From Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree to the trails that decorate stately homes, we shine a light on festive illuminations and pick the best of the displays
On Christmas Eve 1832, a young Queen Victoria pulled out her diary in a flurry of excitement. “After dinner… we then went into the drawing room,” wrote the 13-year-old princess. “There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments.”
The decorated trees were a German tradition, brought over by her mother, Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld. But the custom soon caught on in other British homes, popularised by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert.
Even so, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that Christmas lights on
streets and buildings started to appear without their green companions. Today, lights, with and without trees, are an integral part of the festive season, whether they’re lining cobbled streets, glowing in the city or illuminating stately homes.
Blenheim, the home of the 12th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough and birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, offers an impressive trail that’s bound to get visitors in the Christmas spirit. It runs from 23 November to 1 January, and features more than a million fairy lights, lasers and projections in its ‘Capability’ Brown-designed grounds. Follow the lakeside path to the scented re garden, a carpet of ames adorned with lanterns, and admire the water jets dancing to Christmas tunes. During the day, Cinderella and her fellow fairy-tale characters will take over the Palace’s State Rooms, with the Long Library being transformed into a festive ballroom. Happy endings all round.
It’s a first for Christmas lights at Beaulieu this year, a village on the edge of the New Forest. Make Palace House, the Gothic country residence of the Montagu family, and the medieval abbey, your primary destinations. In the grounds of the former, there will be a spectacular canopy of light with more than 100,000 fairy lights glittering in the branches, a path lit by gigantic icicles and trees that sing – or at least appear to (no choir practice required). The abbey will also be awash with light. The Christmas Light Trail runs from 23 November to 30 December.
For dramatic landscape, head to Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal Water Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site comprising more than 800 acres of parkland. Take one of 12 walks around the National Trust estate – look out for deer and wooden sculptures along the way – or head straight for a glass of mulled wine at the Mill Café nearby. On weekends between 24 November and 23 December, a choir will sing under the arches of the abbey, one of the best preserved monasteries in England, aglow with Christmas lights.
Longleat, the seat of the Marquesses of Bath, goes all-out on its themes every Christmas. This year’s was under wraps at the time of going to print, but there will be hundreds of illuminated characters and scenes in the grounds of this Elizabethan country house. In 2017, following a fairy-tale theme, there was an 83ft-high Rapunzel Tower, the tallest lantern ever constructed in the UK, as well as scenes featuring the Ugly Duckling and the Little Mermaid on the lake. The Festival of Light runs on select dates from 9 November to 6 January 2019.
Christmas preparation at Kew Gardens, the largest botanical collection in the world, takes on another meaning when you have 14,000 trees to decorate. Kew’s trail, which runs from 22 November to 5 January, features more than one million lights illuminating a mile-long path. The Field of Light – dancing lights spreading towards the Great Pagoda – and the 300 illuminated origami boats on the lake promise to be particularly picture- worthy. The Palm House, a huge Victorian conservatory, will also be lit up. Look out, too, for the fairground complete with a carousel.
Just over half a century ago, Joan Gillchrest, an artist, hung up
a string of lights outside her home in Mousehole (pronounced Mauzole). The next year, a few local carpenters joined in. Today, the Cornish shing village offers one of the most impressive displays of Christmas lights in the country. More than 7,000 lights will shine across the bay, illuminating boats in the harbour. There will also be sculptures of sea serpents and dolphins, as well as an illuminated Celtic cross (powered by solar energy). The lights will glow each evening from 15 December to 4 January, except for an hour on
19 December, when they are always dimmed to commemorate a local shipping disaster. After admiring the lights, head to the pub for Stargazy pie, a local delicacy baked with sh heads poking out through the top of the pastry.
If you don’t fancy going out, why not let it glow in your own home. Samuel Lyle, owner of Pines and Needles, who famously sold Prince Harry and Meghan Markle their Christmas tree in 2016, has some tips on how to decorate your tree and add some sparkle to your home.
It may sound obvious, but two people are better than one if that’s possible – even if it’s just for the lights. Lights go on first and it’s great if one person can feed them to the other as they wind it round and round, starting at the bottom. Embed the lights in the lush greenery and then move out as you go up.
The heavier the decorations the more you’ll need to keep them away from the tips of the branches. Everyone has a different way of decorating but themes look good, whether that’s a colour or a certain style such as Scandi (sparse; red and white) or Victorian (wooden decorations, dried fruit, pine cones). Tinsel has been dying out for a while but ribbon is en vogue, but go horizontally rather than at an angle – it’s a much cleaner look.
When decorating your tree it is all about textures and layering no matter which theme you choose. Decide on which of your decorations you would like to be featured most prominently and place those first (those tend to be the largest or most detailed) and then use those as a basis to dress your tree around using your most small simple decks as ‘fillers’.