“You know there aren’t any showers, right?”, said my friend Holly, who had been to Bluedot festival the previous year. Err, no, I did not realise there wouldn’t be showers. In my head, camping at Bluedot would be exactly like camping on a normal site, except a bit more squashed together, and with an awesome festival attached to keep the kids happy during the day. So much so was I bought into this mental image that I only realised right at the last minute that we wouldn’t be able to take the dogs (because of course camping = dogs), necessitating a hasty call to our favourite kennels to arrange for them to begin their summer country vacation a bit earlier.
Having subsequently been through the world’s muddiest and sweatiest learning curve as I adjusted my fond festival fancies to the brutal and beautiful reality of camping at Bluedot with three small children (and no dogs), I’d like to share some of the things we learned.
Getting there on time to bag a good pitch
We arrived on Friday morning at around 10:45, congratulating ourselves on having managed to get to the kids to school AND pack up the car AND get ourselves parked on the festival site at a sensible hour. We even had a grand plan to camp with our friends, who had all arrived (purposefully) at the same time. Oh how we laughed. As it turns out, if you want a sensible pitch at Bluedot, and certainly if you want to camp as a group, then you need to get there before the doors open at 9am - or ideally pay for a Thursday ticket in order to get access to the campsites from Thursday night onwards. What some folk had obviously done was have one person turn up super early doors with all the tents belonging to their group, bag the space by either pegging out the groundsheets or doing a half-pitch of all the tents, and then wait for the others to arrive. Pretty sensible approach - will try this another year. Of course by the time we got there, the campsites were basically completely full. Goodness knows where the folk who arrived after us (and there were lots) managed to find a spot.
After chugging round and round the campsite, we got lucky and found a perfect bell-tent sized space right behind the Lovell telescope, in the family camping area. The advantage of the family camping area is that it minimises the number of spaced out folk tripping over your guy ropes at 4am. The disadvantage is that you get woken up by other people’s children at 6am (although not when you follow my lead and wear ear plugs!) and you’re further away from the festival arena. It took about a 40 minute round trip to walk during the day from the main arena to our tent and back, so nipping back for a jumper or a nap wasn’t really an option.
If you get there early enough to have the choice, try and find a spot that isn’t next to the fire lanes (the walkways around the campsite) as your tent will be deluged with mud splatters, not too close to the toilets (first of all, the smell, and secondly, the doors slamming), and isn’t too far a walk from the main entrance.
Transporting the kit from car to pitch
Our car was parked exactly 0.4 miles away from our pitch, making it a 0.8 mile round trip. Doesn’t sound too bad, I suppose - but add truly torrential rain and the walkways quickly became a dreadful swamp. Take wellies! Think you won’t need them? Take them anyway, just in case!
We decided to take our wheelbarrow to transport our camping kit. Normally we wouldn’t have been able to fit it in the car, but as the kids were still at school on the Friday, we took all the car seats out, lobbed the kit into the car, and drove to the site to get pitched. Jodrell Bank Observatory is about a 30 minute drive from our house even in festival traffic, so this was totally doable.
Boy, were we grateful for that wheelbarrow. Some folk had those festival wagons, others had luggage trolleys, some had nothing and carried everything in rucksacks, others pulled suitcases on wheels (yikes!). Our barrow was easily the best form of transportation for coping with the epic mud and weight of the camping kit, because of course that’s what it’s designed to do.
A few notes for folk planning on doing the same - take the time to balance everything carefully. We got it wrong the first time, and the whole lot went cascading into the mud. It’s worth spending time getting the balance right. Fortunately we had put all our pillows and bedding into bin bags (for the love of God, bring bin bags) so none of our stuff got wet or muddy, but I know other folk ended up with a tent full of filthy camping kit and wet bedding. We also put a tarpaulin over the whole lot. We tied the kit onto the barrow with rope, which again we didn’t do properly the first time - it was too loose, which contributed to all the pillows falling off. You need to pull and knot the rope tight, tight, tight. Some folks used stretchy bungee cords, which would probably do the job better.
During the 2019 festival, you could also hire a Jolly Green Sherpa for about £30 to transport your kit from the entrance to the site to your pitch. Some of our friends used this and managed to get their tent sorted in a single trip. We like doing things the DIY way though, obviously - as did 95% of the folk at the festival.
