Estate
Just So transforms the beautiful Rode Hall Estate into a spellbinding world of stories and make believe. The grassy lawn in front of the Georgian country house becomes the Village Green, the heart of the festival and the setting for all Tribal Tournament shenanigans (more on that later!). The Spellbound Forest is hidden within woodland, the Roll Up, Roll Up circus area is on a patch of green near the lake and the Ministry of Games is located within one of the estate’s barns. Although you’re not allowed within the main house (the family still lives here, the estate having been owned by the Baker Willbraham family for nearly 350 years), the Courtyard Kitchen sits in one of the outhouses and you can always visit the Forgotten Courtyard.
The Tribal Tournament
The glue that holds the festival together is the brilliantly bonkers Tribal Tournament. Families are encouraged to pledge allegiance to an animal tribe and to come to the festival dressed up as foxes, frogs, fish, stags, bees or lions. After much debate we chose to join the owl tribe and spent a week pre-festival frantically trying to make owl wings! Throughout the festival, children are encouraged to earn golden pebbles that go towards the final competition tally; pebbles can earned by doing anything from telling a great joke, dancing with gusto or answering a factual question correctly. The winning tribe is crowned on Sunday night once all the golden pebbles have been counted; this year the fish tribe were victorious.
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I loved the Tribal Tournament for various reasons; firstly it’s completely mad; secondly, having a theme to the festival ties everything together really nicely (and kids get really excited about earning pebbles!); and thirdly, it’s just wonderful seeing families wandering the grounds together dressed up in their costumes. We saw some incredible costumes; lots of shiny, shimmery fish, some fantastic foxes dressed to seemingly rob banks, a beekeeper and his colony of bees and plenty more ingenious ideas.
The Wandering Performers
In addition to the scheduled performances (and the programme is jam-packed with fun events), performers regularly wander the grounds adding a wonderful carnival feel to the festival. We came across the hilarious Anti-Fun Ministry, who told Tess off for having a smile that was six centimetres too wide, some roller-skating flamingoes, Phileas Fogg and his French valet Passepartout in their hot air balloons, and the mysterious dream antelopes. In the Roll Up, Roll Up area there were a myriad of circus performers including the strong man who couldn’t lift anything and the tall man on stilts.
Ian Douglas, the Storyteller
The wonderful, whimsical Spellbound Forest is the setting for stories, campfire songs, bonfire bands, barefoot walks and roasting marshmallows. It’s also where storyteller extraordinaire Ian Douglas holds court and shares tall tales from the lands of Just So and beyond. My kids loved listening to Ian’s stories and just about every other family I met said that he was one of their favourite acts, too. Apparently he’s a Just So regular and I really do hope so as he has a unique way of captivating audiences young and old with his tales.
It’s fair to stay that we spent a lot of time in the Roll Up, Roll Up corner of the Just So Festival. This was the perfect place for the big kids to practice their new-found love of circus skills, in particular Alfie who discovered that he has quite the flair for Devil Sticks and Hula Hoops. Tess practiced acrobatics with her dad and, thanks to the folks from Circus House, was standing on his shoulders and forming human pyramids with the group by the end of the session. There were also tightrope workshops this year given by the amazing Bullzini Family who also performed an incredible high-wire act on Saturday night in front of the estate’s Georgian manor. Although Sam was a little too young for these activities, there were three dressing-up tables laden with face paint where he happily spent time “putting on make up”!
Dance, Dance, Dance
The other place where we spent a lot of time was the Flamingo Lounge – it turns out that in addition to a love of face paint, Sam loves a boogie. Handily located near the glamping field (where we were staying), this was the place to put your dancing shoes to the test. Our all time favourite act were the silent discos from Our Kids Social where parents and kids put on their headphones as well as their dancing shoes – although I’m not anyone could match the energy of the Our Kids Social team! There were follow the leader routines, kids’ pop favourites, parents’ classics and boxes of dressing up stuff. We loved it! We also spent most evenings in the Flamingo Lounge enjoying a pre-bed family dance at the retro disco.
Bubbles, Bubbles Everywhere
Give kids some bubbles and they will be happy for hours, especially if there are a million bubbles of varyings shapes and sizes. We stumbled across the amazing bubble man several times over the course of the festival and he was a hit with Sam (aged 3) just as much as Alfie (aged 10); cue much laughter, hilarity and bubble-popping.
