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 Christmas light 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.
Giant illuminated flowers, neon butterflies, dragons and dinosaurs are just some of the fantastical creations that have taken over Crystal Palace Park in south London this Christmas. Lighting up London until 2 January, this festival of light also boasts interactive lanterns, colourful lasers and water shows. Most impressive of all, Lightopia recreates the Crystal Palace itself, after which the park and the wider area are named. A cast iron and glass structure built to house Prince Albert’s Great Exhibition of 1851, the Crystal Palace burnt to the ground in a devastating fire in 1936. Here the palace of glass is marvellously conjured up with the wizardry of lights and lasers – a spine-tingling spectacle.
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. Browse the Christmas Market before following the trail, which runs until 3 January and features more than a million fairy lights, lasers and projections in its ‘Capability’ Brown-designed grounds. Follow the lakeside path, take in the flickering flames in the fire garden and admire the dancing illuminated water jets. Inside the Palace, meanwhile, the story of the Nutcracker is retold in the Palace’s State Rooms, from the toymaker’s workshop to the sweetest Sugar Plum Fairy. Happy endings all round.
For dramatic landscape, head to Bedgebury National Pinetum and Forest, whose world-leading collection of conifers make a stunning backdrop to this annual light display. Until 3 January, sparkling light tunnels and strings of light will illuminate the towering pines rising into the night sky. Spiced winter warmers and hot chocolate are available, to take the chill off your winter walk, and you can even glimpse Father Christmas along the route.
Longleat, the seat of the Marquesses of Bath, goes all-out every Christmas. This year in the grounds of this Elizabethan country house are Britain’s biggest singing Christmas tree, a 50-metre-long tunnel of lights that dance to the sound of sleigh bells and a winter wonderland snow-strewn trail with illuminated flowers, while Longleat’s famous Love Labyrinth is being decked out with twinkling fairy lights and glittering disco balls. You can also settle down for storytime with owls and meet Santa and his elves. Christmas at Longleat runs until 3 January.
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 until 9 January, features more than one million lights illuminating a mile-long path. Dancing waterside reflections and trees drenched in light and colour are particularly picture-worthy, while the Palm House, a huge Victorian conservatory, will also be lit up in a panoramic display.
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 fishing 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. The lights will glow each evening from mid-December to early 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 fish heads poking out through the top of the pastry.