Walk-through displays of Christmas lights have sparkled ever brighter in the UK’s grand gardens over the lpast decade or so. They often include tunnels of fairy lights and themed illuminations (animal-shaped lanterns at Chester Zoo or glowing flowers at the RHS gardens). Flaming torches, lasers, glowing snowflakes and stirring seasonal music are also quite likely to feature. These events are well-suited to Covid regulations: they take place outside in spacious grounds or parkland, so it’s relatively easy to socially distance, and they always did involve reserving tickets in advance. They are not cheap, are selling out fast, and booking timed tickets is generally essential (there tend to be more slots available on weekdays and later in the evening), but these festive spectacles offer an hour or so of pure escapism, and we could all do with a bit of that right now.
Illuminated Light Trail at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire
Stately avenues with palatial vistas? Check. Baroque architecture? Grassy slopes and natural-seeming lakes? Picturesque clumps of trees? Check, check, check. The park around Blenheim Palace is one of Capability Brown’s largest landscape designs and the formal gardens at its heart are tailor-made for the mesmerising light trail that winds through them each winter. The lights pick out the sculptural forms of a craggy old oak or elegant cedar, sweep across the lakeside woods and turn the winter-full cascade a spectrum of different colours. There are lasers, pulsing vines, a flaming-torch-lit rose garden and several new installations for 2020, including fire sculptures floating in the water garden and Blue Neuron, a kinetic light sculpture made from recycled plastic bottles, that sends blue light dancing through the branches. And, since the Christmas market is cancelled, this year’s trail ends, for the first time, with a grand light-show finale in the Great Court.
• Selected dates from 20 Nov-3 Jan, child/adult/family from £13/£19/£60 (£1 off for pass holders), blenheimpalace.com
Enchanted Christmas, Westonbirt Arboretum, Gloucestershire
A rainbow of floodlit trees and sparkling walkways are staple fare for winter light trails, and Westonbirt’s kid-friendly show also has flashing lights, smoke effects and a forest of candy canes. To keep Santa safe, he’s going to be performing from a distance rather than interacting, and won’t hand over any prezzies. But there will be activity packs, elves, talking trees and a suitably seasonal story about a journey to the “West Pole” to help in Santa’s workshop.
• Selected dates from 28 Nov-21 Dec, mostly Fridays and weekends, child/adult £8/£16 (discounts for Friends), forestryengland.uk
Christmas at Waddesdon, Buckinghamshire
Waddesdon Manor’s chateau-style turrets look like a fairytale castle at anytime of year, but they’re even more surreal bathed in iridescent colours that shift in sync with music. This year Waddesdon is revising the route of the walk-through musical Winter Light trail and staying open later to give people a chance to space out. Globes hang glowing over the driveway; the valley, which will be filled with yellow daffs by March, becomes a sea of flames for winter; and, in the stables, there’s an immersive sound-and-light installation called Parallels. Waddesdon is one of the few places that has not (so far) cancelled its Christmas fair and market, which is back with widely spaced chalet units, extra staff to manage visitor flow and contactless payment. It’s open from noon, although the lights only shine from dusk.
• Selected dates from 14 Nov-3 Jan, child/adult/family from £8/£16/£40 (discounts for NT, RHS, Artfund and HHA members and local residents), waddesdon.org.uk
Wish Upon a Frozen Star, Castle Howard, North Yorkshire
Previous Christmases were designed in-house at Castle Howard, but this year it has joined forces with Projection Studios, which has previously lit up York Minster, Blackpool Tower and Buckingham Palace. Members of Leeds-based theatre company Tutti Frutti will be playing enchanted animals in an epic tale of frost and festivity that complements the journey through the gardens. Malton, Yorkshire’s self-proclaimed foodie capital, is the nearest town, so expect purveyors of artisanal refreshments in festive vans along the route. Safety preparations include sanitiser, distance-monitoring stewards and mapped-out spaces on the large south lawn so people can watch the light show safely.
• 27 Nov-31 Dec, child adult from £10/£15 plus booking fee, castlehoward.co.uk
Christmas at Belton, Lincolnshire
Giant candles and kaleidoscopic snowflakes are the order of the season for the second year running in the National Trust’s huge gardens at Belton House. The estate is home to a herd of fallow deer, and a larger-than-life glittering deer sculpture greets visitors. Thousands of pea lights went into building the twinkling tunnel of light, and the scented fire garden provides a meditative change of pace after the frenetic lasers.
• Selected dates from 27 Nov-3 Jan, child/adult/family/parking £13.50/£19/£60/£7 (free parking for NT members), nationaltrust.org.uk
Ignite at Kingston Lacy in Dorset, and Gibside, Gateshead
The National Trust has introduced two new illuminated trails this year at Kingston Lacy and Gibside. The new Ignite trails, boasting “light, lanterns, fire and fantasy”, aim to showcase features of the individual parks and gardens. Around Kingston Lacy’s elegant estate, there will be fairies in the fernery or plants lit up alongside a “magical soundscape”, which includes everything from Jingle Bells to whale music. The Georgian landscape garden at Gibside, commissioned by coal baron George Bowes, was originally designed to impress spectators. With winding paths, large wooded grounds and views across the Derwent valley, it’s another perfect venue for the ¾-mile Christmas walk-through, featuring fiery fish and willow sculptures.
