Sunday, 27 November 2011


By Nikki Bayley
When I was very young I was taken to see the illuminated gardens at Walsall Arboretum. It seemed like a fairy tale to me; I remember the shadows of the trees and leaves in the flood-lights, and the Disney characters lit up with coloured bulbs. There was even a memorable neon toadstool that was the most astonishing thing I'd ever seen!

Nowadays, things have moved on a little from basic coloured bulbs, to interactive sound and light displays, and art installations, but the magic is still the same. To celebrate the annual winter wonder of light in the darkness, here's some of the places in the UK where you can be wowed by a night garden, glowing with a dash of magic. Don't forget to keep your eyes peeled for neon toadstools!
Alnwick Gardens
J.K. Rowling fans are in for a huge treat when Alnwick Garden opens for an Evening Lights season from November till January 3rd. The 1000-year old castle and grounds were used for the outdoor scenes of the Harry Potter films, so you can recreate your favourite Ron, Hermione and Harry moments as you enjoy the beauty of the night. 

Take a willow lantern and get ready to explore. Watch the dancing lights of the Grand Cascade fountains, visit the eerie Poison Garden and take a special tour, or take it easy by the source pools and watch the illuminated trees sway in the water's reflection. Tuck into seasonal food and drink (mince pie, anyone?!) and enjoy the entertainment. Friday and Sunday nights are Local Food Producer specials, so come along and enjoy mouth-watering tastings.
Westonbirt Arboretum
From November 25 to December 18th, Westonbirt's annual Enchanted Christmas event is back and it's ready to dazzle. This Forestry Commission event has an all-new mile-long route this year, illuminating many of the stunning trees in its huge collection, which boasts more than 16,000 specimens. There's good news for any fans of the amazing autumn foliage of the Japanese Maple too, as Westonbirt is home to the national collection of this tree. 

The Arboretum is accessible for all - including wheelchairs and mobility-scooter - so no-one is left out. As well as admiring the wintery silhouette of the floodlit forest, you can even make time for some retail therapy and pop into the Forest Shop to pick up gifts and decorations. There's family fun too - you can make festive crafts and meet the 'green' forest Father Christmas.
Cragside House and Gardens
The Electric Forest collaboration between the Forestry Commission and the National Trust Culture Creative has whipped up a tasty blend of modern magic within an ancient woodland setting. Head to Northumberland's Cragside House for a family-friendly trail with interactive light-sensitive touch walls and telescopes to gaze at the stars along the way. You'll be able to explore around the Pinetum, house, cascade, and the Iron Bridge on this hour-long walk and play with the renewable-energy inventions. On the way you'll meet storytellers and performers. The trail is open from 5.30pm to 8pm between 10-13 and 17-20 November, make sure that you bring a torch!
Muncaster Castle
An illuminated castle and enchanted night garden? Oh boy! Get ready for excitement-overload at Muncaster Castle in the Lake District who are hosting a gloriously gothic-sounding 'Darkest Muncaster' event throughout December. The castle itself will be transformed by lights and special effects screened onto its walls, and the grounds and woods will be filled with light and sound too.

There are over 70 acres of gardens to explore, and Muncaster is also home to the World Owl Centre, with more than 200 of the feathery head-spinning night-hooters in residence, so arrive early to look around. You can add on a candle-lit Victorian castle tour for extra atmosphere and then warm up with a hot chocolate in the castle café.
High Lodge, Thetford
There's another chance to see one of the dazzling Electric Forest collaborations at High Lodge, Thetford, in Suffolk. Prepare yourself for what sounds like a lifetime-magical-memory-in-the-making for kids (and adults!) with an illuminated play area, interactive sound and light installations and wonderful wintery vistas. 

Take a torch and your camera and get ready to make merry! The trail, which should take around an hour to complete, is open from 5pm to 9pm between 2-4, 8-11 and 15-18 December. It's an interactive experience, which means there's plenty to engage with and performers will appear along the way to tell tales and keep kids interested.
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