Looking for a festival this summer with something for all the family? For one long weekend each year the historic Port Eliot estate in Cornwall becomes a magical playground that appeals to all ages. It’s a chance to kick-back and enjoy the endless days of an English summer
- Festival of arts, music, food and fashion
- Fun activities for all the family
- A stunning ancestral estate
- Gateway to beautiful Cornwall
A Family Festival in Cornwall
Who went, where and when? Yvonne went to Port Eliot, the annual 4-day arts festival in south-east Cornwall, in July 2015. She took daughter Serena, aged 4.
Why Port Eliot? Yvonne says: I’d heard that it’s a family-friendly event with a high quality offering of literature, music and food. Port Eliot looked fun for both of us and fitted in neatly between commitments in London and a family get-together on the Dorset coast.
Where did you stay? We took a tent and camped in the grounds – this is included in the price of the ticket. ‘Camping at Port Eliot is actually a pleasant experience’ the website persuades…. Well, the photos looked lovely.
There are plenty of other options at Port Eliot. If it’s comfort you’re after, the festival website porteliotfestival.com lists a range of options, including glamping-style yurts, Airstreams and toilet-upgrade options. There’s also a list of off-site accommodation options, including nearby B&Bs. You could sleep on a proper bed, tuck into a cooked breakfast and drive into the festival each morning…
How did you get there? By car from London. We set off at 5am – quiet roads and a sleepy passenger – and arrived at 11.30am after one stop at Exeter services. (Which I’d avoid next time, as it was congested and time-consuming to get in and out – and we only wanted coffee and the loos.)
Camping at Port Eliot
We arrived on Friday (the festival opens on Thursday), and the grounds were already a sea of colourful tents. It was quickly apparent that we were among seasoned festival-goers. Groups had created enclaves with family-sized tents, gazebos, windbreaks and what looked like fully-equipped kitchens. They looked very comfortable, but I wouldn’t have wanted to carry that kit from the car park. Others turned up with small tents and foam mattresses slung nonchalantly over a shoulder, pitched quickly and headed to the music. I was envious…
Close to the action, tents were packed in tightly, sometimes just inches away from each other. This would be very convenient for popping back to camp during the day. It wasn’t for us but might appeal to families with older children who want to venture off on their own – with a tent close by parents don’t need to be too far away. If you’d like to do that then arrive early to reserve your place. And bring ear-plugs to avoid ‘enjoying’ the music well into the early hours.
We decided to set up home in one of the outer fields. It was a 10-minute walk up hill but quieter and more like a regular campsite than a festival.
I haven’t camped for years, apart from a holiday when Serena was a baby. To brush up, I consulted a few what-to-take-camping lists including this one from Map and Family (Map and Family says: link coming shortly 😀 ) Good advice. Even if there did seem to be rather a lot of things to bring. (Wellies, insect repellent, bin bags…)
I took a very simple camping stove and basic supplies like pastries, fruit and orange juice. We had breakfast at our tent at the beginning of each day. The closer you are to the food stalls of course, the less likely you would be to bother lighting up the campstove for coffee. It was a challenge on a windswept hill and tempting just to head into the festival for a proper latte.
Our pitch was about 100 metres from the ‘facilities’ – rows of portaloos – which was about right. They do attract queues at peak times and can be noisy when being cleaned. The porta-cabin style showers were surprisingly okay. They were open twice a day – morning and late-ish afternoon – but the queues weren’t too bad. We passed the time chatting to other queuers. Cute ‘pamper tents’ next to the showers housed hairdryers so we could emerge without damp hair.
We headed back to the tent early-ish on our first night. The music hummed in the background, but those returning to their tents at our end of the site were considerate. There were many other families with young children around us. Serena slept soundly, in polar-bear onesie, woolly hat, sleeping bag and double blanket. The temperature dropped sharply at night – and young children will need woollies even if it’s high summer. My sleeping bag was inadequate, but eventually, wearing several layers, I slept surprisingly well.
Things to do at Port Eliot
Late afternoon on Friday, tired after the journey and setting up our temporary home, we had a gentle walk around the festival. There was LOTs going on.
One of the first things we spotted were the swimmers. At sunset and high tide, swimming in the estuary of the river Tamar is popular.
When the tide’s out, it becomes a mud bath – maybe not rich in healing-properties, but teens loved that too.
Exploring the Port Eliot festival has been described as ‘opening the wardrobe doors and discovering Narnia’, and this place certainly has a magical feel to it. The action spans the whole of the 6,000 acre Repton-designed parkland of the Port Eliot estate, the house itself, and the ancient church next to it.
There’s a floral, rhythmic, beating heart and a visual feast around every corner. Wandering around and dropping into the marquees and venues, sampling the food and stopping to browse the stalls can easily take up the day.