• Kingston Lacy 11-13, 18-24 and 26-30 Dec, child/adult/family/parking £10/£15/£45/£7 (free parking for NT members), nationaltrust.org.uk. Gibside 11-30 Dec, prices as Kingston Lacy, nationaltrust.org.uk
The Lanterns at Chester Zoo, Cheshire
The pandemic has cost Chester Zoo £5.5m and this Christmassy event is vital in starting to recoup lost income. Beside the walkways that meander through the zoo, crossing bridges into 11 themed areas, there will be – for the ninth year running – lanterns and huge illuminated animals: towering giraffes and swaying jellyfish, glowing frogs, colour-changing chameleons and a show-stopping giant octopus. Visitors start near the elephant bridge and walk through a shining cactus desert, head over the rainbow to explore the air, the savannah and the bottom of the sea on a one-way route around the zoo. Refreshments are on sale as usual and, although they won’t be given out this year, visitors can bring or buy their own lanterns. To allow for distancing, the zoo has had to reduce the number of tickets available and several dates are already sold out.
• Selected dates from 13 Nov-23 Dec, child/adult from £13.50/£16, chesterzoo.org
Ushaw: Historic Houses, Chapels and Gardens, County Durham
huge gardens, a few miles west of Durham, have been a lifesaver for some local residents during the past few months. Now there is a Christmas tree festival and light show planned for winter. It will involve illuminating a huge rose window made from recycled bottles that previously appeared outside Durham Cathedral. The windows of the main house are to be lit like an Advent calendar and the grounds decorated with festive trees, the current exhibition of outdoor stained-glass panels and a giant reindeer. The Bounds cafe will be open and at “foodie Fridays” each week until Christmas, street food vendors under the lights at the front of the house will add to the festive atmosphere.
• Selected dates from 20 Nov-24 Dec (Thur to Sun), ticket prices tbc, should be available online from 1 Nov, ushaw.org
Wondrous Woods at Hopetoun House, West Lothian
Less a Christmas trail than an autumn celebration of the 300-year-old woods on the waterside Hopetoun estate, this new trail winds for more than a mile through the trees. Passing the atmospheric old summerhouse, wrought-iron gates and stately lime avenue, through some normally unseen areas of the grounds, it will end with floodlit views of magnificent Hopetoun House. If that sounds too sedate for the kids, there are lasers, naughty gnomes, mirror balls and a cool triangular walkway.
• Selected dates until 15 Nov, child/adult from £9/£19, wondrouswoods.com
Christmas at the Botanics, Edinburgh
Founded in 1670, Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden is celebrating its 350th birthday this year, so sip spiced cider and stroll through tunnels of light while the Victorian palm houses blaze with festive brilliance. The yuletide botany-themed trail is back for a fourth time this year, on a longer-than-ever 32-night celebratory run. The mile of illuminations will include old favourites like the cathedral of light, laser garden and festive finale beamed on to Inverleith House. And there are new installations featuring 128-metre-long projections and thousands of LED stars.
• Selected dates from 26 Nov-3 Jan, child/adult/family £13/£19/£60, rbge.org.uk
Lightopia at Heaton Park, Manchester
Mancunians could surely do with some cheering up at the moment, so let’s hope Lightopia can still take place. With new installations, a new route, wider footpaths and 50 incandescent lanterns, the north-west’s largest park is hoping to host its second annual festival of light. A phalanx of dragons guards the food court (assuming it’s still allowed to open under tier 3 regs) and Christmas images are beamed on to Heaton Hall. Dance through the interactive music zone, gaze up at space-themed installations in the astronomy zone and pay tribute to key workers with a new local heroes series of sculptures.
• Selected dates from 20 Nov-3 Jan, child/adult/family from £13/£20/£60 (20% discount for keyworkers), lightopiafestival.com
Christmas at Wollaton, Nottingham
In any season, there are several landscapes condensed into wooded Wollaton Park, just west of central Nottingham: lakes full of waterlilies, avenues of purple rhododendrons and herds of deer roaming grassy parkland. New for this year, a dramatic illuminated trail uses different areas of the wintry park to create a fiery forest, a moonlit glade, a carpet of rainbows and more.
• From 27 Nov-6 Jan (closed Mon), child/adult/family from £12.50/£17.50/£59.50 (plus booking fee, discounts for Nottingham residents and 20% off with the code LIGHTS20 until 9 Nov), christmasatwollaton.org
Eden Project, Cornwall
This Christmas, Eden’s seasonal event will not involve the laser show of previous years, but there will be magical lights in the rainforest and Mediterranean biomes. Father Christmas and elves will be on hand in a socially distanced way, and the Eden Project also has a bookable ice rink, open until 21 Feb.
