Larmer Tree has to be my most favourite festival, and I thought I was quite a regular now as this year was my 6th, until they announced that next year was their 25th festival. With 24 years of putting on this festival, they really have got every part of the planning perfect, even the weather, and this year was my best so far.
The festival is situated near Tollard Royal in the rolling Wiltshire/Dorset border countryside, and after our ritual stop in Shaftesbury nearby for a stretch of legs and supplies, it’s a (usually) quick drive through the windy roads and to the Larmer Tree Gardens; and even the entrance to the festival is impressive.
This year are added extra camping spots, Comfy Camping, as far away from the main festival site as you could get without sleeping in one of the neighbouring fields and with little luxury touches like a food vendor and extra showers nearby.
We set up camp up the road in the Family Camping, and to say the site is beautiful is an understatement, especially in the middle of a sunny afternoon. There is so much space to camp, and the whole site is flat so you can see everything and carrying stuff from the car isn’t too much hard work. The children can run around and make friends with neighbours, it’s a really nice neighbourly environment. Advice for those that haven’t been before, is make sure to take solid tent pegs and a good hammer, as the ground is full of rocks, which makes pitching a bit more of a challenge than many places.
The music started at 5pm on the Thursday, and the entrance to the main festival had been moved a bit further away from the camping, but as it’s flat it’s no problem when you’re pushing a heavy laden buggy along, and it gave us the opportunity to check out the proper ‘posh’ toilet blocks they’d put in (definitely unique to Larmer Tree) and all the showers that were available.
Security seemed to be very tight this year, checking bags at the main entrance to prevent taking own alcohol in. Never seen festival security this strict, not taking glass bottles in you can expect, but not letting us take a few cans in is a bit much, especially as the prices at the bar seem to have gone up (to £4 a pint). The security presence in the campsite was reassuring though, walking and driving around in their van so you felt safe your tent was unlikely to get robbed.
The shopping area is right inside the entrance and you really are spoilt for choice; they had everything, vintage clothes stalls, ethically-traded clothes, instrument stalls, hippy bits ‘n’ bobs, festival essentials, bubbles, balloons, fire toys, handmade toys and an Artist Quarter where local artists / jewellers displayed their work; it was going to take a while to look around it all, good job we had 4 days there. But first thing we had to buy was a new festival hoody, and the designs this year were as good quality as always, although we did spend a bit too much on T-shirts too, and if they had baby-gros I would have bought one for my 1 year old. Perhaps an idea for next year...
The Big Top (for the louder and “dancier” acts) and ARC (acoustic and folk in the daytime, turning to comedy in the night) are in “The Village” arena, and they’d managed to squeeze in another bar this year. The flag circle was up and ready for performers to come along, and The Social tent was set up for afternoon Ringo Music Bingo and late gigs.
The main lawn with the Main Stage and Garden Stage is tucked away through the gardens, and it’s the perfect spot to settle for the evening, enjoy the sunshine, grab a drink from the bar, watch some music and let your children run around. The wishing tree was back again, for people to write their wish and then tie it to the tree, and they’d also made some Pegasus horses from previous years wishes.
Sadly we missed Tom Jones’ performance the previous evening, but the reviews from people we talked to were that he was outstanding, but we enjoyed listening to The Heavy, and Squeeze and watching the peacocks walk around. It did rain in the evening but it was really welcome after a scorching hot day; we headed back to the tent at 11 to get our children to finally go to sleep, and then we were treated to an impressive thunder storm. Still managed to sleep well.
Friday was our first full day so a big explore round the shopping area was in order, and we were really surprised to see JojoMamanBebe there, never seen them at a festival before and talking to them it was something new they were trying at a few family festivals this year. I was pleased to see them too, as I’d forgotten a sun-hat for my toddler, they were selling loads of very useful baby kit; wellies, hats, rainsuits, sunglasses, porta-potties and a few toys just in case. Very handy.
Festival accessory ‘de jour’ seemed to be big stuck-on tails, sold by one of the stalls in The Village; they ranged from dinosaurs to striped curly cat tails. They were available for children and adults and were going down a storm.
