You could say I saw the light, finally! Or perhaps it was more about seeing trees in a different light. Either suggestion is an understatement. I certainly saw the trees at Kew in a festive light in late November when I attended a press preview of Christmas at Kew. Fortified by mulled wine and a mince pie I stepped out on the trail after dark.
The circular trail takes you past a number of major light installations that are dazzling on so many levels, not least in expressing the imagination of the designers and technicians who created them and set them in place. I learned from Media Officer Arabella Sneddon that Kew works with the production company, Culture Creative, to design and create the trail. Different artists and creative studios have been commissioned to create pieces most of which are bespoke and inspired by the Gardens themselves.
I feel that I know the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew relatively well: I have been a frequent visitor over the past 45 years, both as a member of the garden press and as a paying member of the public. Then, in 2010 and 2011, Kew was one of the venues for Rosemary Campbell-Preston’s Plant School Tree Course and Advanced Tree Course.
But going there after dark and being beguiled by the light show that RBG Kew has put on for the previous five years showed me that there is another way to experience the majestic tree-scape that Kew boasts.
During the Tree Course days at Kew, Tony Kirkham, Head of Arboretum, was our magnificent tutor, so it was good to see the beech tree on the trail which he and the Aboretum Team or the “tree gang” chose for their own light creation at Kew this year. It has over 1,000 metres of lights. Getting them in place took six team members ten days to achieve. I saw Tony briefly at the beginning of the preview and asked him how he felt about the starring role the trees played.
“We have over 14,000 trees spread throughout the Gardens. It’s been great to make a feature of just one of these using the pea lights to showcase its form and structure. We hope everyone who visits will be wowed by its sheer size and scale and be reminded of the beauty of the natural form of all trees at winter time, not just traditional Christmas trees.”
The trail takes around 45 minutes if you are determined to walk briskly, but longer if like me you are beguiled and seduced by the beauty of the immersive installations such as the Feast of Light by Squid Soup and the Cathedral of Light, a 70 metre tunnel of 100,000 pea lights.
All along the night trail the usually off-duty trees are brought into wonderful focus with back-lighting. Candles and fiery flames light the flickering Fire Garden and acers and Liquidambar styracaflua (which makes its own natural fireworks in autumn), are burnished with colour.
Giant peonies and papyrus shapes created by a French company TILT provide bursts of colour drama leading to the Broad Walk Borders. The borders themselves are lit by 11 metre high flower sculptures in the shape of dandelion clocks, complete with benches at their base that make another perfect viewing place.
The star of the show and the last spectacular on the trail is the famous Palm House Finale. There is a large viewing platform that seems to jetty out into the water in front of the Palm House, but this is just one of those illusions that walking in a this space after dark creates.
It is the best place for viewing but there are vantage points all round the trail leading up to the Palm House, where lights dance and whirl in the shapes created by the fountain, and the Palm House itself is the screen for a dazzling display of colour and flowery shapes.
I asked Arabella Sneddon how Kew offset what must be a huge carbon footprint. She noted that Kew, being a leading plant conservation organisation, took the event’s sustainability and energy use very seriously. “Where possible we use Kew’s mains power and where generators are needed, these are carefully specified and operated to ensure the most efficient fuel usage. LED and low wattage lighting units are used wherever possible. And, we only turn on the trail lights just before opening and off just after closing.”
You can tell that I thought it was magical and I would thoroughly recommend anyone visiting… although I know that this ticketed entry event is almost sold out. I wondered what the plus was for Kew apart from revenue? Arabella explained that the “Revenue generated from Christmas at Kew ticket sales goes towards Kew’s pioneering plant science and conservation work which we carry out all over the world. The event welcomes visitors who may not have come to Kew before and it showcases Kew in a completely different light.”
Facts and Figures
There are over 1 million twinkling lights; over 100 people have been involved in creating Christmas at Kew, with work starting back in February 2018. The Field of Light installation features 10,000 dancing lights while The Cathedral of Light boasts 100,000 pea lights, reaches over 7 metres in height and 70 metres in length. There are 300 colourful origami boats bobbing on Kew’s glistening lake and the water screen in the Palm House finale show is 36 metres wide.
More or less unseen at night are the 625 metres of scaffolding used to rig the trail, as well as the 31 kilometres of lighting and power cable have been laid for the trail.
Video of part of the Palm House Finale