I’d downloaded and printed the schedule from the website, which helped us target the things we wanted to see. Making our way upwards behind the house we came across a series of gardens, with talks, shows and food and drink stalls.
Books at Port Eliot
There was a full schedule of talks by writers in the Walled Garden and it was clearly a favourite: a sort of mini Hay-on-Wye in itself. Sitting on the lawn on a summer afternoon, the setting somehow nudges your imagination – I felt a long, long way from our usual routine. We listened to Justine Picardie talk ethereally of Coco Chanel, Daphne Du Maurier and ghosts… I bribed Serena with an ice lolly, but the open setting also meant she could get up and play around the edges with other children. The speakers seemed approachable, hanging around for questions and popping up for signing sessions in the big book tent next door.
I tried to avoid full immersion in the children’s area too early as leaving was always going to be difficult. Once inside the Hullabaloo zone, the delights of live theatre shows, bouncy castle, drumming and face-painting made it hard to persuade young children away….
The shows in the children’s theatre were a highlight. ‘Shall we go now?’ I asked after nearly an hour of a rustically-inspired updated version of Cinderella. ‘No – I want to watch this,’ came the reply, eyes remaining fixed on the stage.
If you’re visiting with older children – and there were lots of teenagers at the festival – I suspect part of the appeal lies in the freedom to roam, explore and discover. There was a dedicated teen zone as well as visiting YA authors, a host of workshops and canoeing on the river.
Other highlights for us included the Wardrobe Department and dress up opportunities, an original maze to explore in the grounds and the house itself, part of which was open.
Exploring Port Eliot House
The site of the house and priory has been inhabited for over 1000 years. Parts of it are open during the festival and we enjoyed exploring on Sunday morning. Entering the lower floor of the house, once the servants’ realm, there’s a sense of things being left unchanged as the 20th century slowly passed. I enjoyed the tantalizing glimpses of the china closet, the servants’ bell system and Butler’s pantry. On the ground floor a mural by Robert Lenkiewicz spans the whole of the impressive Round Room and depicts the family’s colourful history – knowledgable guides were on hand to unlock its meanings.
Next door in the Drawing Room we found a fairytale treat: Cinderella’s shimmering blue ball-gown, as worn by Lily James in Disney’s recent film, was on display in all its glory. The glass slipper was in an adjoining darkened room, so we could appreciate the magical 3-D effect of the crystal glass, designed by the Oscar-winning costume designer Sandy Powell.
Evenings at Port Eliot
In the early evening, local Cornish singing group Fisherman’s Friend delighted all ages with songs from the sea. Little ones sat together at the front or on parent’s shoulders at the back. Later on, the headliners included Ed Harcourt, among many others who played well into the early hours. But that was beyond our curfew…
In the evenings, the action centres around the main area, where there’s a party going on with live music in the marquees. Restaurants, bars and food stalls offered everything from Asian-fusion to enchiladas.
We didn’t get round to:
So much… For a start, we could have got there a day earlier. The festival is packed with things to do so it was inevitable that we’d end up missing more things than we managed to fit in. It’s also a large area to cover: walking around with a small child is tiring and we needed to pace ourselves. Next time, we’ll check out the craft workshops and maybe catch more of the music.
What to bring with you
Trolley If you’re driving and bringing camping gear, think about how you will get it from the carpark to the campsite – it can be quite a walk and organised folk seemed to have brought foldable luggage trolleys to help with this. I piled everything onto the buggy and made a couple of trips.
Charger top up I didn’t bring any screens except for my iPhone, as I wanted us to have a proper break from them, but it was a shame not to be able to take photos once the battery had run out. There’s a charging station but we couldn’t be bothered, a top up battery would probably have seen me through.
Insect repellent we did and were fine, but I saw some pretty nasty mosquito bites on some of the youngsters there.
Showerproof lightweight jackets you don’t want to carry much around with you, but you do need something for light showers. (A local volunteer at the house told us it never rains heavily during the festival….).
Small picnic rug very useful to sit on to watch shows and/or the sunset.
Snacks The food at the festival was delicious and wide-ranging although not cheap. I was glad I’d brought plenty of easy snacks we could have on the go or at the tent.
Port Eliot: a Family Festival in Cornwall
The 2016 Port Eliot Festival runs from 28 – 31 July in St Germans, Saltash, Cornwall.
Click here for more info and to buy tickets
Photos taken by Yvonne are all rights reserved. Photos may not be reproduced without prior written consent. The following images are courtesy of Michael Bowles: 1, 2,6,10,13; Michael Barrett 3; Darren Gerrish 8, 14; via porteliotfestival.com