Many years ago, in my youth, public displays of Christmas in London would amount to festive scenes in department store windows and a visit inside to Santa’s grotto. Selfridges and Harrods spring to mind, though I’m sure there must have been others as well. The main shopping streets in London, Oxford Street and Regent Street, would be adorned with Christmas lights, and that would be about it.
These days it’s very different. Every main street in the neighbourhoods, as far out as the suburbs, boasts Christmas lights (the splendour of which depends on the affluence of the area). Somerset House, some years ago now, hit on the idea of an outdoor skating rink surrounded by flickering torches and the beautifully illuminated old buildings surrounding the courtyard (which not many years previously had been a car-park for inland revenue officers). Now it seems almost every venerable institution with the space has gone along with this idea and skaters are spoilt for choice of where to go for their double axels and salchows. Also, for the last few years, Hyde Park has had its own Winter Wonderland, with a Magical Ice Kingdom, Christmas Market and Big Wheel.
And this year Kew Gardens is also getting in on the act with Santa’s Grotto, some Christmas Market stalls, a Helter Skelter and a lovely old-fashioned carousel. But its main attraction is unique: an evening 1.4 mile illuminated walkway has been created amongst the trees with imaginative light and sound installations.
Particular trees have been picked out with glorious colour that enhance their bark and leaves. A Mediterranean Garden is alive with birdsong and hung with colourful glass lanterns. Tall bamboos grace the Asian garden where the wintery atmosphere reflects the shapes, noise and growth of bamboo. And after a secret cluster of beech trees where you can create your own sound and light show, a strong scent of incense leads you to the Fire Garden. This is ablaze with flames from 300 torches creating a huge circle of fire in the shape of a Mandala, a spiritual symbol in Hinduism representing the universe.
Along the way, to keep younger (and young-at-heart visitors) amused, are wonderful ‘plant whisperers’, surrounded by the paraphernalia that allows them and those they invite to participate to communicate with the greenery that surrounds. The lakes shimmer with light and reflections, the coots adding to it all by gracing the evening waters in what they perhaps believe is a strange daylight. The grand finale is the famous Palm House with changing light colours and haunting soundscape.
It’s a magical, almost mystical experience, only slightly marred by the sound of too many low-flying jets on their way to nearby Heathrow; we were however assured that that particular flight-path is not used every day!
Notwithstanding the planes, in this age of hustle and bustle, Kew is a haven in the capital to commune with nature, on display in all her glory.
The Christmas at Kew evening trail ticket costs £12.50 for adults and £8 for children, with family tickets for 2 adults and 2 children aged 5 – 16 at £38. Under 5’s go free. It opens at 4.45 on the following dates:
- 28 November – 1 December
- 5 December – 8 December
- 12 December – 15 December
- 19 December – 23 December
- 26 December – 4 January 2014
Full details on the Kew website
Jeannette Nelson, Arts Critic A bit of a culture vulture, Jeannette enjoys art exhibitions, cinema and classical music, but her main interest is the theatre. For several years she ran theatre discussion groups for which her MA in Modern Drama together with teaching skills stood her in good stead. She prefers to concentrate on the many off West End and fringe productions as well as that real treasure of the London theatre scene, the National.
Images provided by RBG Kew