The Arboretum’s annual light festival is now in its 23rd year, and is clearly a local treasure. It’s a relatively straightforward concept; trees alongside the marked trail are dressed with different light displays, from simple coloured uplights to swirling laser waves accompanied by artificial smoke. Actors are dotted along the trail to interact with, and at the end is a Christmas market-style ‘village’, with food and gift stalls and fairground rides (the latter are cash only).
Getting to Westonbirt is relatively straightforward; there’s a (free!) large car park and we found both parking and leaving straightforward even on a busy Saturday evening. They had also opened up an overflow car park which was entirely on grass. The only issue we had with the car park was that it was not well-lit and the way to go was not well-signposted in the dark.
Westonbirt is also accessible by public transport. There’s a direct bus which runs from a stop about five minutes from Stroud train station through various towns and villages including Minchinhampton, Avening, and Tetbury. It takes about fifty minutes and runs Monday to Saturday. The only thing to note is that the last bus leaves the Arboretum at 19:11, so you’d need to select an early slot to take the bus to and from the light festival. Further information is available here.
An Enchanted Christmas is priced at £15 per adult, with slightly lowered prices for concessions, and £7.50 for children (5-18; under 5s go free). There are group savings, and carers accompanying people with access needs also go free. Dogs are not permitted on the trail except assistance dogs. Tickets must be booked in advance; they are not purchasable on the night, and they sell out pretty fast! They can be purchased from the Westonbirt website or by calling the box office. Tickets are not refundable.
Westonbirt asserts that the trail is fully accessible for wheelchairs, mobility scooters, prams, and push chairs. We saw a couple of mobility scooter users who didn’t seem to be having any trouble, but depending on the weather it can get quite muddy which may be something just to be aware of; it was raining on our visit, and there were a fair few puddles! Waterproof shoes/boots are necessary for those walking. We walked the trail in about 45 minutes, but allow up to an hour and a half. The trail is a mile or so long.
The path itself is not really lit, in order to ensure that all the focus is on the light displays around. At some points, it got really quite dark; as a child I would have been utterly terrified, particularly when the fairy-actors appeared. Nervous or anxious children might struggle. Westonbirt is running two ‘Relaxed Sessions’ this year, where the trail opens an hour early and is ‘adapted to suit those with additional needs such as autism’. The website states that strong flashing lights, loud sound effects and the artificial smoke effects will be deactivated at these sessions. They both sold out really quickly, suggesting that this kind of session is really popular, and I hope they consider doing more of these in future.
Due to its increasing popularity, the trail is entered in groups at a time slot selected by you; slots are every 20 minutes starting at 17:00 and ending at 19:40. The Christmas village is open between 16:00 and 21:00, so you can have a look around either before or after exploring the trail. We did experience some minor issues with organisation and staff, which are outlined in more detail below, but it was a very chilly and rainy evening so I wouldn’t be surprised if this was just the weather’s effect. It’s also worth mentioning that the Christmas village is not a cheap place to pick up food or drink, and I’d highly recommend eating before your visit so as not to be caught out by this.
Overall we really enjoyed our visit to Westonbirt’s Enchanted Christmas; it was something really new to us, and a really special thing to do on our last night away in the Cotswolds. There really is something for everyone on the trail, and Westonbirt have worked to consider how people with different needs might experience the trail, working hard to make the woodland’s sounds as important as its lights. Below is a little account of our visit in early December; it does include what you might class as ‘spoilers’ for anyone who’s booked to visit this year, but hopefully you can get a taste of what it’s like!
The drive down was smooth and easy in the dark, and our route took us through the adorable little town of Tetbury all lit up for Christmas. As we drove nearer, we caught sight of two spotlights dotting the sky; it almost looked like something out of a sci-fi, alien-invasion film as they skimmed blurrily across the clouds.
We drove through the Westonbirt entrance and were gruffly greeted by an older man who informed us that the trail was closing in ten minutes. This was more than a bit odd, as it was five past seven; we had tickets for twenty-past, and the final entry time was twenty-to, but although what he was saying seemed absurd it was quite anxiety-inducing. We found a parking space and rushed through the entrance and the Christmas village, all brightly lit stalls and glittering Ferris wheel, to the trail entrance. It wasn’t really the start we were hoping for, but our e-tickets were scanned through with no problem, and we headed on our way.
But once we were on the trail, we were utterly captivated. It was stunningly and cleverly curated, and although we couldn’t really detect a clear theme (it didn’t really feel Christmassy), it really did transport us to somewhere else entirely, in a way that’s virtually impossible to describe (or photograph, as it turned out).
The trail opened with a set of four square archways, lit up in gold, which were truly breathtaking. The designers also made repeated use of a swirling light which projected slowly spinning beams of green and purple; in the rain it was astonishing, the light catching every single drop individually as they fell through. Even cleverer were the interwoven beams of light strung through the trees like genetic strands, or electrical currents, or the Northern Lights.
The trail took us down further into the woodland, passing decorated Christmas pines and spruces, and more trees lit upwards from their roots in pinks, purples, greens, and blues. A little further in we heard chimes and eerie singing, and were greeted by three ‘fairies’ (complete with lit-up umbrellas) welcoming us to ‘the glade’. It was quite magical as they whimsically drifted around their trees, artificial smoke covering their feet, as though they really had left the ground. Throughout the trail we came across Santa and some elves, and all sorts of other light displays, from a chatty projection of a face onto an aged oak, making the tree come alive and speak to you to hanging lanterns swaying from their branches.
It wasn’t just the lights which were special either; the designers had done wonderfully clever things with sound effects, which echoed eerily around the trail, hinting at what you might discover further down. Certain areas played out Christmas songs, but others had more unusual noises; the fairies’ chimes; an electronic series of mismatching notes; and a deep sub-bass drone accompanied by mechanical alarm sounds.
Each of these was explained as we came upon different parts of the trail. The mechanical noises were part of a feature where visitors walked up a ramp to a raised metal platform in the forest, with a big red button set in the middle. On pressing the button, the platform performed a ‘scan for Santa’. When he wasn’t detected, it then scanned for ‘Santa’s helpers’ and, of course, found them. The platform then counted down to ‘lift off’ which was the bassy drone noise, and then ‘took off’, complete with smoke machines and fiery lighting.
The mismatched musical notes were a really special feature. A group of trees had been set with uplights similar to those all along the trail, except these were connected to a series of vertical logs, which themselves had wooden beaters with them. When visitors hit the flat log surface with the beater, the linked tree would light up, and a note would sound. We watched for some time, mesmerised, as children made music and art together with the trees.
The rain was coming down harder than we realised and it was getting cold, but that didn’t take away from the experience; if anything, it added to the light show, and it gave the trail’s actors, cold and damp though they must have been, something to joke about. Everyone seemed to be happily enjoying themselves. Still, when the trail ended we were both keen to get back to the car. Had it been dry we probably would have meandered through the Christmas village, but instead we just picked up two hot chocolates and then dashed through the dark to the car to warm up.
The drive back was dark and quiet as we eased ourselves back into the world. Our trip to Westonbirt had been pretty magical, and leaving was like closing a fantasy book, and needing to take a little time to readjust out of the story, and back into reality.
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