Illuminated trails have grown enormously popular in recent years, and after the uncertainties and disappointments of 2020, there’s never been a better time to soak up some socially-distanced Christmas atmosphere than in the grounds of your local stately home.
So I was hugely disappointed when my planned trip to Waddesdon in Buckinghamshire was aborted during England’s November lockdown. But fortunately the show did go on when restrictions lifted, and I was able to rebook for mid-December. Now, instead of closing just after New Year as originally planned, Waddesdon – and many similar venues – are extending their winter light trails through January, enabling visitors to kick-start 2021 with a magical blend of colour and music.
Waddesdon near Aylesbury is a Rothschild house and gardens, built in the 1870s by Baron Ferdinand to display his outstanding collection of art treasures and to entertain fashionable society friends. Today it is managed by the Rothschild Foundation on behalf of the National Trust.
Tickets and time slots for the festive displays must be prebooked, doors opening at noon for the grounds and Christmas Fair. But for the full effect of the magical festive lights, we chose to arrive at dusk. The manor house stands on a hilltop, and access from the main car park is either by shuttle bus or on foot via a mix of woodchip and tarmac path. A pleasant 20-minute walk for agile visitors, the path has a steep section that won’t suit every visitor, so if in doubt, make sure to pre-book the shuttle bus with your entry ticket as capacity is limited due to social distancing regulations.
The path brings visitors up to the manor from behind and as we rounded the building to stand in the gravel forecourt, the flamboyant façade was bathed in a changing pattern of dancing lights set to music. After watching the show through to the end, we set off to follow the Winter Light Trail that winds amongst the magnificent trees of the pleasure gardens. I particularly loved the golden lights that tumbled down a natural grass amphitheatre towards towering trees bathed in red light; the coloured globes that morphed from one shade to another in the treetops beyond the aviary; and the illuminated trees in changing hues, choreographed to music around a woodland glade.
Every bend in the trail offers a new photo opportunity, so arrive with your smartphone fully charged and maybe a spare battery booster pack as well. Try as I might, it was almost impossible to see how the magic had been achieved, the light sources expertly hidden from public view. How on earth did they manage to transform lush foliage into what seemed like a mass of twinkling fireflies in green and red? I’ve no idea!
The trail emerges at the bottom of the main drive where you can admire the full effect of the light show on the 18th century façade whilst enjoying a glass of mulled wine or browsing the gift stalls. Visitors are asked to wear masks around the market and with plenty of space for all, we felt perfectly at ease.
The Christmas light extravaganza continues in the Stables Courtyard. Take a photo of friends inside the giant illuminated baubles that flank the entrance, then experience Parallels, an immersive light experience to Vivaldi’s Winter Movement from The Four Seasons. You can also enjoy the spectacle of Miss Alice’s Drive – the When You Wish Upon A Star trail is illuminated by lanterns, stars and light box artworks created by local schools on the theme of hope. A fitting end to the strangest of years and the start of a brand-new one.
Christmas at Waddesdon (Light Trail and Christmas Fair) runs Wed-Sun, 12 noon-7.30 until 3 January. You can also add on afternoon tea of savoury and sweet treats created by an in-house patissier.
From 7-31 January, follow the Winter Light Trail, Thu-Sun 4-10pm (8pm Sun) with the added option of a four-course dinner in the Manor Restaurant. All tickets must be pre-booked at www.waddesdon.org.uk.