Sometimes in life you are given gifts that are so wonderful they change your life. This past weekend our friends Tracee and Jesse gave us just such a gift. Months ago they set us up with weekend passes to the Port Eliot Festival. It might be strange to think that a festival can be life-changing, but hear me out.
So these were not just your regular run of the mill passes, these were crew passes. Crew passes to festivals are a bit like rock star passes. They give you behind the scenes access to the coolest areas of the festival…like the green room behind the stage, loos with no lines, and nearly free drinks from the bar. So we spent the weekend wandering around the gardens of Lord Eliot in southeast England indulging all of our senses in a setting that literally could have pulled from the most magical of storybooks.
I had no idea the English countryside was so breathtakingly beautiful. From the festival grounds there were endless rolling hills of wheat and emerald green grass dotted with grazing sheep rise up from an estuary lazily meandering its way out to sea. Billowing clouds would effortlessly drift across bluebird skies, occasionally bringing a brief shower that was quickly replaced by gorgeous sunshine. Intriguing footpaths led into enchanted forests filled with wondrous possibilities. Wandering the grounds literally felt like walking through the inspiration that filled the pages of so many children’s fairy tales and storybooks.
As if the setting wasn’t smashing enough, artists and vendors at the festival brought an added ethereal dimension. I have been to festivals before, but never anything like this one. Tracee perfectly describes it as boutique festival–smallish, intimate, and highly crafted. Every vendor presented their goods, whether they were handmade, organic, craft baked or all natural, with an artistic flair that comes only from a place of love. This was obviously no one’s first rodeo.
We arrived on Thursday after a 40 minute flight from Dublin to Bristol and a 2 hour drive south. Traces greeted us at the entrance with big hugs and a huge smile, behind her in the near distance were a couple of large tents and very large castle. From that moment we knew we were in for a treat. As she walked us from the parking area to where we would be camping for the weekend, we soaked in the sights and sounds of the festival grounds. Though it was early on the first day of a 5-day festival, there were plenty of people, tents, yurts, and campers dotting the hillsides. In the next 24 hours, nearly every inch of camping ground would be filled. If there was room for a tent, one was there.
Most people were busying themselves getting set up for the weekend by setting up tents or arranging their campsites. We arrived at our campsite after a short walk and were greeted with a 3-bedroom tent with a living room that Tracee and Jessie had generously brought with them and set up for us. This is what is known as tent glamping. We were set up in style. Lisa is not the biggest fan of tent camping, but I think after this experience she has a different take on the whole thing.
We spent the rest of the day exploring different aspects of the festival. It’s difficult to put into words the experience of walking these enormous grounds and accurately describing the scene. To put some perspective on it, we walked an average of 23,000 steps a day. It was about a kilometer from the main stage area to our tent, and we made that walk at least 4-5 times a day. From the main stage area, we would branch out and walk through the woods to the “Caught By The River” area where a small group of vendors and workshops were set up. One vendor served up homemade waffles and crepes while authors talked about their writings in the tent next door. In the background was the aforementioned estuary with people casually swimming, paddling or covering themselves in the spa-like mud. At one point in the weekend there were about 50 kids out there covered head-to-toe in the mud and laughing like they had not a care in the world.
Further along the path that followed the river was hot-tub area followed by a small barn set down in a valley with an ancient viaduct in the distance behind it. Further along the path, and back into the woods, more vendors and workshop areas peeked out from little alcoves in the forest. Again, each scene was intricately decorated with their wares were all displayed with pride. Every sign or blackboard was artistically crafted and hand-lettered with love. We spent hours just walking, talking and taking in these visual treats.
The Ace of Clubs tent was our home base for the weekend. Situated near the castle, it had a stage and bar inside and a stage just outside. Nearly around the clock acts would perform on one stage or the other. From singer-songwriters, to spoon players, to acrobats, to kids acts, to family-friendly pole dancers, to rock and roll and soul bands, this stage had it all. Jesse is the Stage Manager for the venue and everyday from 10 am to 1am he would be there introducing each act as they came on and escorting them off when they were done. His energy and enthusiasm brought in crowds and pumped up the energy in the room in a way that kept the vibe positively flowing all weekend long.
It would take a small novel to talk about all the events over the 4 days we were there, so I’m not going to go there. What I will say is that the vibe of the festival, the energy that you felt from festival-goers to artists to everyone in between, was what made the experience so special. Somewhere between 5-6000 people attend this event, and by festival standards, that is not a huge crowd. Especially with so much acreage available. I would guess more than half of those in attendance were families with kids of all ages. And this is the part where the event becomes life-changing. It is extremely rare in this day and age to find a place where you can let your kids go and be kids, by themselves, for hours on end. This was one of those times and places.
Adi and Jayli teamed up with Tracee and Jesse’s daughters and a couple other girls, and for the weekend, they were thick as thieves wandering the grounds and doing whatever it is that kids do when they have no parents hovering over them. The older girls (who are nearly 15) had cell phones with them, so if something did happen, they could reach us. But that never happened. All day long they checked out different areas, played, bought tchachkes and occasionally stopped for food. Every couple hours we would see them wandering over to the Ace of Clubs tent to check in with us, get a few more pounds, then take off on another adventure. As a parent, for them to have the opportunity to be themselves and to learn what it’s like to be on their own, make their own decisions, count their change from buying whatever, and to, in a sense, take care of themselves for a short while was the most valuable gift of the weekend. That experience will be with them for the rest of their lives. They will look back on that time and it will have made an impact on them in a way that nothing else could. They learned things that we as parents can’t teach them. To give them that chance and to see them thrive is something Lisa and I will be ever thankful for.
To try and put a bow on this entry, I’ll end with a few choice highlights. First, the Ace of Clubs crew – an insanely fun groups of crazy individuals with loads of energy and who love their scene. Friday night was Gold Night, and Saturday was Neon Night. Every single person in the crew dressed to the nines proudly waving their freak flags for all to see. Their energy created a vibe in the tent like I’ve never seen before. On top of it all, they are great people and we made lots of new friends. We are now expected to be back next year as full on crew members ready to work and party as hard they all do. Personally, I can’t wait.
Other highlights include a magical theatrical performance in the woods where the telling of three fables had us all completely enthralled for a full 90 minutes; The Black Cow Saloon serving the smoothest vodka I’ve ever tasted that is made from cows milk accompanied by crazy-good cheese that is the by-product of that process; being part of a video shoot for DJ Indian Man in a sweat-filled tent tucked away in a secret laurel bush called The Boogie Round; Hulabaloo the fantastical children’s area where the kids spent hours getting their faces painted and playing; sitting in the sun by the river just admiring the world around us with complete amazement and wonder being just a grateful as we could be that such a place exists and that we could be a small part of it; and finally, the sight of thousands of campers crammed within inches of each other but living in total peace and harmony – if only life was always that simple.
It’s hard to leave a world like that knowing that real life is just a short plane ride away and soon we will be back to our day to day lives. Not that that is a bad thing, it’s just not the fantasy world we got to live in a for a short time. As much as we would have liked to stay longer, it was nice to come back and have a day of rest before the regular routine kicks in again. As I said at the beginning, this weekend was life-changing. We experienced a gift that is irreplaceable and take from it and renewed sense of life-spirit that reminds us of the things in life that are most important – family, friendship, and expressing love of life in whatever way brings out joy and happiness. Turn on your love light…and let your freak flag fly!
Peace and love my friends…
Here is a little video sampling from the weekend: