Dancing at 6am as the sun rises. Making friends with strangers who you’ll never see again. Waking at noon with a terrific hangover and gasping for water in a stuffy polyester cocoon.
These are my festival memories. And there’s one very obvious thing missing: a baby. For me, pre-parenthood, babies and festivals were not compatible. In fact, in the years before children, I probably couldn’t have imagined anything worse.
Then along came my firstborn and everything changed. Now everything revolves around babies – especially our holidays. Seb was a November baby, and when I began thinking towards summer, I realised I didn’t want to miss out on those idyllic festival experiences. I knew it would be difficult, but just how difficult? Really, really difficult? Make-you-want-to-pack-up-and-go-home-and-cry difficult? Surely there’s a reason families keep going back to Glastonbury.
Perhaps it was FOMO, or perhaps I wanted to challenge myself; either way, I decided to take our 8-month-old to a festival.
Let’s be clear: I’m not a hardcore festival-goer. I don’t love tents, I don’t live for glitter and, despite growing up in Devon and my efforts to appear ‘chill’, I have been described as ‘a townie’. I’m saying this to help you gauge how unprepared I was for this trip. In other words, if I can take a baby to a festival, anyone can.
I started small and booked tickets for a little food and music festival in Cornwall, called Rock Oyster Festival. Set on the picturesque banks of the Camel estuary, with a focus on open-fire cooking and outdoor activities, it seemed like a good place to start for us first-timers.
We avoided tent life, thanks to my in-laws, who lent us their old VW camper. A lovely gesture, but I did worry the old girl was on her last wheels. My partner took up his position as chief baby entertainer while I drove. At about the same time, Storm Evert set its course for Cornwall, too. Rusty windscreen wipers desperately flailed, but didn’t touch the glass. And the wing mirror fell off when the vehicle got too hot – which was often. Long story short, this did not make for a pleasant five-hour drive from Manchester to Cornwall. Remarkably, we arrived on site in time and in one piece, if feeling slightly overdone.
Our journey taught me a valuable lesson that shall remain etched in my memory so long as I live: ALWAYS PACK SNACKS. It’s like the first commandment of having a baby. Why can a melty carrot stick crisp soothe a baby better than their own mother? My baby arrived at Rock Oyster looking like he’d been in a food fight: the volume of crumbs and fruit peel that clung to him when we pulled him from the car seat!
A gust of Cornish air was enough to blow off the cobwebs, and some of the crumbs. In pursuit of a quiet night’s sleep, we chose the furthest campsite from the main site. We pitched up on a hillside in a peaceful corner, with nothing but hedgerow behind and an almost birds-eye view of the festival and the River Camel before us. With baby content playing with tent poles in the grass, we set up the camper and hoisted up the awning. I cracked open a beer, sat in a knackered fold-out chair and took a deep breath. Those five hours in the camper-oven had already been so, so worth it.
It wasn’t a short walk to the main festival, but it was a beautiful one. It was all grassy banks and woodland paths lit with festoon lighting. Seb slept in the sling while we explored the site: the Oyster Stage, Mussel Beach and the Jellyfish children’s area, which I later discovered – take note weary parents – was essentially free childcare. So this is why parents love festivals! Of course, you don’t just chuck the children in and leave them, but it does give you a breather when you need one.
Now back in the day, I would plan my festival days depending on which bands I wanted to watch, but here I was at the whim of my son’s naps. Sometimes he’d sleep against my chest in the sling; other times we’d head back to the camper for a snooze. It depended on his mood and our energy levels. For our first lunch, we sat near the main stage – just far enough away from the booming speakers for the baby’s tender ears – and shared sourdough pizza and a pack of melty carrot sticks. Baby was content chewing a blistered, tomatoey dough; parents were content watching the bands with a beer. Bliss.
That first evening I did something I hadn’t done since before having a baby: I went dancing. Bedtime approaching, I put the baby to sleep in his sling while I bounced to eclectic beats from Gilles Peterson. They say that mums are experts at multitasking, and although I’d never really seen a transformation in myself, here I was, sipping wine from a half-pint cup, dancing to one of my favourite DJs, and getting the baby to sleep on time. I felt like I was nailing it, and the knowing nods from fellow parents confirmed it.
Even more encouraging was the fact that we weren’t the only parents doing this. Before we came, my ‘mum guilt’ was like a devil on my shoulder. Would the baby be better off at home? Is this safe? Was I being selfish? But here in the thick of it, we were surrounded by babies being bounced to sleep in slings and children dancing into the evening with their carers. One of the greatest things about festivals is the overall lack of judgement: the gift of being able to express yourself and live in whatever way suits you best. That extends to parenting, I discovered.
On returning to the camper, I changed the baby into his PJs and got him back to sleep easily enough. With Seb safely asleep in the van and the door slightly ajar, we (very quietly and carefully) continued our evening. We sat outside, listened to the DJs, boogied under the stars together, and finally snuggled up in blankets with what felt like our very own VIP view of the main stage.
But our little home had one major issue: sleeping space. The baby and I could fit in the tiny bed, but my partner was left out in the cold. He set up camp in the gusty awning that adjoined the camper, tucked up in a lacklustre sleeping bag.
It wasn’t all good times. With our sleeping arrangements all over the shop, we were both exhausted. Our days were cut short by having to go back to the van for a break. What’s more, the route back to the camping field was looking less and less beautiful by the day. It took in some serious inclines, not to mention a rather intimidating bog that threatened to swallow up loose wellies. None of this was a welcome sight to two tired parents looking to put their feet up with a cuppa.
The other big issue? Cleanliness. Festivals aren’t exactly renowned for their hygiene – something that sent my ‘mum guilt’ into overdrive. Where would we wash the baby? What if there’s a poo explosion? I needn’t have worried. There were hot showers, the queues weren’t at all bad, and when they were at their most off-putting, we’d pop Seb in the camper-van sink.
Looking back, this is probably one of my best festival memories. A chubby baby splashing around in a sink that was way too small for him, getting everything – including the bed – wet. It was fun. And that’s what I learned about festival life with a baby: fun takes new forms.
I treasure my old memories of festivals, but now they are just that: memories. A festival with a baby was entirely different to anything I’d been used to. Hard at times, but we found fun in the unlikeliest places.
So long, partying all night and nursing hangovers all day. Now you’ll find us playing with bunting, exploring in the woods, even banging on fences with sticks. All of this absolutely fascinating to my baby. And who’s to say he’s wrong? As long as he enjoys it, I will too.
Lucy Lovell is a freelance writer and lives between Manchester and Valencia with her partner and baby. She enjoys exploring new places, finding the best places to sleep, eat and drink, and sharing her discoveries through her work. On Instagram @lucy.ann.lovell and on Twitter @luclovell.
First published in Issue 78 of JUNO. Accurate at the time this issue went to print.