It’s worth saying that transporting the kit yourself is Proper Hard Graft. As in - Seriously Proper Hard Dreadful and Grim Graft. My husband and I both do a lot of exercise (running, squash, HIIT and weights) along with generally doing a lot of of hardcore DIY, and we still found it exhausting. If you’re not sure whether you’re up for it, then either take the absolute basics (we saw some folk without kids carrying a small tent, sleeping mat, and sleeping bag, and that was it) or purchase one of the luxury or basic pre-pitched tents.
What we packed
Naturally I made things harder for myself by insisting on taking: our 35kg bell tent plus awning. Five camping chairs. Five sleeping mats and bags. A large rag rug. Our big coolbox. Belly baskets and plastic tubs for storage. Our usual fairy lights and bunting. Our little pocket rocket and a 100g gas cannister (you can only bring up to 200g on to the site). Brioche, bagels, jam, nutella, butter, coffee, milk and juice (breakfast food). Fun festival gear - floral head dresses, temporary tattoos, and so on (the price of face glitter on the site was grim, so we opted for a DIY approach). Wellies, anoraks and onesies. Blankets and pillows. My usual antique mirror to suspend from the centre pole. A big tub and a Thermos of boiling water for washing (it was still warm on Sunday morning!). Microfibre towels.
What can I say - I like camping to be as comfortable and picturesque as possible… Sitting under our awning at midnight watching the lights on the Lovell telescope while sipping a tin of gin, knowing that I had a lovely warm mud-free tent to retire to, was very pleasing.
What we didn’t bring: our folding table. The kettle or any other cooking equipment. Food other than breakfast items. Lots of changes of clothes. Our second rag rug (shocker). Lots of alcohol - when you’re in charge of three small children on a massive muddy festival site, being drunk just doesn’t feel like a good plan. The buggy for our three year old (I correctly predicted that the wheels wouldn’t be able to handle the mud). Cash - Bluedot operated its own cashless wristband payment service as the sole method of payment, which you topped up via card either online or from various points around the site. Not without it’s problems, but hopefully it will have been improved for next year. Our Weber - only disposable bbqs were allowed.
What I wish I’d brought: our picnic blanket. There wasn’t enough seating around the site, which was hard for little legs. I’d also bring a few of those inflatable-by-wind chair things another year. Little bottles of handwash, as there was (with hindsight, obviously) no soap at the communal water taps and troughs.
Transporting all this kit took three trips and about three hours in total. It was faster on the way back as we had sunshine instead of rain, and had worked out how to load the wheelbarrow as efficiently as possible.
Coming in and out of the car park
Piece of cake. Most people arrived and stayed - others, like us, came to pitch in the morning and parked in the main campsite car park, left in the afternoon to get the kids from school, and then came back and parked in the overflow car park (a bit further away but not too much). Some of our friends left around 11pm on Sunday and said it took 30 mins to get out of the carpark, which isn’t at all bad for a festival. My top tip - drop a GPS pin where you leave your car to avoid the grim divorce-inducing experience of trying to find it a few days later. Also, if you leave on Monday morning, you can move your car to a spot closer to the campsite - we moved ours to VIP parking and the stewards weren’t bothered.
No showers, as I said. Unless you want to pay £45 for a special pass (it’s non-transferable so that’s £90 for two people…!) and are prepared to wait in a long queue in the morning to use the facility. What’s very helpful is the decent number of communal troughs and taps around the site - next to all the toilets, and a few more scattered around. The water is drinkable so folk were using them to wash hands, fill water bottles, fill buckets for more thorough washing purposes, and (on the campsites) wash dishes. Cold water only, of course, and the area around them got very, very muddy, but a much better system than I was expecting.
I took along a Thermos of boiling water, as I wear contact lenses, and have to make sure my hands are properly clean when I take them in and out. It lasted until Sunday morning which was brilliant. I took our big enamel tub and filled this with water for rudimentary washing purposes in the tent (face, hands, feet etc). Lots of folk recommend baby wipes for festivals, but of course that’s not very environmentally friendly, so we just went along with water and flannels. That first shower upon returning home was pretty special.
My number one tip - wear an awesome rainbow wig for the entire festival to distract from your generally dishevelled appearance. Number two tip - workout leggings (see above) are perfect because if they get wet, they’ll be dry again very quickly.
