Are music festivals the new Butlin’s?

Bluedot Festival 2016 at Jodrell Bank

Intergalactic, planetary, planetary, intergalactic: Bluedot Festival is as good as Butlin’s in the Seventies and possibly better.

By Alan Gregson

Like most kids growing up in the Seventies and Eighties, before EasyJet made European holidays affordable to most people, we spent our family holidays in the UK, initially at caravan parks, then Pontins in Blackpool and Butlin’s in Pwllheli.

The first holiday I can remember was at a caravan park in Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria. My memories are not dissimilar to Fathers Ted and Dougal’s experience of a caravan holiday, although I don’t remember Graham Norton turning up to perform the Riverdance. It did, however, rain so much that the whole caravan shifted overnight. My other memory of that holiday is the Laurel & Hardy films shown every night in the campsite bar, possibly a memorial to Stan Laurel who was born close by in Ulverston.

The next few years we holidayed in a bigger caravan in Prestatyn and then Pontins in Blackpool. The biggest memories of Pontins were the all-you-can-eat meals, the tournament-standard snooker tables and the all-pervading tobacco sponsorship of the sports, games, bars and restaurants. My last family holiday was at Butlin’s in Pwllheli with its big funfair. I was 16 that year and it was the first time my mum found me drunk. Seemingly the bars were not too fussed about checking ages.

Butlins-Pwllheli-Chairlift-Panorama-postcard-early-1970s resized
Flights of fancy: Butlin’s Pwllheli postcard by John Hinde Studios, 1970

These memories are brought back whenever we attend a music festival. We generally do a couple each year and see all the families dragging around Radio Flyer wagons loaded with small children or pushing huge all-terrain buggies. The red-coat cabaret has been replaced by sets from Dreadzone or Hot Chip, with some festivals even booking Mr Tumble and Fireman Sam to entertain the kids.

Bearded Theory, a super-friendly independent festival in south Derbyshire, even lays on school classes on the Friday so parents don’t get fined for taking kids out of lessons. You’ll find Derby County players hosting PE and qualified teachers teaching maths, English and science using the festival site, Catton Hall, as their base.

Latitude, possibly the epitome of middle-class, middle-England festivals, doesn’t have a festival school but it has craft sessions, readings from children’s authors and theatre workshops. They also have a huge comedy tent that runs from morning to evening every day – the tent even has sofas. Some parents, obviously not reading the running order first, leave their offspring to be entertained by comedians, I’m pretty sure none of whom have passed a DBS check recently.

My favourite memory of Latitude, apart from the time the bridge from the campsite to the arenas collapsed under the weight of people dashing to attend an unannounced Tom Jones set in the woodlands, was when Mark Watson climbed down off the stage to stand among a gaggle of preteen girls who continued with their knitting as he did his standard, definitely not-for-children, set.

Mike Garry at Festival No.6
I’m not a number!: Mike Garry at Festival No.6, Portmeirion, North Wales (Photo: Alan Gregson)

What I consider the best family festival, Festival No.6, usually happens on the last weekend of the school holidays, sometimes even the week after the kids have gone back. This makes it awkward for families to attend, which is a real shame, because Portmeirion is a fantastic location to spend a weekend with the kids, chilling to the music, wandering the Village, paddling on the beach. While there were no specific children’s activities the year we attended, the carnival and torchlight parades are wonderful experiences for the whole family.

A couple of weeks before Festival No.6, Beautiful Days is another small, fiercely independent festival in Ottery St Mary, Devon. Set up by The Levellers in 2003 so they could guarantee at least one headline slot a year, its line-up is more left-field than other festivals, but it is friendly, relaxed and family oriented. Children’s areas, craft workshops, fancy dress on Sunday, strong local cider, what more could one ask for? Oh and Dreadzone.

I’ve not mentioned the big one, Glastonbury. On the face of it, Glastonbury is the perfect family festival. Circus acts, craft and theatre workshops, supermodels in wellies, sights and sounds galore. Here’s the but: for me, it’s just too big. To my mind, any festival where you need a taxi to get from your tent to the real-ale tent is way too big. Are you really going to drag that shiny red Radio Flyer wagon through a mile of ankle-deep mud to see Mr Tumble? No you’re not. Go to Latitude, it’s the same price, it’s never likely to book U2 or Adele, and you can sit your kids in front of sweary comedians while you chill in the poetry tent.

Bluedot Festival 2016, Jodrell Bank
Deep dish: the 5,000-capacity Bluedot Festival, 2016 (Photo: Alan Gregson)

The festival that prompted this piece is brand new, Bluedot at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. This festival is an expansion of the Transmission concerts they ran for a few years until 2013. We saw New Order play, using the 42ft Lovell Telescope as a unique projector screen. The previous concerts had been separate events. Even when they had two the same weekend, you had to buy two tickets and find somewhere to sleep overnight. They had a single stage and a science arena, and in 2013 a big screen showing Andy Murray winning his first Wimbledon title.

This year, though, they pushed the boat out, expanded the site to include several marquee stages, a very commodious campsite, an expanded science arena, a planetarium and several high-quality food vendors, and for Dad, an extra large real-ale bar. The science is what makes Bluedot unique: it’s the festival’s raison d’être. Across all areas there will be something sciencey, talks from Tim O’Brien, associate director of Jodrell Bank, films of British astronaut Tim Peake, engineers from CERN making their extremely high-end science as easily understandable as possible.

I was a bit annoyed that a promised talk on the science behind the Bloodhound land-speed record car was cancelled, but I moved to the next tent for a talk from the University of Westminster’s Dr Catherine Loveday on why our brains love music, which was incredibly interesting. This, to me, was the perfect family festival, an entry level extension of school science for the kids, a reintroduction for parents. It was relaxed, compact, only 5,000 in the audience and the security was unobtrusive and really helpful.

Pontins in Blackpool closed in 2009. When I drove past it last year, it was still mostly standing, the chalets lying derelict awaiting someone to bulldoze the site. Its uses are limited due to the recently reopened airport right behind the site. Butlin’s in Pwllheli is still around, although it became a Haven Holidays park in 1999. The chalets are gone, replaced with static caravans and deluxe log cabins.

I wonder if today’s music festivals will still be around in 30 years for the kids of today to take their kids, or if, like me, their holiday memories will be just memories with nothing of substance to back them up.

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