Palm House Illuminations © Jeff Eden

Kitsch at Kew

1st December 2017

Lisa Botwright explores the Kew Gardens Christmas experience: an extravaganza of festive lights, where fantasy meets fairy-tale…

Our enchantment with twinkling Christmas lights taps into such a primeval part of our psyche: from our ancient ancestors who lit ceremonial fires to beg the sun to return to their lives, to the world religions that teach us to link light with goodness and salvation.

Whatever’s going on deep in my subconscious, the fact is that Kew Garden’s magnificent winter wonderland – a trail that’s lit with a million lights – is just making me feel really… happy. It’s romantic and radiant: an ethereal mix of light and dark, the familiar and the unexpected.

‘Christmas at Kew’ is now in its fifth year. Over 100 people have been involved in its creation and work began as far back as February. This is my first visit, so I can’t vouch for Director of Marketing Sandra Botterell’s claim that it’s “bigger and brighter than ever before,” but I do agree that it’s all pretty impressive.

The first show-stopping moment on the yellow-lit road is a field of hundreds of orbs that light up in choreographed sequence to Carol of the Bells, which is one of those rousing classical tunes often adopted in Christmas films when the hero means business. Coupled with the seeming vastness of the regimented rows of dancing lights, the effect is eerily reminiscent of a supernatural graveyard.

The next bespoke installation is just as powerful. It’s a towering tree built with 365 wooden sledges, accompanied – aptly I learn – by the strains of Let it Snow. A guide tells me that it’s intended to highlight the impact of climate change on British winters. (When’s the last time that Londoners were able to go sledging at Christmas, eh?)

And I’m glad she’s explained, as the point could easily have been lost on me. There’s a surprising lack of information or interpretation boards such as you’d find in a more traditional exhibition, but presumably that’s intentional, in order to create a more relaxed experience. The work going on behind the scenes at Kew Gardens is crucially important for international research and conservation, and delves into some of the most important issues facing our planet, but the organisers have set out to make the event fun rather than didactic or overly-preachy.

As if to underline this point, the next scene is gloriously kitsch and involves two huge trees wrapped in colourful lights, making beautiful music and harmonising with each other across the pathway. They make a fitting segue into the magical Narnia-styled woods that are Kew’s world-renowned arboretum by day. Here all the lights are stark white, and huge, bright ‘snowflakes’ nestle beneath the trees. I expect to see the White Witch come flying through on her sleigh any moment.

If I’m impressed with the singing trees, the singing islands are on another level entirely. The trail leads us onto the bridge over the lake – and, as we cross, the two islands either side sing plaintively to each other. This ‘Duet’ installation, designed by creative studio ITHACA, is very loud, but also very moving. I’m on my second mulled wine now (well, it’s one way to keep warm) and the whole effect is making me rather dewy-eyed.

The sensory experience translates well to young children too. I have to step over several cute toddlers transfixed by an ultraviolet walkway of moving bubbles, and, later, Father Christmas makes a theatrical appearance. There’s an old-fashioned fairground full of classic rides, and no child will be able to resist the Wishing Tree, where the handwritten labels hanging on its branches disclose visitors’ deepest desires. (A plea for peace in Syria jostles for space alongside a burning need for a new Barbie…)

I’m reluctant to reveal any more highlights of the trail, as there are a few surprises yet to come, including a wonderfully memorable finale. I’ve taken around an hour and a half to walk around, but could easily have much stayed longer, especially if I’d dawdled at some of the refreshment stands. The evening isn’t cheap, especially with some tempting added extras: that bubble installation, for example, leads us towards a slightly unsubtle, but not unwelcome, prosecco stand – and a medieval-like corridor of real-flame torches is followed by a fire pit for toasting marshmallows, conveniently available to purchase near by. But with any day out in London heading towards a three-figure sum, especially for families, the price stands up well to a pantomime trip or other outdoor winter wonderland experiences. It’s also gratifying to know that much of the profits are re-invested into its vital science and conservation work.

Kew Gardens has always felt a little ‘otherworldly’ – a delightful oasis of green tranquility, yet so close to the city centre. Dressed-up as it is now, in all its Christmas finery, it’s an enchanting antithesis to the hubbub of the high street: a soothing balm to seasonal stress… It must be something to do with all those lights.

‘Christmas at Kew’ continues until 1 January 2018 www.kew.org/whats-on

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