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Festival Review: Deer Shed 2023

As she boxes off another family festival Antonia Charlesworth tells us why Deer Shed is the best in the north for multiple generations and calls for it to be accessible to all.

From them being babies bopping at the barriers in front of the stage to them being preteens asking if they can go on their phones while watching a live set (no!), I’ve taken my kids to a family-friendly festival in the North of England every year – with the exception of those couple of years we were forced to stay home of course.

What constitutes a family-friendly festival? For me, it’s not a music festival that sticks a bouncy castle in a corner for feral kids while their parents get pissed – the short lived Beacon’s festival in Skipton in 2014 was that, and I remember worrying my crawling baby might find drugs in the grass. Nor is it one with a back-to-back line up of CBeebies entertainers – I paid my dues on that front at Geronimo in Cheshire in 2016. A truly family-friendly festival caters for everyone – from babies to grandparents – and when we discovered Deer Shed in North Yorkshire in 2018, with it’s theme that year of XYZ on account of the generations it catered for, we realised we’d cracked it.

Set amid the stunning 90-acre Baldersby Park estate in Topcliffe, Deer Shed is a truly family-friendly festival. With a programme that provides entertainment that everyone can enjoy in the kind of place you feel safe letting your kids mooch around on their own when you have different ideas about how to spend your days.

Den building at Deer Shed 2023. Photo: Andrew Benge/Hanglands

A good-sized music line up spanned three days over three stages, while a big top tent hosted a brilliant line-up of comedians and comic entertainment. Smaller tents hosted literature and spoken word, and several tents offered crafts including pottery and origami. There were limited outdoor arts or theatrical performance, with Deer Shed instead focussing on STEM and sport. A dedicated science tent offered activities including a laser maze and rocket building while, outside, children (under supervision) were handed saws, hammers and nails and invited to build dens out of recycled pallets. A dedicated sports arena offered golf, skateboarding, wrestling workshops and more, while around the site activities including kayaking and tree climbing were facilitated. For those wanting to get back to nature, the programme included barefoot walks, wild swimming, nature sound bathing and more.

The natural amphitheatre at the Deer Shed main stage. Photo: Andrew Benge/Hanglands

In theory there should never have been a dull moment, but in reality there were a few. Times when the craft and science tents had closed for the day, the comedy tent had a break in scheduling and there were gaps in the music line up. Usually there was at least one band on but unless it was was at the Main Stage it wasn’t possible for it to entertain thousands of festival goers. Performances in the Dock Stage – a traditional full-sided tent – were not conducive to family viewing with crowds packed in and rubbish views from the back for small people. Families favoured the Lodge Stage with it’s open sides and plenty of opportunity to put down chairs or pull in hay bails. You could easily argue for increasing the size of this set up and condensing the music line up of the two smaller stages into one – especially considering the Lodge only hosted three bands on the Sunday.

The music line up was an impressive if strange mix of laid-back folk and acoustic acts, bands and electronica with headliners The Comet is Comic (Afrobeat/electronica), Public Service Broadcasting (alt rock/electronica) and Scottish indie rockers The Delgados.

Blackpool songstress Rae Morris serenaded a Sunday afternoon crowd at the Main Stage. Her set of songs old, new and covers was a high point of the festival and set the tone for a great final day of music.

Favouring the folk and indie end of the spectrum, a Friday highlight was the Dock Stage headliner Dream Wife who brought their punk energy to the packed tent. Wearing an evening dress (anything goes at Deer Shed) transatlantic Icelander Rakel Mjoll, howled her way through a furious hour-long set and shared anecdotes. This is the Kit drew in an impressive and lively crowd to their Saturday afternoon set on the Main Stage which, as front woman, Kate Stables pointed out, is set in a lovely, natural amphitheatre which provides great views for everyone. Ex-Supergrass frontman Gaz Coombes sounded fresh as he catered for the former indie kids who relived their youth alongside their own offspring.

Gaz Coombes. Photo: Andrew Benge / Hanglands

Slightly confusingly the two highlights from the Lodge Stage line up on Saturday were the similarly titled Before Breakfast – who served their delicious vocal harmonies with a side of rich cello and piano after lunch – and female funk seven-piece headliners All Day Breakfast Cafe who provided a feast for the multi-generational crowd as they boogied until bedtime.

