Lily and Mae's brood of four

I arrived at Camp Bestival with one friend, four kids, too much camping gear and everything to learn about how to enjoy a festival with kids.

If there was ever a festival to do on your own with a one-year-old while your partner travels for work, it is Camp Bestival. Conceived by Bestival founders (and parents of three boys) Rob and Josie da Bank, this Dorset-based weekender has been created with family fun in mind.

I wasn’t exactly alone, but joined by my friend Mae and her three children: Sadie, 3, Wilfred, 5, and Dexter, 7. Neither of our husbands could make it and I while I knew the formula of more young kids than adults when camping made it likely to be a catastrophe, I was undeterred.

Luckily, Mae is the kind of woman so calm, wise and grounded that she makes it feel possible to glide gracefully through any situation. I had wanted her as my doula, and now was asking her to accompany me on my next great life challenge: camping

Having failed to find an option in boutique camping that I could afford, we hit bog-standard camping with a steely enthusiasm. Luckily, Mae is the kind of woman so calm, wise and grounded that she makes it feel possible to glide gracefully through any situation. I had wanted her as my doula, and now was asking her to accompany me on my next great life challenge: camping.

Walking into the festival. I carried Mele, Mae pushed Sadie in the pushchair and the two older boys ran ahead in slightly different directions. It was then that the event came into its own…

Set in the page of a children’s story book, Camp Bestival is made up of big top tents and space-themed installations which lead into pretty countryside and woodlands. Sadie loved being around Mele, her very own doll come to life. And if the boys were uninterested in the girls’ play, there was always something steps away to entertain them.

I watched our daughters dance to the samba drums on stage, Lulworth castle handsome in the distance on one side and the world’s biggest bouncy castle vibrating next to them with Dexter and Wilfred jumping high. On our second night we came across the Circus Serai, slipping through the doors just before the sun down show began. The whole gang sat cross-legged, enthralled by sword-swallowers, flame-throwers and dancers while Mae and I stood at the back and drank mojitos. As the show finished a jazz band trumpeted on the stage behind, and the kids danced until dark. 

As we walked them back to the campsite through the Magic Meadow, we hit the carnival parade. A stream of paper-mache monsters, towering skeletons riding corpse horses, music and fire. As we watched the hula girl dancing with her flaming hoop, the band playing, monsters swaying and twinkling all around- from candles, to costumes, to the stars in the sky, I couldn’t help but think of how magic like this create memory-forming moments, the kind that stay with you and grow your imagination.

When festivals work they slot together seamlessly, a mix of luck and chance and you run into all the best bits, but the festival didn’t begin with such ease the evening before…

When festivals work they slot together seamlessly, a mix of luck and chance and you run into all the best bits, but the festival didn’t begin with such ease the evening before

By the time we reached the festival site some time past 8pm, all four children were tired and hungry to the point that they’d pretty much forgotten how to walk. I couldn’t hire a trolley because we didn’t have enough cash for the deposit (I’d used my cash to pay for the car park) so in the end it took us three hours to carry twice my weight in camping gear and small wriggling bodies, before pitching our tents in the dark while our crying children rolled around in the grass, all of us with empty bellies and a deep sense of regret before anything had even begun.

To add to the fun, I broke the zipper to my tent door in the dark and had to tape it closed with silver gaffa tape before crawling inside, my baby under one arm, to collapse. My tent was small and old and the gaffa tape made it look like the home of someone crazy. But that didn’t stop a drunk couple turning up to my tent around 3am, the man insisting this was his tent and coming towards the door while the woman insisted “no, ours is further on, I just know it…” The same couple did this every night at 3am, and now that it is over I almost miss them, the way you would a cockerel or anything else that grounds you to time with repetition.

The same couple woke us up every morning at 3am, and now that it is over I almost miss them, the way you might a cockerel

Another lesson: I soon realised that the bigger your gang, the more fun you can have at a festival. People who came in big crews seemed to have it down: the camping gear was easily carried and put up, and tents were erected together, like a little commune. The parents took turns looking after the group of kids, who ran around entertaining each other and in the evenings parents took turns to babysit, so the rest of the adults could go back and enjoy the festival kid-free. I was so impressed, I watched them all with everything to learn.

The last time I had been camping was a decade earlier, as teenagers, again with Mae but then with friends rather than our kids. Back then I had borrowed a tent from my Dad which had literally disintegrated seconds after I got inside. I crawled out and spent the weekend sharing tents with friends, hopping between them to find the most comfortable, as fickle as an alley-cat. Mae had been a camping pro back then, with a converted van and the kind of camping equipment I didn’t know existed.

It was a decade later but not much had changed. I woke up on the first day of Camp Bestival and staggered out to find Mae sitting on a picnic blanket outside her beautiful bell tent (complete with bunting) fixing me a cup of tea on her gas-stove. I took the mug, grateful for the caffeine after a night of such little rest that I was wondering if I was still alive. Soon after we headed into the festival and found our stride.

Returning home, motherhood suddenly felt like a breeze surrounded by home comforts, deep baths and working toilets

At times it was chaotic but it was a lot of fun. The children were constantly excited, they loved waking up outdoors, and ran around the festival taking it all in. I was excited too, but I was also pretty much drinking coffee in place of water all weekend. The hardest part was setting up, after that the biggest challenges were not losing the children and our constant trips to the portaloos.

We left the festival feeling furry with dirt, with slight sunburns and sleepy smiles. There’s nothing like seeing live music, outdoors and surrounded by a great crowd. It’s good for the soul and fills you up inside. Returning home, motherhood suddenly felt like a breeze surrounded by home comforts, deep baths and working toilets.

Would I do it again? Yes, but next time I’m bringing a bigger group, handing my baby over; maybe doing a workshop or yoga class, and then starting drinking early. Because next year I plan to be the parent who can’t find my tent.

Book tickets for next year’s Camp Bestival, here

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