As The radio telescope at Jodrell Bank returns to stargazing, we reflect upon a weekend spent at the Bluedot festival.The science-focused festival is set at the world-famous Jodrell Bank in Cheshire. The iconic Lovell telescope provides the backdrop for the revelers as it looms over both the main stage and campsite. The emergent event burst into our corner of the cosmos in 2016. With hard acts to follow such as Jean Michell Jarre, The Infinite Monkey Cage and the soul-stirring light art of Brian Eno the question this year was – will it evolve beyond its forerunner or be left behind like the weaker of its species?
I was able to take my family along to sample the Bluedot 2017 festival. We arrived on Friday, the first day of the three-day event. We spent an impressively short time queuing at the gate. Last year the queue was horrendous and the entry procedure seemed confused and chaotic. Like many, this caused us to miss most of the first day’s acts. This year the event opened at 8 am allowing a steady stream of people to filter through the entrance. Like a well-handled experiment, lessons were learned and the parameters changed to reflect the results.
It was 9.30 am when we walked along the winding pathway that leads from the gate to the heart of the festival. As we rounded first the corner the Roots stage rose to meet our eyes. It stood in the calm greenness of the secluded area where people seek respite from the bustle of the main events. My children changed state from travel weary whiners to hyperactive particles within seconds of seeing a man clad from toe to teeth in silver. As the homemade astronaut crinkled passed us our collective nerd gene vibrated with excitement. It was time to set up our base camp.
Arriving early allowed us to carry our camping essentials from the car to campsite at a leisurely pace. The family campsite is located at the farthest point from the campsite entrance. Clearly positioned to allow those of us with children the chance to sleep in peace it is the only bugbear I have. The walk is a good ten minutes from the gate and slightly up hill. This isn’t a problem once you’re pitched but dragging a tent, provisions, and children across a field in the summer sunshine is gruelling. We were foolish not to take along a camping trolley to take some of the burden. I was envious of families who had their belongings neatly packed into little wooden carts on the way up the hill and happy kids lazing in them on the way back down. My number one tip for family festival goers is – buy a camping cart unless you’re determined to get forearms like Popeye.
We pitched our large family tent as the sun beat down. The field began to fill up quickly and by early afternoon tents were packed in like sardines. One of the things the festival got right was putting enough stewards on the campsite. They were offering people help to carry belongings, find suitable pitches and I even witnessed two stewards helping a single parent pitch her tent.
Where the Bluedot festival wins for families is in the attention to detail provided by the on site staff and the well thought out facilities. There were plenty of polite stewards in high visibility vests available to assist with queries. We were able to get our mattresses inflated at the welfare tent on the camping field which alleviated the stress of using a foot pump on a hot day. On Saturday the temperature soared so the festival goers were offered free sunscreen again at the welfare tent. On the main event field, children are given free ear plugs to protect their tiny ears from the decibels. This is a great help for children with special educational needs as is the relative quiet of the Arboretum area.
We conducted the necessary reconnaissance once our temporary home was erected. From the rustic looking Roots stage all the way to the Lovell main arena we followed the festival map until the heat took its toll. We sought shade at one of the bars where the kids guzzled down lemonade whilst the grown-ups enjoyed a plastic cup of wine. Nothing says festival like drinking slightly warm Sauvignon Blanc from a pink patterned plastic pint pot.
Food & drink
We bought burgers from one of the stalls for our initial meal. They were high quality and delicious however they did come with a hefty price tag. For a family of five, we spent just short of £50 on our first meal. If like us you are going with the mindset that this is your main family event of the year then my advice would be to budget a reasonable amount for each day if you are planning on eating out. The obvious solution, if you are on a smaller budget, is to eat at your tent and take plenty of water with you as you parade around the festival. We forgot our cooler box this year which kneecapped us in the hot weather. Another big tip is – get organised. Forgetting essential camping kit can leave you little option but to spend, spend, spend.
There was a vast array of food on offer including among others vegan options, cakes, burritos and churros drenched in Belgian chocolate. Meals start at £3.50 for basics like chips with woodfired pizza prices starting at around £8. The food was all high quality and there were plenty of healthy options available too.
Something for everyone
My husband took my eldest to listen to ‘Gravity – The Weakest and Strongest Force’ talk by Dr. Marcus Chown. I took the youngest two over to Mission Control where they met robot dogs and made huge air sausages. My middle son joined his older sibling and father to listen to the science of doctor who whilst my toddler stood with me at the Orbit stage and danced to the heart thudding bass beats of Leftfield. There is something for everyone at the festival.
It was impossible not to be swept along by the otherworldly atmosphere at the Bluedot festival. Festival fashion at this event was predominantly space aged. Think 2001 – A Space Odyssey meets David Bowie. Tinfoil, glamorous face glitter and a healthy dose of tongue-in-cheek homages to sci-fi past and present made the festival the perfect place if you’re a crowd watcher.
The headline band on Friday were the Pixies. We listened as the guitar screeched across the air in true Pixies rock style. Maybe not as intense as they had been before the band split but the crowd drank it up. Unfortunately, the rain stopped play for us. Despite breaking out the festival rain ponchos the encroaching dark and chill were too much for our youngest. As we fought through the enthralled crowds, the funky sounds of Henge playing on the Nebula stage vibrated across the damp air. Tip number three – ponchos are great but pack extra jumpers or blankets.
The incy-wincy spiders which seemed eager to share our tent brought with them an end to the rain. Before a breakfast feast of cornflakes, brioche, and apples I dragged my children for a wash. There are showers available for a fee, we opted for the more traditional wash-what-you-can in cold water approach. On each camping area, there was a large sink with eight taps situated close to the festival toilets. The toilets are cleaned every day and despite the breathtaking whiff of the chemicals they are amongst the best festival toilets I’ve used. This year urinals were also provided which really helped keep the loo’s in a better state. Brushing your teeth next to a glitter-faced stranger whilst wearing pyjamas and Wellington’s is all part of the festival fun. The availability of a sink was a big plus for families.
