When does the festive season really start for you? For some people Christmas begins when they start buying presents or making the cake. For others, it starts when they write their cards or decorate the tree. But for me, Christmas gets under way once I’ve been out after dark to enjoy the magic of an illuminated trail.
From small beginnings at a handful of high profile locations, festive light trails have really taken off in recent years and this year there are more than ever. Last year I enjoyed the spectacle at the National Trust’s Waddesden Manor in Buckinghamshire and this year, the Trust has increased its number of dazzling winter light displays to fourteen, ranging from Suffolk, Surrey and Sussex to Dorset and Devon, Lincolnshire to Greater Manchester and Tyne & Wear.
This time I headed for Wimpole Hall outside Royston on the Herts/Cambs border. I’m a regular visitor to this grand National Trust mansion, landscaped park and rare breeds farm, so I was secretly proud in late November to be the first person through the arch of lights on the first day of Wimpole’s first festive trail, brought to the estate by Raymond Gubbay Ltd (Sony Music). And what a trail!
The path from the visitor centre towards the mansion gave little hint of the delights to come. ‘Welcome to Wimpole’ projected in lights onto the path. A few tastefully illuminated trees. But beyond the square stable block, its elegant façade bathed in red and gold light, the entertainment came thick and fast as the trail turned its back on Wimpole Hall and wound through woodland past a succession of innovative displays.
First a tree festooned with twinkling ‘icicles’, followed by the surreal experience of green laser beams that gave the illusion of walking through stars. A giant snowflake covered the base of a flake-shaped tree stump and the insect-friendly stumpery morphed into to a miniature world beneath lilac lights, just right for any resident fairies. More woodland creatures danced nearby amongst twinkling toadstools, much to the delight of the small children behind us. You do need to wear flat, comfortable footwear, but matting covered the earth path to minimise the mud factor and make the trail suitable for pushchairs.
Every bend in the track revealed a new Kodak-moment, all the time accompanied by a selection of easy-listening classical tunes. I particularly loved the glade of illuminated white spheres beneath trees highlighted in purple and blue, the shapes of the branches picked out against the night sky. Emerging from the trees into an open area, I came across stalls selling mulled wine, hot chocolate and toasted marshmallows, before heading into the walled garden, where winter foliage glowed orange and gold in the darkness.
Beyond the garden wall, the trail carried on past an extraordinary psychedelic tree, its trunk and branches lit in coloured strands that spread like roots across the leaf mould. And a geometric display of static laser lights like giant cat’s cradles in rich jewel colours. As we approached the Hall and formal garden, we passed an area of twinkling flames where a soundtrack of Auld Lang Syne was a subtle reminder to cherish friends and family as a new year comes around.
The grand finale to our Christmas at Wimpole experience was played out in a sound and light show on the rear façade of the Hall. Giant clocks showed the passing of time. Snowflakes broke the symmetry of the elegant windows. And Father Christmas drove his sleigh through a rainbow of colours before the final Merry Christmas message stood out against a purple backdrop.
By the time we arrived back at the front of the house – floodlit behind three Christmas trees dressed in white lights – we had spent a good hour immersed in this magical world. I was sorely tempted to go round again, but the pull of the mulled wine chalet proved just too great.
There is still time to book tickets online for your nearest illuminated trail – the last night of fun is 2 January. Then just wrap up warm and head outside for a spectacular dose of festive wellbeing. Advance tickets for Wimpole’s light trail cost £18 (£20 on the day) for members, to include free parking. For non-members, trail + parking is £26. Daytime visitors to Wimpole Hall can keep little ones entertained with Percy the Park Keeper’s winter wander trail (£2 per trail pack on top of entry fee; available till 3 January).
Further information from www.nationaltrust.org.uk