I’d had a dreadful journey, involving signal failures, cancelled trains and torturously slow buses, so by the time I arrived at Kew Gardens I wasn’t really feeling the Christmas spirit. It was cold and dark; why on earth had I thought it a good idea to plan an outside activity?
Yet I couldn’t fail to be cheered by the festivities at London’s Royal Botanic Gardens; my mood lifted as I approached the entrance to the trail, flanked by two serene white Christmas trees, with carols playing softly in the background, and the fragrant smell of mulled wine in the air. With fire gardens, a choir of Christmas trees, glow in the dark installations and seemingly endless pathways of lanterns and baubles, there was plenty to distract me.
The mile-long trail takes in many of Kew’s natural wonders, but, as it is an exclusively nocturnal affair – entrance is from 5pm – these are mostly lost on you. In truth you can barely see right in front of you; this is one festive event where having a mobile phone to guide you is actually required.
What captures your intention instead is light; trees artfully showcased as if they were starlets taking to the stage, foliage dusted with sparkling trinkets so that everything around shimmers and shines. Lights placed strategically so it looks as if the trees are dancing; their branches twirling and pirouetting. Tunnels of radiance in festive greens, deep reds and bright blues, a true feast for the eyes. More than 60,000 lights in total.
The crowning glory of the trail, which has been produced by Raymond Gubbay and created by Culture Creative Ltd and is the longest one yet produced by Kew for Christmas, is the eight artworks or installations developed specifically for it. In particular, the Five Gold Rings from The Twelve Days of Christmas display is breath-taking: giant holly leaves and birds nestling together (partridges, French hens and turtle doves, one assumes) bordered by wreaths of flaming torches and with rousing music in the background making the whole scene that bit more dramatic.
At times, the trail has the feel of being like something out of Alice in Wonderland or Fantasia; the bursts of colour and sculptures along the way all have a surreal quality about them. Take for example the display involving 1,700 flowers, morphing from one colour, or another produced by creative studio Pitaya, where crystal buds peer out as if they are considering whether it is spring yet.
At one point you approach a blaze of amber, making it appear like you are in the midst of some kind of forest fire. Kew’s flagship Hive is a giant ball of sparkling light, astonishing to behold. An oak tree is adorned with a display that gives the suggestion of a firework being trapped in its branches, thanks to a series of neon diamonds nestling in the leaves. It’s quite arresting; out of context it might appear garish, but somehow on the trail it works.
It’s a simple concept – to decorate Kew’s grand trees as if they were household firs dressed with tinsel – and yet it works. At one point I found myself feeling sorry for the trees without any decoration. Not that there are many; Christmas at Kew is a riot of colour and even as the trail hurries you along, you’ll want to stop and take it all in.
It’s not an exhibition you’ll necessarily remember the specifics of; what you come away with is a sense of magic, of how marvellous colour, light and music can be when at one. But if one thing sticks in your mind, it will be the dazzling finale over the water, where Palm House and its surrounds are illuminated with lasers and lights to extraordinary effect.
It’s not all perfect. I could’ve done without the grating voiceover, and the overly jaunty performer at the ‘Kew Christmas jukebox’ was rather cloying, although that and ‘Santa’s Northpole Village’ will help keep children entertained. And though it’s welcome to be able to purchase roasted chestnuts or marshmallows, the frequency of food stops along the 45 minute trail also seemed a bit excessive.
But I’m being a Grinch. This is a delightful evening out for all the family; prepare to be astonished and simply soothed. But perhaps don’t travel there by public transport!
Christmas at Kew runs until 2 January, with timed entries between 5pm – 8.15pm (Adults £18 or £16 off-peak, Children £10)