Food, Glorious Food
Given our lack of camping experience and therefore camping equipment we arrived with a handful of snacks and a wallet-full of cash, fully prepared to pay for all our meals over the course of the weekend. What I loved about the Just So Festival was the huge variety of food and drink stalls on offer. Over the course of the weekend we ate everything from Tibetan momos and vegan curries to amazing toasties, delicious crêpe and award-winning burgers. Every stall offered a kiddie version and everyone used plates and cutlery made from recycled or sustainable materials, which I loved. The other great thing we found were the bars and Nick and I made it our parental duty to sample the wares of the craft ale, artisan gin and heavenly bubbly bars – all in the name of research of course!
The Custard Catwalk
This was a first at Just So but it was such a hit I’m sure that they’ll be bringing it back next year. The challenge was to run across the ‘custard’ catwalk as quickly as possible so that you didn’t sink into wobbly mess. It was, quite simply, brilliant.
It’s All About the Kids
Just So really, truly is all about the kids and what was really wonderful was how baby-friendly it was, too. There’s an entire section devoted to 0-4-year-olds. Sponsored by Weleda, the Peakaboo Garden offers little ones the chance to enjoy a Mad Hatter’s tea party, meet the bubble-loving snail Snigel or enjoy a baby massage, all safe in the knowledge that you’re not going to get trampled by over-excited big kids! Every evening from 5 – 7pm, baby bath time was held here as well with baby baths and bubbles. I also noticed bottle warming machines in the Social Barns. Really, Just So has thought of everything for little kids to enjoy the festival.
It’s safe to say that the Just So programme is jam-packed. There are discos and bands, workshops and yoga, acrobatics and a bicycle-powered theatre. There are also a lot of activities and the absolutely best thing about it all is that you do not have to pay anything extra to take part. I’ve heard from other families that some festivals charge an additional fee for activities such as lantern making, but at Just So all activities are included in the ticket price. This may mean that there are 100s of families trying to make lanterns but that’s ok! One of our favourite activities was making clay faces on the trees in the Spellbound Forest.
The Pillow Fight
If I had to choose one event to sum up the Just So Festival it would be the pillow fight; I mean, what child wouldn’t want to get involved in a massive feather pillow battle?! Held on Sunday afternoon, this crazy annual event sees the Village Green transformed into one big feathery mess as hundreds of kids do battle with their pillows. If I’m entirely honest, my big kids found it a little overwhelming as seasoned Just So goers went to town with their pillows and it was certainly too much for Sam, but it was great fun and the whoops of joy travelled across the festival.
As well as being packed with performances, the schedule was also incredibly diverse. The Footlights stage played host to numerous bands that got young and old on the dance floor, the Village Green saw everything from Maypole dancing and bubble hour to an amazing bicycle-powered musical and High Seas saw hundreds of families gather to create lanterns. There were circus acts at Roll Up, Roll Up, literary activities in the Forgotten Courtyard, yoga, Tai Chi, singing workshops and more in Idlewood and outdoor cinema and drama at the Woodland Theatre. And then there’s the Ministry of Games, the Spellbound Forest, the Peekaboo gardens and more. In short, there was something for everyone from tiny babies to grandparents! I would definitely recommend buying a Just So programme so that you can see what’s going on but don’t be a slave to it either; you can get just as much out of the festival by wandering around.
One of the many things I love about Just So was their ethos of giving back. Wild Rumpus, the organisation behind the festival (they also organise Just So Festivals in New Zealand and Brazil as well as the Timber Festival) is a not-for-profit company that creates magical worlds aimed to inspire families as well as leave a legacy of positive social, economic and cultural impact. All their profit goes back into their arts programmes, they have a comprehensive volunteer programme and try to make the festival accessible to all, regardless of economic background. Their programmes have been developed to support emerging artists and they’re also dedicated to producing environmentally sustainable events. Given the crazy world that we live in, the fact that they are so determined to create a socially and environmentally responsible event is hugely commendable.
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Disclosure: We were hosted by the Just So Festival for the purpose of writing this review. All opinions are, as always, entirely my own.