CHRISTMAS LIGHTS FOR FREE
Do you want to take the family out to admire festive displays and lights, but don't want to stump up the £100+ required for a hour or two at one of the country's stately homes displays? There are other options!
Christmas light displays are a relatively recent phenomenon in the UK, but one that seems to be gathering momentum. When the National Trust introduced their Festive Trails in the gardens of various properties across the country a few years ago, the Christmas light display really took off. People can now pay to take their family around a section of the garden which is filled with an assortment of light displays, some of which look truly amazing.
The problem for many people, is that the reality doesn't always live up to the promotional material, which would be fine if you weren't paying £20 - £30 per person for a ticket, but sticks in the craw a bit if you have - especially when you add on parking and travel costs.
The promotional material vs. the reality (Left photograph © The Guardian)
After you've parked in the mud swamp of the overflow car park and made your way to the entrance, you then spend the next hour or so being buffeted by the crowds as you inch your way around the mile long trail. The lights are pretty, but its hard to get close to them and it is impossible to get a photo of them without people in the way. You end up ejected into a heaving food court where you feel obliged to pay £3 for a mince pie and £5 for mulled wine in a plastic cup, just to make the event feel more festive and not be over so soon. You're cold and fed up with the screams from other peoples kids, have to trudge back to the swamp to get in the car and drive home in the dark.
What are the alternatives to official Christmas Light displays?
If you live in an area where people decorate the outside of their houses then obviously a walk or drive through the area can be a good idea - except that you inevitably end up in traffic jams in the more popular spots.
Local farms often put on good displays, far cheaper than the bigger tourist sites, but still with the inevitable mud, queues and crowds.
One place you may not have considered going to, is a garden centre. Some of them now go over the top with the festive decorations and lights, and the best bit about it, is that it is entirely free. They have become such an event that many also lay on overflow parking, food trucks selling hot chestnuts, mince pies and mulled wine, have thousands of twinkling lights outside and as a bonus, much of their displays are indoors, so you can go whatever the weather.
Last year I visited the Whitehall Garden Centre in Lacock, a family run business who have several branches across the South West. I was somewhat overwhelmed by the astonishing amount of Christmas displays; there is more than just the countless rows of ornaments for you to buy, there are whole areas dedicated to some incredible displays.
Even the areas dedicated to selling Christmas decorations are beautifully designed. They are all themed, so there is a silver section, red and gold, underwater theme, peacock, Alice in Wonderland, teddy bears, animal print, gingerbread house - more themes than you could imagine for the humble Christmas tree.
There were plenty of kids walking around utterly entranced, and plenty of enthusiastic adults too. It was warm and dry, with few crowds. When there's no lockdown in place, cafes and restaurants are open, so you can easily spend a couple of hours there for a full festive experience. The outsides are often decorated with thousands of twinkly lights, laser shows and illuminated trees and plants. Food trucks provide sustenance such as hot chestnuts, hot chocolate, burgers - the whole array of snack food.
Many of the places have Santa's Grottos for the kids, although you do have to pay for those.
Even the shop areas of the garden centre can be well decorated, such as this section of Lacock Whitehall Garden Centre (photo) which was the Christmas lights shop, complete with a model train set of a winter wonderland.
There is no obligation to buy anything, although it is hard to resist, and I considered myself lucky to just get away with one bauble in my shopping bag.
So, if you are looking for a free alternative to the expensive displays, but still want the kids (or you) to have a lovely festive adventure, then you can do far worse than a garden centre. Do an internet search from around November onwards to find the places near you that are offering them, and you won't feel so bad about not paying through the nose for an official display.
Even better, you don't have to book in advance, so you can be spontaneous, or even go more than once if you fancy it!