What we ate
So much delicious food. So expensive. So many queues! We had Japanese sushi wraps, Tibetan momos, wood-fired pizza, ice creams, nachos with all the toppings, lots of lovely coffees and cakes, chips, and hot dogs. There were loads of vegan and vegetarian options so a far stretch from the burger vans of my childhood. A typical meal cost £9 (ouch) but the portions were large, so we typically shared one meal between the two of us. The kids mostly survived on the (gourmet) hot dogs, chips, ice creams and sweets. A few days without vegetables isn’t something to worry about as a parent, as far as I’m concerned.
What we did
Everything. We did everything. We danced to Hot Chip, Kraftwerk and New Order. We sang in the most glorious acapella choir. We smelled space. We danced to Big Fish Little Fish. We lazed around in the sunshine while the kids did loads of science experiments. We chilled out in the Illuminarium (I queued for 1.5 hours on behalf of the group as my good deed for the weekend, which wasn’t too bad as I also listened to a comedy about the moon at the same time in a nearby stage).
We attended a reading of 19th century poetry about the moon. I went to an incredible talk about the Birth of Stars. Our eldest daughter learned to handle a light sabre. Some of our party took naps. I sat around in the wheelbarrow reading my Kindle book. We chatted to loads of random folk, some of whom took pictures of my wig. We watched the Strong Women Science Circus.
Bluedot is an incredible festival for families - you can dance, learn, play, be entertained, laugh, listen to amazing music… the choice is yours. Our girls all loved the science, technology, robotic and general space and moon-themed activities. There are lots of things happening at the same time, and many of them are repeated throughout the festival so you con’t miss out. The app is essential to find out what’s going on - we did think that Bluedot missed a trick by not making more use of technology to help people find their way around - large touchscreens on the site where you select your mood (I’m feeling chill, I’m feeling energised, and so on) and are then directed to a variety of suitable entertainment options - maybe next year, eh? For a technology festival, the tech was a bit lacking… That, plus the lack of seating, was probably my only complaint.
Keeping the kids happy
First of all, attend as a group. Our girls were super entertained by spending time with their friends. And stay together as a group - once one family has wandered off, you might not see them again for hours. WhatsApp didn’t work on the site as the internet coverage was too patchy, so we ended up using old school text messaging to stay in touch. We also congregated under the big BAR sign as a focal point.
We took along colouring books, pens, phones with pre-downloaded videos and games, and portable chargers to keep the kids going. Of course many parts of the festival itself were highly entertaining, but sitting and listening to bands probably isn’t top on the average child’s to-do list, so we wanted to make sure they were kept happy while we did some more grown-up friendly things too. We also made sure we had plenty of snacks on hand (crisps, Haribo, brioche etc) to remove the gap between hunger and/or sugar craving evincing itself, and food being presented after a long wait in a queue.
Our master stroke to keep the kids happy was the wheelbarrow. I’d seen loads of pictures online of pimped up garden wagons at festivals, but a lot of online reviews complained that they were heavy to pull and not very practical in the mud. They weren’t available for hire at Bluedot (as they are at Camp Bestival, for example) so we would have had to buy our own, and they are pretty expensive. Having spent the previous weekend hauling over two tonnes of bricks in our wheelbarrow, I had the quite frankly *genius* idea to take the barrow with us, not only to transport the camping kit, but to push the kids round in.
Oh my word. It was brilliant. The smallest two members of our party napped in it during the day, and slept in it while we danced to the main acts at night. I made it comfortable with a blanket and pillow, and decorated it with battery-operated fairy lights, which the kids loved, and also served to alert festival goers to its presence as we pushed it through the site after dark. We put a buggy rain cover over it on Sunday night when it drizzled throughout New Order. Everyone sat in it. My eldest girl and youngest girls slept in it on Friday night and were pushed back to the tent in it at midnight (“sleeping babies in a barrow, how adorable”, exclaimed a festival goer. “Best dad ever!” exclaimed another). We also stuffed spare clothes, wellies, water bottles, anoraks and snacks into it, packing them around whichever kids happened to be in it. We transported camping chairs over the handles. The big front wheel coped brilliantly with the mud and undulating terrain. If you take one thing to a festival with kids, make it a wheelbarrow.
We stayed over on the Sunday night, got up early on Monday to run the girls back over to school (I stayed to pack up the tent), dragged everything home, cleaned, washed and packed everything away, and then re-packed our suitcases for Portugal. Photos coming up soon!