Rae Morris by Matthew Henderson-Newbury

Blackpool songstress Rae Morris serenaded a Sunday afternoon crowd at the Main Stage. Morris was definitely worthy of a later slot and would have benefitted from a smaller stage for just herself and her piano, but her set of songs old, new and covers was a high point of the festival and set the tone for a great final day of music. Over at the Lodge stage immediately after, Pet Snake – the new solo project of Evelyn Halls, formerly of Liverpool-band Clean Cut Kid – provided a set of captivating widescreen folk-rock. Female four-piece indie outfit The Big Moon were clearly a big draw for many festival-goers who didn’t leave disappointed by their energetic set as the penultimate Main Stage act.

Another big draw proved to be a big disappointment, however, as Friday night comedy headliner Bridget Christie sadly cancelled her set due to ill health. Families who may not have stayed up for that 11.30pm-midnight set then had to wait if they wanted to see John Robertson’s Dark Room show which was pushed back to fill the slot. It was worth the wait. This madcap interactive rock comedy saw the crowd take part in a real-life ‘80s text-based adventure game in which ultimately YA DIE! YA DIE! YA DIE! YA DIE! Robertson usually performs to adult audiences and, sensing that it might not be the most responsible of parents who decided to bring their kids along, he did little to dumb it down or sanitise it. Children were thrilled by the inappropriate content (harmless, but sweary) and parents clearly appreciated not being patronised either.

Testament’s Saturday afternoon beatboxing show was incredibly impressive – especially his freestyle rap based on objects held up by the kids in the audience – and had a real feel-good celebratory atmosphere, as did Sunday’s Family Catwalk Extravaganza. Translating the format of Ru Paul’s Drag Race to the stage for a family audience – “It’s time to lip-sync for your LIVES and DON’T…. mess up the costumes” – it was a fabulous celebration of self-expression and inclusivity.

In some ways though, Deer Shed isn’t an inclusive festival – a criticism more for the festival industry (let’s face it, that’s what it has become) as a whole than this one in particular. This festival has a beautiful wholesome but fun atmosphere and I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to take my family there. And that’s the truth of the matter – we are incredibly privileged to have now boxed off our eighth festival as a family. This was our first amid a cost of living crisis and we felt it keenly. The Deer Shed team dedicate four paragraphs in their introduction to the festival programme to this matter, explaining how they’ve gone to great lengths to try and make it affordable to as many people as possible. But it cost you £10 to be able to read that.

Tickets are not unreasonable when you consider the amount on offer – just shy of £180 for an adult but priced between £0 and £100 for under 18s – but activities by external providers, like kayaking, tree climbing and about half the activities in the science tent, cost extra. It seems like a fair ask to have everything onsite included and a least a programme thrown in for the ticket price considering you can’t really navigate the festival without one. The most eye watering and opportunistic cost was £6 per half an hour for trolly hire, which would have been almost essential for many considering the fair schlep from car to camp and that many had small kids in tow. It you managed it in half an hour you deserved a medal – if you didn’t you’d be charged a pound for every five minutes you went over. Efforts to keep costs low were apparent in the bar prices (£5.50 a pint) but some food vendors were serving really poor quality grub for extortionate costs. These flashes of capitalist greed felt at complete odds with the festival mindset. Watching children float around in fairy wings in a field is a beautiful thing until you realise they cost the equivalent of three hours of minimum wage labour.

Many of the acts of the course of the weekend commented on this being a very middle class festival but more commented on it being the friendliest they have performed at, sharing their hopes to be able to return next year. I hope they do too, and that the festival goes on to attract even more high-profile performers. It deserves to. Deer Shed (along with Just So festival in Cheshire which is gorgeous but more suited to younger families) is undoubtedly the best family festival in the north of England. If organisers can make it possible for more families to experience it in future years, then that would be a truly beautiful thing.

Deer Shed returns to Baldersby Park, Topcliffe, North Yorkshire, 26th-29th July 2024. Super early bird tickets are now on sale. Main photo: Rae Morris by Matthew Henderson-Newbury

 

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    Antonia Charlesworth Stack is a journalist and editor from Blackpool. She was deputy editor of Big Issue North magazine and is editor of Blackpool Social Club. Antonia is also the founder of Reclaim Blackpool, a women's safety campaign that began life as an article she wrote for Blackpool Social Club. She's a contributing author to the Lancashire Stories anthology with her story about a Blackpool performer, The Call of The Sea. The book is available for free in libraries across the county.

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