It’s almost a decade since I last attended a music festival. At some point towards the end of my 20s it occurred to me that, much as I enjoy live music and camping, I’m not at all keen on combining the two – especially in a cocktail that also contains Portaloos and British weather. Imagine, then, my reluctance to return to the trenches for a so-called “family festival”, which tosses several hundred young children into that already sickly mix.
In the years since kicking my modest festival habit, I got married and had a daughter, who’s now 2 years old and a great excuse for never going to Glastonbury. But my wife got wind of said family festival and decided it would be an excellent way to occupy the toddler over the Bank Holiday weekend. My dissenting arguments went unheeded. Full disclosure: the festival site in East Sussex is five minutes’ drive from my dad’s, so I didn’t have to camp, after all.
The festival in question is Elderflower Fields, now in its sixth year, and presumably so named to signal to cordial-sipping, chattering-class types that this will be just our sort of bunfight. Like Latitude, where the 2017 lineup includes Dara Ó Briain and the Royal Court Theatre – or that one Alex James does in his back garden in the Cotswolds, with the cheese and Jeremy Clarkson. Sure enough, Elderflower Fields boasted a paella stand, a creperie and a prosecco bar.
Having a child introduces you to all kinds of concepts you’d never previously appreciated: Peppa Pig, half-term, the Diaper Genie. And it turns out Elderflower Fields is just one of at least a dozen family-friendly annual festivals across the country. There’s Camp Bestival in Dorset, Just-So in Cheshire, Deer Shed in North Yorks. As we clambered from our Toyota, the family in the car next to us were loading their stuff into the pop-up canvas trolley they’d brought with them: clearly, they’d done this before.
The headliners were the Magic Numbers, who topped the bill at Latitude 10 years ago. There was a solo performance by Ben Ottewell, he of the gravelly voice from Gomez, who won the Mercury Prize 20 years ago. Then there were dozens of acts I’d never even heard of, such as The Goat Roper Rodeo Band or Holy Moly and the Crackers. (Most disconcerting was a DJ with the same name as me, whom the programme promised would be “dishing out disco mayhem”.)
For the kids, meanwhile, there was a lineup of poets, children’s authors and a lady called Ant, who was an expert on ants. Scattered through the fields and woodlands were a mud kitchen, an art camp, a kids’ yoga class, some people making giant bubbles and a glade full of fairy paraphernalia, courtesy of something called the Fairy Preservation Society. For children older than two years of age, there was orienteering, archery, zip-lines, kayaking and so forth.
Naturally, there were clichés around every corner. Here’s one mum, overheard on the phone to the father of her children: “Milo’s in a bait. Can you bring the vegetable sticks and hummus from the yurt?” Later, I looked on in sympathy as a hungover father in a Trainspotting T-shirt and cargo shorts, just back from smoking a sneaky fag in the woods, tried vainly to sew the ears onto a felt rodent for his daughter at the Make-Your-Own-Mouse tent.
But then I, too, am a basic dad: comfy trainers, eye-bags, paunchy midriff. And despite the 45-minute line for the face-painting stall, I can see the value in a family-friendly festival that’s clean, safe, wholesome and totally free of gurning 20-somethings mashed off their yams on Afghan Spangles. Currently, my kid requires round-the-clock supervision. But a few years from now, I’d gladly pack her off to kids’ yoga while I chug prosecco and bop to Franz Ferdinand.
As the evening wore on, waves of children retreated wearily to the campsite as their elderflower cordial buzz wore off, each group a little older than the last. It occurred to me then that these family festivals aren’t just a way for mums and dads to claim back a little of their lost youth; they’re also a training ground for their kids, who before long will be clicking refresh on the Glasto ticket site, or hitching a ride to Creamfields.
After all, what better place to prep for the Pyramid Stage mosh-pit than in a mud kitchen? How else to rehearse for dress-up at Bestival than by earning your wings with the Fairy Preservation Society? And as far as my daughter is concerned, giant bubbles are approximately as euphoria-inducing as MDMA. I may never go to a music festival again, but she has many years of yurts, Portaloos and indie rock ahead of her. So why not give her a head-start?