Another great find was the Farmers Market, local producers were selling their goodies, some gorgeous cakes and breads and honey fudge; not good for the waist-line or the wallet but great for a picnic out on the grass. Food selection is huge and pretty much every cuisine is covered, but it can be very expensive, with prices definitely hiked this year, meals ranging from £6 to £9. Thank fully a few stalls did smaller children’s portions for a few quid. The bar prices had gone up too, so we stuck to beer rather than food. One thing in free abundance was water, with water taps everywhere, badly needed in the heat. Frank Water were also selling water bottles for £5 (money going to funding projects) which you could get refilled with chilled, filtered water for free from a water-bar set up or from the mobile vendors. They were doing a roaring trade.
There’s always a quirk at Larmer Tree, one year it was musical toilets, but this year it was golden telephones connected to various bars, stages, random parts of the gardens and one of the portatoilets. Keeping everyone connected, you could ring up anybody who just happened to be walking past (or sitting) and have a chat. The children definitely seemed to be having a great time with it, and some adults, when we encountered ‘Lord Larmer Tree’ ordering freshly-squeezed horsemilk for his muesli.
Tai-Chi was going on the main lawn when we wandered past, if you’re not a late-sleeper there are things going on from 9.30, music sessions for the little ones and some yoga, zumba and tai-chi for the adults. Unfortunately it takes us until lunchtime to get fed and organised for the day so we missed most of the morning activities and just enjoyed a stroll around.
The woods past the main lawn are also packed with things to do; a knitting tent is always open and the trees are there for decorating with weaved material. In the ‘Lost Gardens’ the usual wood-carving and other workshops weren’t there but it had been turned into a quiet haven to come and relax, sit and chat and chill in the tents they’d set up suspended from the trees. There were also sculptures and installations throughout the woods, half a car turned into a swing and a glowing heart activated by holding hands. It’s really nice to walk through and see what they’d set up this year, but even more impressive at night when everything is lit up, they light a fire pit and you can sit away from the music and enjoy a talk. Sadly, the children’s story-time in the woods wasn’t on this year; that was always something I liked to do with my children in the evenings, instead this year they got to carry on running round until they dropped.
I did manage to catch the end of one activity in the children’s area, the ‘Clonker Board’ session, for the under 5’s, they sat around 2 resonating boards and tapped it with sticks, banged them with their hands or ran cars over them to feel as well as hear the sounds. They could also just climb on and sit on them, it was a really nice session, ending with some songs. The whole Children’s area was as fantastic as ever, so many tents of activities for under 5’s and bigger ones, and a baby changing tent with toys just for very little ones. Bubble discos, story time, drumming workshops, making all-sorts of things and in the middle was a new café, ‘The Knitted Pig’ serving children’s sized portions of food they’d definitely eat, and tea and cake for weary parents. A great place to have a comfy sit down.
The only downside was the price of the face-painting this year, £4.50 was a bit much so I kept my 5 year old away from there.
We were treated to an early apparance by Frank Turner on the mainstage in the afternoon doing his sound check for his set in the evening; and on our way back to the tent for food and some shade we watched a magic show in the flag circle, which could possibly be the funniest hula-hoop and toilet-roll-eating display I’ve ever seen.
We only managed to see the music on the mainstage on the Friday evening, despite the other stages going as well; We Were Evergreen performed some really upbeat harmonies and electro-pop, a little like Vampire Weekend, and they were very impressed with the number of people in blue and white striped tops, made them feel at home away from Paris.
My 5 year old was the most excited to see Frank Turner who headlined on the main stage; the storm predicted stayed away and she managed to stay awake and definitely wasn’t disappointed. He was our highlight of the weekend and only on day 2. He opened his set with ‘Photosynthesis’ and continued to play tracks from all his albums, ‘Recovery,’ ‘Long Live The Queen,’ ‘Wessex Boy’ and some new songs which will be on the new album next year. Despite a few too many bad words for a family audience he was on crowd pleasing form, and topped off a fantastic set with two encores, ‘I Still Believe’ and ‘Four Simple Words’ and some pyrotechnics. The following nights' headliners had a hard act to follow.