We ventured to the Star Field where a selection of specially designed science shows and stalls were there for science-curious minds of all ages. The range of information and hands-on science was staggering this year. The Children made graphene and then investigated its properties by using a powerful microscope. They took part in some mind-blowing physics with a team of physicists from Manchester University. The experts listened to my children’s questions with genuine interest and to such an extent that we spent the best part of an hour just in one stall. They went on to look at sunspots, watch giant bubbles and chat with science superheroes. They came away laden down with bubbles, badges, and frisbees as each stall offered freebies for kids.
There was so much to learn from the experts at the festival. Children were welcomed with enthusiasm by scientists. They seemed to thrive on sharing their knowledge with the younger generation who in turn soaked up all the shiny new information presented to them. The Star Field was located underneath the Lovell telescope – an inspiring location for an inspiring event.
We joined the snaking queue at the Luminarium. Miracoco is a bizarre immersive inflatable structure. With shoes removed we entered the womb like structure which opened up into a series of tunnels. Warm and lit by natural light through brightly coloured petal shaped windows, the experience was extraordinarily calming. The parental panic of ‘ don’t them treat it like a bouncy castle’ I felt on entry was unfounded. The mellow atmosphere sent the children into a rare state of quietly relaxed awe. If garden sized Luminariums were available I’d recommend that every parent should have one. Festival goers lay in introspective rest in little snug-like pods . It was a beautiful experience for our whole family.
Over in the Space Pavilion, my youngest son watched Science Made Simple – Bubbles and Balloons. Skewers were stuck through balloons as kids enjoyed the science behind how bubbles work. The Pavilion played host to demonstrations and shows over the weekend including Mars VR, Robot Rap and Hack Your Brain.
Take a break
It was scorchingly hot by Saturday afternoon. Ice cream provided a temporary respite from the heat as we meandered back to our tent. Bluedot is an easy-going festival. There is so much on offer that there is no expectation for people to try to do everything – it simply isn’t possible. Instead, you are encouraged to tailor the experience to suit your family’s rhythm.
After a brief rest, we headed to the Roots stage. Here we watched The Pop-Up Puppet Cinema present ‘Back to the Future‘ in a hilarious spoof of the blockbuster movie. As a film obsessed family, this appealed to us all. My seven-year-old sat cross-legged and jaw agog on the front row. The rest of us lay on our blanket alongside family’s, teens and couples. The show was laugh-out-loud funny. The papier-mâché puppets brought the story to life along with the incredibly accurate impressions.
Refreshed we returned to the hubbub of the main field. We chose a spot for the evening, hunter-gathered pizza, pop and G&T’s and listened to the pumping sounds of Orbital. Back together after splitting up in 2014, the brothers behind the famous dance tunes are producing music which is as strong as it always was. They delivered a mind-blowing set of electrifying music which had the crowd pulsating. When they played the Doctor Who theme the excitement was palpable. Orbital included this track to appeal to even the youngest members of the audience and they were right. My children danced wildly as the iconic theme blasted out from under the Lovell telescope.
The late night culminated for us with a walk through the Outer Space which was situated over the 35-acre Arboretum. Fire blasting installations illuminated the darkness and a weird UFO moving sculpture by The Kazimier arts collective roamed the gardens stalking and amusing children.
It was a night that they will never forget.
We packed up our tent after breakfast. As much as we wanted to spend Sunday night camping another concert back in Manchester meant that Sunday would be our last day. We wanted to get the hard work out-of-the-way before the temperature rose and we weren’t alone. A number of campers followed suit leaving flattened grass patches as the only evidence of their festival stay.
My seven-year-old was booked on to the in demand Jedi Training Camp. Andrew Lawden appeared in the Phantom Menace as Liam Neeson’s ( Qui-Gon Jin) stunt double and is an expert with a lightsaber. He took Jedi recruits through their paces regaling the onlookers with tales from behind the scenes of the Star Wars films. The finale was a well-choreographed fight by the Jedi’s. It was, without doubt, my seven-year-olds favourite activity and not to be missed if the workshop returns to the festival next year.
We took in some of the sights at the Planet field where the focus was on our fragile planet and how we look after it. The children found out all about the importance of saving bees and listened as they heard proof of climate change. We also pledged to try to limit the amount of packing we bring home. The Planet field prodded my family to think about our tiny Blue Dot, how our lives impact on it and how we can make changes to help save our home.
One of the Dot talks by Aravind Vijayaraghaven about graphene piqued my twelve-year-old’s interest. He spent just under an hour listening to the practical applications of this amazing material. The Bluedot festival lets you explore areas of science and nature that might otherwise be the sole realm of academics.
As my toddler skipped along the specially laid flooring, there to make accessibility easy for prams and wheelchairs, the sun sank a little lower in the sky. It was time for us to leave the Bluedot festival for another year.
We were saddened to leave before Hawkwind played their unique brand of space rock on the Orbit stage. Most of all we wanted to hear ALT-J close the festival with their challenging mix of surreal chimes and lilting vocals. I find that their unique music sounds like a post-modern Pink Floyd so I understand why they were the perfect choice for the Bluedot palette.
The Bluedot festival 2017 partially eclipsed last year’s event. The teething issues which peppered the first festival were ironed out this year. Accessible and inclusive, the Bluedot festival will continue to gain momentum over coming years. I’ve heard a whisper about next years proposed headliners and can say that they will be sure to draw a crowd. If Bluedot 2018 offers science shows, activities and demonstrations of the calibre offered this year then next years event will be the festival to attend.