I'm a bit of a miserable cow at this time of year and often force myself to do "something festive" in the hope that the misery will end, if only for a short time. We made the mistake last winter of visiting London's worst festive monstrosity that is Winter Wonderland. The idea was out of curiosity (and partly at the suggestion of one of Seth's friends who we met up with at Hyde Park on the day), though we shortly found ourselves trying to claw our way out of Hyde Park and heading into the relative safety of a pub down some side street near Park Lane.
Having ticked the Winter Wonderland experience off the list of Things Not To Do Ever Again, and in the need of something festive to do, I decided to look closer to home. We are very fortunate to be able to physically see Kew Gardens from the flat. The top of the Pagoda peeks out just above the treetops towards the autumn and throughout the winter and the view changes as the seasons do, so for those of you that haven't been to Kew before, it is a different experience depending on what time of year you visit. As the crow flies, it's within touching distance from us, though we are separated by the River Thames. We could probably walk to the gardens within 35 minutes, or drive there in 10 minutes on a good day, but despite this very short distance by any means, we seldom seem to visit Kew (though the admission fee may have something to do with that). From about September/October, the management at Kew seem keen to inundate us with leaflets about Christmas at Kew, ranging from the public promotional leaflets with glossy pictures and admission prices, to the Sorry for the Inconvenience leaflets, where the management detail their plans on keeping their noise pollution to a minimum and other arrangements (yes – one of the disadvantages of living opposite Kew Gardens and a large body of water is that sound travels, though this does mean we get to listen to Jools Holland every year for free).
Anyway, I digress. After being inundated with the leaflets for weeks, along with various images on social media and the like, I decided that this year we should see what the fuss is about. We went to a Christmas market at Kew last year or the year before, but I'm not sure whether that was part of the same event or not as I don't recall needing a ticket to get in, whereas Christmas at Kew requires booking tickets. Having found that most of the dates and times I wanted to visit were long sold out, it looked like Boxing Day was the only promising day left in the Christmas week. The event launched in November, and Christmas at Kew is advertised as a one-mile sparkling path, with various bits branching off to refreshments and a small fairground. We're not talking the scale of Winter Wonderland here, but something more controlled as it is a ticketed event. Tickets are sold on a timed-entry basis from 17:00, with last admission at 20:15 – the event closes at 22:00 – so you do need to book tickets in advance. Our tickets cost us £16 each, and this didn't include parking Kew's car park by Brentford Gate, which you would need to pay for in advance if you wanted it for the event. That said, as in our case, there's plenty of free off-street parking around Kew if you know when/where to look.
We decided to fuel up before the walk. We got ourselves some spiced rum cider (£4.50 each for a small cup), and pulled pork baps (£6.50 each, fairly large and filling). A cup of sweet potato chips to share (£5.00, and rather nice) and a gingerbread reindeer (50p). So if you include the price of the tickets, that's £59.50 for the two of us before we've even started on the trail. Hilarious. I dread to think what the damage is if you have children in tow!
Anyway. Pictures. Sorry. Rambling!
All the photographs I have taken are handheld. No tripod nonsense, and I do wish that they'd ban them on the trail, especially when it is really busy or in places where there's potential for bottlenecks and crowding, but that's just my opinion. Some of the tripod users are completely unaware that it's very easy to miss spotting the tripod feet in the darkness and thus people trip over them. This isn't helped by certain tripod users who set up their gear and then stand a distance away from it – that's just asking for trouble.
Canon EOS 5D Mark III with EF35mm f/1.4L USM. Mostly shot at f/1.4–4. I process in Adobe Lightroom.
The trail starts off by the Victoria Plaza Café and Shop (which is where the main Victoria Gate on Kew Road is, and it's the gate closest to Kew Gardens Station). You go around the back of the Palm House and the Rose Garden, and past the rather psychedelic Choir of the Holly Bushes.
So there you are walking around the dark and then all of a sudden this noise of a choir pipes up and these various bushes light up in time with the various voices. The intensity of the lights also matches the intensity of the voices, so sometimes the lights dim down or up. The tune was nice to start, but Seth has this annoying habit of picking up sounds and jingles and then mimicking them at me to the death, which is exactly what happened here...! Anyway, from this point on, as we're wandering around in the dark, I forget what route we actually take on the trail besides it crossing Syon Vista once or twice and perhaps going round in a loop, but you walk in and out of various light installations, and of course many of the trees along the trail as you walk from one installation to the next have lights shining up at them and some of them are even decorated to go with the theme of festive light and illumination. You don't really appreciate trees in the winter when they've lost all their leaves, but the uplighting does make you see them in a different way.
One of the installations that really stuck out was the Fire Garden. Yes – there were real flames. And the air seemed scented by whatever happened to be burning in the pots that bordered all the trees in this garden. There was also a small team of guys with blow torches and fuel for the flames who were going around and keeping everything well lit.
A little further on we came to a cube-like structure that had ropes of lights dangling down that you could walk through. It was called Feast of Light and seemed to go down really well with everybody to the point that this was probably the most crowded part of the walk as everybody stops to take photos and selfies. It's great for selfies.
A little further on and through a tunnel of light (I missed out on a photo opportunity here) and there's a psychedelic garden of things that look like they're made out of glow sticks and LEDs. Including a peacock.
We get to the path just before the White Peaks Café and Shop and it is here that you can do one of three things: head towards Brentford Gate and the car park, head into a fairground and towards the café, or carry on walking the trail. At this point I decided it's a good time to get some more hot drinks, so we detour quickly through the fairground to the café and then head back onto the trail. Heading past the Orangery Restaurant, there is again detour from the trail towards a Mistletoe Moments bit by the Secluded Garden, where I'm guessing there's more selfie and photo opportunities with the added festive cheesiness of dangling mistletoe. There's also another path leading to a Wishing Tree, where for a sum of money you can take your "wish" home with you. We skip both of these things and walk past the Princess of Wales Conservatory, on towards the Woodland Garden.
A few more illuminated trees later, and we reach the viewpoint on the other side of the Palm House, overlooking the water. A temporary viewing platform has been erected so that you're right up on the water and don't have to negotiate plants to get a picture of the display that follows. Cheesy Christmas music pipes up, and the lights and water fountains and sprays are all in time to the music. I didn't care much for the music – I just liked the fact the Palm House was all lit up.
Once the display ends, you walk on a little further and you are back where you started at the Victoria Gate. I think it was about 21:45 by the time we got back to the start of the trail. Bearing in mind that we got into the gardens at 20:00, it doesn't seem like a lot of time spent, but when you're wandering around in the dark it does feel like you're out there a lot longer.
All in all, a Boxing Day evening well spent.
Christmas at Kew is only on until 2nd January 2016, so there aren't that many days left of it. I'm not sure if there are still tickets, but you can find out more about the event by visiting the Kew website: http://www.kew.org/visit-kew-gardens/whats-on/christmas-at-kew-2015