Saturday’s at Larmer Tree are the main day as its Dress-Up Day, this year was ‘Four Corners Of The World,’ but the weather did put a slight dampener on it. The thunderstorms continued through the morning with great gusto, we were treated to hailstones and battering rain, but Larmer Tree had prepared for every eventuality with a huge canopy covering benches in the arena next to the ARC tent for people to hide under. We were kept entertained while the rain lashed outside by the Southampton Ukelele Jam, who performed loads of hits for us to sing along to, and when we’d finally let them finish after a few encores , the sun came out.
Across in the ARC tent Hat Fitz and Cara Robinson performed their first set of the day, playing some deep bluegrass blues; they really are an excellent couple to watch, he plays guitar and drums and the floor at one point, and what she can do with a washboard, chainmail gloves and a cowbell is amazing. We watched them again on the Garden Stage, even better the second time.
La Chiva Gantiva, described as, ‘…Colombian, Latin, Afrobeat, Jazz, Funk, Rock with echoes of Eastern European folk’ sounded like an afro-beat Rage Against The Machine, and after all that jumping we were Lindyhopping to some good-old rock-n-roll from a Boppin' B who had us doing some ‘finger yoga’ too. A good afternoon’s workout, and Public Service Broadcasting finished off the music on the main stage, a polarising set and the smallest audience I’ve seen for a Saturday headliner, with people leaving in droves. In between running around after a too-confident toddler into everyone’s food and beer, I enjoyed their set, the samples of public service broadcasts announcing videos of how to ride a bike in Dutch were quite impressive.
The village area was buzzing as we headed back to the tent. With no Club Larmer this year, the younger festival goers seemed to have taken over The Social instead, which is a bit of a shame, as it used to be a sanctuary for those that hadn’t had enough live music for the day, rather than the “school disco” that it has sadly become.
Onward though, and we were tempted into the Big Top by the mighty Dreadzone, who played a bouncing set of classics and newer material. The sound engineers deserve a special mention – the sound inside the Big Top is ear-splittingly loud, but outside of the tent, can hardly be heard. Sorcery, we reckon. Despite so much music carrying on and the site being so flat the sound hardly carries over to the family camping area; and we all had a great nights sleep….and no rain…woohooo.
Sunday - 4th and final day and the toilets are still clean, the queues are tiny (except for the showers but I was assured that they moved quickly and were still warm even at 11am) which is something Larmer Tree have got perfect, and have been awarded for. Even inside the festival the toilets are always clean and never ran out of toilet roll and hand-gel, and I never had to queue behind more than 3 people. Also the clean-up overnight is impressive as the place is immaculate again and you can sit down where you like.
We stopped at the Farmers Market for some mega pizza slices for a picnic on the lawn then checked out Miranda Sykes & Rex Preston in the ARC tent. I’ve seen Miranda perform a few times with Show Of Hands, but never as part of a different group, and they were amazing to watch, both have fantastic voices and a double bass and mandolin make beautiful music. They were performing with Steve Knightley later and we had that to look forward to.
We set up in a great spot we’d found on the main lawn and that’s where we stayed for the day to enjoy the sunshine. La Pegatina due on the main stage were delayed in Malaga so CoCo and the Butterfields raced from Canterbury to fill their spot, and were more than a fill-in. A five-piece string, hip-hop, beat-boxing group with beautiful harmonies, they covered ‘Prince Of Bel-Air’ and ‘Jump Around,’ and had whole lawn on their feet. La Pegatina made it onto the Garden Stage a bit later than planned after the Sunday carnival had passed through and continued the tempo with some Latino tunes and an explosion of confetti.
Hudson Taylor were a great favourite with the young female festivallers and they were kept on edge all evening with Tom Odell as well. I’d never heard his music, but had been told that he’d brought grown women to tears, so was intrigued…You can’t deny his talent, his voice and skills on the piano are amazing, and his music was like Elton John mixed up with some Coldplay, some familiar ones to sing along to and a few rockier tunes to jump around to. Good but not my bag, and my evening and festival was topped off by Gentleman's Dub Club, with some good skanking.
With the entertainment continuing in The Social until the early hours, I can’t wait to see how they can top this for the 25th anniversary next year, but we will definitely be there to report back.
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