• Selected dates from 4-30 Dec, ticket prices tbc, edenproject.com
Christmas at Kew Gardens, London
Back for an eighth year with a new route, the wildly popular trail through Kew Gardens lights up exotic plants and greenhouses with more than a million bulbs. There are new installations on this year’s trail, which takes in the rose garden, and the spectacle includes a canopy of stars, treetop waterfall, cherry blossom walkway, neon-wrapped trees and flaming sculptures. There’s also a glowing lantern trail through Kew’s wilder sister garden at Wakehust, home to the UK’s tallest living Christmas tree – soon to be wreathed in lights.
• Selected dates from 18 Nov-3 Jan (mostly Wed to Sun, most weekends sold out in Nov and Dec), child/adult/family from £12/£19.50/£57, kew.org
Glow Trail at RHS Wisley, Surrey
All four RHS gardens are offering Glow Trails this Christmas, with Hyde Hall in Essex the latest to join the fun. As usual, there are incandescent greenhouses and floodlit trees with swirling festive music at Wisley, and some extra features along the garden’s longest-ever Glow Trail. The cherry trees, hung with blossom in spring, are sparkling, the dangling purple flowers along the wisteria walk in summer are replaced by mesmerising lights, and the trees in the pinetum and rock garden are lit in a rainbow of colours. The plan is for cafes and shops to be open for food, hot drinks and Christmas shopping. There’s even a bespoke Glow menu (from £20) at the Terrace restaurant, serving cranberry G&Ts, roast turkey and spiced winter fruit compote.
• Selected dates from 21 Nov-4 Jan, child/adult £10/£15 (big discounts for members), rhs.org.uk
Land of Light at Longleat, Somerset
For 2020, Longleat has replaced the annual lantern festival with a new Land of Light installation. Seven zones will present spectacular sound and light shows with displays of luminescent flowers, fountains, storms and peacocks. There’s an icy mirror maze and hazy plumes of colour. It’s one of the priciest trails on offer (even without a combined ticket for a daytime safari), but it packs a lot in, alongside food, drink and gift huts, and a laser show in the longhouse.
• Selected dates from 7 Nov-10 Jan, child/adult from £20.95/£27.95, longleat.co.uk
Christmas at Bedgebury, Kent
Bedgebury’s after-dark pinetum trail is back for a third year with new features. Expect artfully-lit tree canopies, neon strings of light, quicksilver stars and reflections in the lake. There is a new light maze and electric forest (pictured), as well as the usual giant baubles and fire garden. Father Christmas is due to put in an appearance too, among the pines and fir trees of the National Conifer Collection.
• Selected dates from 21 Nov-31 Dec, £13/£19.50/£60 for kids/adults/families (parking is extra, £1.50 off for Friends), christmasatbedgebury.co.uk
Illuminated Garden Trail at Helmingham Hall, Suffolk
Helmingham Hall is a moated brick palace, about 10 miles north of Ipswich, with exceptionally beautiful grounds. The nearly-mile-long trail, back for a third year, is less about big set pieces and more about lighting natural features as it weaves through all of the Grade I-listed gardens. It uses gourds and pumpkins that were grown in the garden this autumn and kicks off with a rare trip over the drawbridge into the ancient courtyard for complimentary mulled wine. The Coach House tearooms (and Stables gift shops) will be open and there are firepits too for toasting marshmallows.
• Selected dates from 18 Nov-13 Dec (not Mon or Tue), from £8/£13/£34 for kids/adults/families, helmingham.com (click “what’s on"/calendar” to book)
Leonardslee Illuminated, West Sussex
The open spaces and lakeside walks in Leonardslee’s Grade I-listed gardens have been particularly popular with local residents recently. Now, they will host colourful projections on to the historic buildings, gardens lit up with Christmas bulbs and a silver moon floating over the lake (pictured). Three December weekends will be brightened by imaginative installations, live music and family-friendly theatrical performances, employing more than 50 artists, technicians and other staff. Leonardslee gardens are known for their wallabies, first introduced in 1889. Glowing animal lanterns include the wallabies, other creatures that live in the grounds and a mythical Leonardslee forest fire dragon. The plan is for the restaurant, cafe and shops to be open.
• Selected dates from 4-22 Dec (mostly Fri to Sun), £8/£16 for kids/adults (small discount for members), leonardsleegardens.co.uk
Thursford’s Enchanted Journey of Light, Norfolk
Another venue joining the winter lights club this year is the Thursford Collection, the world’s largest collection of steam engines and fairground organs, a quirky museum in the Norfolk countryside. Having postponed its popular theatrical Christmas spectaculars, which usually draw coachloads of fans, Thursford promises instead an immersive “all new indoor wonderland trail: a maze of engines, fairytale characters” and “one of the UK’s biggest kinetic light displays.”
• Selected dates from 20 Nov-3 Jan, £16.50 per person (£18 if booked after 18 Nov), thursford.com