Snuggled up in the Devonshire countryside is Escot Park, the stunning home of the Beautiful Days festival. Beautiful Days is a family-friendly festival run by The Levellers. In its 14th year, it is a regular event in the festival calendar!
We arrive with lots of other people on the Thursday. After a short queue in the car, we are in! We have a camper and get put into overflow live in vehicles which we find a bit worrying as that particular field has been the scene of several car park exit traumas in the past. However, this year the sun dance works well and the weather was ok in the days before the festival so the site is solid.
For those of you reading this review with a view to attending the festival in the future, walking to the Arena camping is not for the faint hearted, it’s a bit of a trek with a final push up a hill. That said, you will be rewarded with spending your weekend within a stone’s throw of the action in the main arena and Little Big Top.
Family camping and live-in vehicles campsites are all within a shortish walk of the festival itself. Depending on where you camp, there may be a bit of an uphill walk back to the tent but it's not massive, it's just a bit hard going if the weather hasn't been kind, particularly if you have a buggy with you. As a whole, the site can get pretty muddy if it rains, and some of the stages such as The Little Big Top or the Bimble Inn require some perseverance and good spirits to get to when it is muddy.
We haven’t been able to come since 2013 so we are really, really excited to be back. A quick explore round the site affirms that the last three years haven't lost any of the Beautiful Days magic. The old favourites are still there, and some areas such as around the band stand seem to have expanded.
The area surrounding each stage has its own facilities, food, and drink so there’s never far to walk if you just want to take root for a while and soak up what’s going on rather than darting between stages.
There is a huge choice of things to eat to cater for your every fancy throughout the three days. Long family favourites in our house are The Curry Shed, fish and chips, the pasta stall, and the pie stall. This year we also try paella and goat curry. I notice that lots of the stalls are doing small portions which is useful if you’re feeding a family. A trip to Just Desserts for a warm pie and custard helps to lift our spirits on a chilly windy Saturday afternoon.
The bars are well stocked by the Otter Brewery. The Beautiful Days beer is always good, and so is Otter Amber. We also try the new (to us) Tarka Lager and there is a good variety of ciders of varying strengths on offer. Other than a no glass on site rule, you’re free to take your own alcohol into the arenas, but the bars are reasonably priced.
Aside from the music, there is always something going on wherever you are - whether it’s walkabouts (such as tree folk, aliens, or synchronized umbrella dancing (!)), Morris Dancers (we love a bit of Morris dancing), drumming, a football match with The Levellers (we missed the lady with the stars), or magic illusions, you’ll never be short of something to watch. We are even treated to a surprise set from Hobo Jones & The Junkyard Dogs who appear at the top of the main arena to celebrate their tenth anniversary.
The festival has won the Best Family festival award in the past and has been among the nominees for that award several times. It provides innovative and interesting family friendly activities throughout all three days and obviously put a lot of thought into it – there is a great Kids area in the festival itself which has loads going on all day to keep the younger ones amused. There are also activities every morning in the family camping area (which I think is a great idea) and the Theatre Tent provides several shows suitable for children each day – we watch an adaptation of The Owl and the Pussycat poem told by a fox and a rabbit from Makeshift Ensemble and it’s great.
Our children are a bit old now to be into the activities in the Kids area itself. We do walk through several times though, and the range of activities and spectacles is impressive with some new additions, and Beautiful Days favourites such as the climbing frame which is obviously as popular today as it was when ours were small – it’s always busy.
It can be difficult bringing very young children and older children to festivals and the Beautiful Days team cater for both by providing special areas for both babies and teenagers. This year saw the addition of a special area just for babies to provide somewhere warm and dry for feeding, changing, and playing which must have been very well received.
One of my favourite parts of the festival is the circus skills area near the main arena which provides activities for the young folk all day while the older folk enjoy what’s happening on the stage. I particularly love the fire show in the evening that showcases some budding new fire tricks talent.
I don't normally want to dwell on the subject of festival loos, but feel that Andy Loos deserve a special mention this year. I didn't see a dodgy one all weekend. Toilet rolls and hand sanitiser were kept topped up, and even the campsite loos on the Monday morning were still OK.
Musically, the 2016 line-up was one of my all-time favourites, and we had a top weekend travelling between stages seeing family favourites and emerging new talent. There are just too many to go into in detail here, so I’ll settle for my highlights.
We kick off our weekend with The Bar-Steward Sons of Val Doonican on Thursday evening, then the festival proper opens on the Friday for us with a visit to Levellers (acoustic) set to really get things going. The Damned keep things rocking with tracks such as Eloise, and ending their set with Happy Talk!
We take the children to see The Unthanks who we met several years ago at another festival. The beautifully sweet voices of the sisters singing traditional tunes from the North East, captivate our daughter and she describes them as “sensational”. Once the clog dancing starts, she’s totally enthralled!
We have long been fans of Afro Celt Sound System – they have provided the backdrop to many a car journey and Friday night in our family. Their set includes songs from 20 years ago and some new material – how anyone can fail to move when they are on stage is beyond me.
My absolute “must see” set of the weekend was Leftfield. The Leftism album has accompanied me in all the cars I have owned and is still my “go to” album of choice. Unfortunately for me though, I have to rely on the opinions of others for this write up as I ended up having to take two rather damp children back to the van after the earlier rain. I understand that the set was storming and even those in our party who weren’t familiar with Leftfield were impressed. I could just about make our Phat Planet from the van, and know that they played other favourites such as Space Shanty and Afrika Shox as well as some of the newer material from the Alternative Light Source album.
I have a particular soft spot for Subgiant! They were first introduced to me ten years ago at Beautiful Days and although I’ve seen them a few places since then, it’s not as often as I’d like. Rather amazingly my daughter manages to drop off to sleep during their set so big love to the Oxfam steward who spotted the sleeping child in a Subgiant set and went out of his way to look out for us.
Dreadzone are another must see, especially as they occupy my favourite timeslot of any festival. They pull a massive Saturday night crowd and several people I spoke to reckon they were the favourite set of the weekend.
I feel a bit sorry for Too Many T's who don’t seem to get the crowd they deserve. We saw them elsewhere last year and they are thoroughly lovely bunch who put on a good set.
Seldom have I seen such a reaction to a song as The Proclaimers get when they start I’m Gonna Be (500 miles)! It's a hot and happy crowd that is belting out the words and the rain does nothing to dampen our spirits!
King Sub are new to me – in fact, as it was only their second gig, they were new to lots of people. They play their own ska music very, very well and we’ll definitely be keeping an eye out for them again.
The Selecter are always a guaranteed good time (they are described by our daughter as one of the best bands ever!), and despite the drizzle, they pull a big crowd who enjoy favourites such as On my Radio and Too Much Pressure!
All too soon we are at the closing Levellers set and the main arena is packed with an expectant crowd. They kick off with a spectacular start by letting off a kind off giant party popper over everyone which gets things going nicely. Hope St, This Garden. What a Beautiful Day, One Way, and many other Levellers anthems are all sung along to with gusto. The fireworks that have been organised to close the festival are amazing and then it’s all over for another year – it’s going to be a long time to wait until next year!
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