Family friendly festivals may be the best introduction to camping for your children

 

Klare England certainly put the “family friendly” nature of the Body and Soul festival to the test last year. She arrived over from South Gloucestershire at the Co Westmeath venue as a mother of one and left as a mother of two.

Working at the festival in Ballinlough Castle as head of decor, she had just supervised the finishing touches to the art installations when she felt pains about 8.30pm on the Wednesday night. It was two weeks before her due date but since her first baby was three weeks late, she had thought she had at least a month to go.

Just over an hour and a half later, baby Tom arrived at the Midland Regional Hospital in Mullingar – and has been known by the nickname “Tayto” ever since because his father, Stan, missed the birth when he stopped to eat a bag of crisps while nipping out to get something from their van.

Some people would do anything to get out of camping: Klare was put up in a splendid bedroom and huge en-suite bathroom in the castle with her newborn for the rest of the festival, while Stan and 14-month-old Freddie stayed on in the campsite.

In many ways the festival was the “best place to give birth, surrounded by friends”, says Klare. Although she was glad it wasn’t her first.

Along with festival colleagues such as Jane and Andy Thompson from Greystones, Co Wicklow, who will spend a couple of weeks camping on site in their own bus with their two children, Mani (five) and Arlo (two), Klare will pool childcare resources. They are typical of a generation involved in festivals before children and who now bring a parental perspective to proceedings.

Body and Soul (June 21st to 23rd) is one of the best of the Republic’s outdoor music festivals with camping for families – provided the children are under 12. Teenagers aged 13-17, who are no longer children and not yet adults, are not admitted to most such festivals – the Westport Festival of Music and Food being a notable exception.

Beth McKenna from west Cork has been to Body and Soul for a number of times. “It is probably the only festival I would go to with my kids” – Joe (seven), Amber (three) and Ayla (one). “For me it has so many elements that work. It is a wonderland of imagination for them.”

Dedicated family camping
It is a small festival, with a dedicated family camping ground, where she, her husband, Derek Bishop, and the children stay in a tent. She has done it while pregnant and will bring the baby this year – weather permitting.

There are lots of different spaces that are easily accessible. If the music area gets busy, they can move back to the Soul Kids zone where “they do drumming and run around with their friends; there are balloon men and we do yoga or whatever”, she says.

“Children’s energy changes quickly and you have to have choice to meet those needs and Body and Soul definitely accommodates that so well.”

The castle forest is created into a fantasy land with artwork everywhere, pop-up performances and paths leading to more surprises.

“I have seen aerial dancing in the trees with my kids, I’ve seen giant bees and recycleable huts with walls made of apples – it is just a total experience and their eyes are wide open,” McKenna enthuses. “On the other side of the forest there is a dedicated craft zone, which is a very quiet area, and we have turned wood together.”

In the current climate of negativity which, she points out, children are not immune to, it is a wonderful weekend of positivity and creativity.

“They just love it – I wouldn’t bring them if they didn’t love it so much,” she adds.

Carole and Gerry Fitzpatrick from Milltown in Dublin are also Body and Soul regulars, with their children Ava (six) and Hugo (three).

“It is quite magical – for children and adults,” says Carole. Even when Hugo was only six months old, she found camping at the festival very manageable. The organisers are comfortingly strict about not allowing people without family wristbands into the family campsite.

As a family they usually return to the campsite around 6pm, and the children stay there after that, while she and Gerry can take turns to sample the night-time entertainment beyond.

“It’s a safe, nice atmosphere and not too messy with drink,” she adds. “Although I wouldn’t dare bring my kids out late at night – just personally I wouldn’t, some people do.”

The standalone Body and Soul evolved from its participation as one section of the country’s best-known boutique festival, Electric Picnic, in Stradbally Estate, Co Laois. Theresa Loftus made her debut visit to “the Picnic” last year with her three daughters, full of self-doubt.

In 2011 she had gone to Bestival on the Isle of Wight without the children. But she saw plenty of families there and reckoned if they could manage a huge festival like that, she could manage a weekend at Electric Picnic.

However, when she was packing the car at home in Monaghan on the Friday and rain started to fall, she wondered was she mad. As it turned out she was “amazingly pleasantly surprised” by the whole experience.

“It went so incredibly well, I am afraid to go again.” For a start, she didn’t see another drop of rain until she was back home unpacking the car on the Monday afternoon. And she is full of praise for the family campsite, the facilities, the security and the children’s entertainment.

“The only issue I had was that there was so much to do everywhere else, it was difficult sometimes to convince the girls that ‘look, we’re going to see a band’.”

Originally the trip was planned to celebrate her eldest daughter Colette’s 21st birthday. But children under 12 go free on a family ticket, so she decided to bring Michaela (now aged 11) and Shauna (nine) along as well.


Good security
The secure Soul Kids area helped parents like her to relax, she says. “You could sit and watch the children and know they are not going to move – even if they managed to run out of your sight, the security guards weren’t going to let them by unless they had an adult with them.”

She liked the Body and Soul section aimed at families. “The workshop areas where they did all the crafts were brilliant – although I will say that at Bestival, in a similar area, money didn’t have to cross palms. But it was reasonable and the people were very good.”

She appreciated the peacefulness of the separate family campsite even more after walking through the general camping area. “I am not making out that it was awful but you would not have wanted an 11 year old roving up there.”

One of the weekend highlights was seeing Christy Moore play. The girls were familiar with his music because their mother is a long-time fan.

“They were amazed at the way the crowds were reacting to it,” she says. And now, whenever they hear his songs, it brings festival memories flooding back to them all.

The Westport Festival of Music and Food in Co Mayo (June 29th-30th), is one event where younger teenagers, in the company of an adult, are welcome and they get in on discounted tickets.

Return for who le event
Broadcaster Jimmy Norman and his wife Sinéad went to this festival for one day last year and enjoyed it so much they are returning for the whole event this year, along with their eldest daughter Katie (16) and a teenage friend.

The festival is staged in the grounds of Westport House and the Normans are no strangers to the permanent campsite there.

“When we saw the concert dropped into where we would go anywhere, it ticked all the boxes,” says Jimmy, who presents the breakfast show on Galway Bay FM. “It is like bolting on a festival to a campsite, rather than a campsite to a festival.”

Jimmy and his wife were impressed by the festival’s relaxed atmosphere and the great range of food stalls, as well as the music. “The main stage is just in front of Westport House and it is like an amphitheatre,” he explains.

Despite the family friendly nature of the festival, they are planning to leave their three younger children, ranging in age from 10 to 17 months at home, so that they are both free to enjoy the music, along with the teenagers.

A festival like this gives teenagers a chance to experience music they might not normally listen to, he points out.

“They go to a concert, they go to see Beyonce or whoever, and that is all they get. But at concerts like this they will invariably have to ‘endure’ artists they would not normally be exposed to and they might find something that they like.”

Tom Griffiths and his partner Fay Quilligan, who live on Cork Street, Dublin, brought their two-year-old son Leo to Castlepalooza at Charleville Castle in Tullamore, Co Offaly last year and the three of them had a great time. They stayed in a nearby B&B for the weekend rather than on the campsite.

It’s a smaller, less costly alternative to Electric Picnic, with a very different music line-up, Tom explains. There were things for children to do in the castle during the day and of course plenty of space in the grounds to run around. And, Tom adds, if there was somebody on stage he and Fay particularly wanted to hear, they could put “ear defenders” on Leo and move closer. “You felt your youth hadn’t fully left you.”

swayman@irishtimes.com

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