Stourhead is a jewel in the National Trust's crown; a stately home with impressive gardens that people will travel miles to visit. Renowned for its autumnal display, Christmas has become just as popular, with the house and grounds decorated for the season, and festive lights trails around the grounds after hours. Unfortunately you don't get to do both festive house and garden on the same visit, but there is a way round it - read on for my tried and tested cunning plan.
Stourhead house was built in the early 18th century on the site of the original manor house in the village of Stourton, in Wiltshire. It is a large stately home, filled with all the treasures and art you would expect from such a house where the owners spent 200 years globetrotting and gathering their souvenirs like spoils of war.
It is however the gardens which are the major draw and for which Stourhead is renowned.
The gardens were laid out in classical 18th century design by the owner: banker, garden designer and Salisbury MP, Henry Hoare II, who created gardens which were described as 'more beautiful than any landscape put on canvas'.
An artificial lake is traversed by a Palladian Bridge, and following a path around the lake is intended to represent journey similar to that of Aeneas's descent in to the underworld. A Parthenon, grotto, summerhouse and assorted temples and follies are all carefully placed within the grounds, with the planting intended to evoke different emotions.
The gardens are spectacular, whatever the season, from the early bulbs and buds of Spring to the reds and yellows of autumn, even the grey starkness of winter, when you can see the architectural details of the assorted buildings without foliage hiding them.
For Christmas the house is beautifully decorated with tasteful trees, thousands of lights and festive foliage. Poinsettias, oranges, frosted branches and wrapped gifts adorn the antique furniture, the lights bounce off the gold picture frames and chandeliers, the house is a picture of elegance and cultured conviviality.
The festive light trails are the polar opposite. Bright, gaudy and flashing, often loud and always swarming with crowds, they are still entrancing in the dark gardens, their garish ostentatiousness a marked contrast to the esthetic indoors, and a beacon in the darkness of winter evenings.
The theme of the light show changes each year, but whatever the theme you can be guaranteed there will be a light tunnel, woodland filled with thousands of lights to look like spring bulbs and that the highlight will be the grand finale of the Palladian bridge over the lake, its mirror image shining in the inky blackness of the lake. Trees are filled with lanterns and fairy lights, there are laser shows under the trees, walks through tunnels and curtains of light or past a row of singing trees; each has its own magic and is particularly appreciated by children.
The Christmas lights by day...
Stourhead is owned by the National Trust, who love the opportunity to take money from people, even their members, and because of this, it is not possible to see both house and lights trail on the same visit. The house is closed when the garden trail is open, and the garden lights are not visible when the house is open - in fact the lights merge into the grey skies, and you can see the bulbs and trailing wires which ruin the pleasing symmetry of the landscape.
There is however a way round this to see both in the same visit, albeit you still have to pay for both separately as even members have to pay for the light trail.
My friend and I had been disappointed to read that we would not to be able to see the house on our festive lights visit, so we came up with a cunning plan. We got to Stourhead at around lunchtime, meaning that we could explore the house and the grounds which weren't part of the lights trail, on a standard day time ticket.
When it all closed at about 4pm, we went to the café and had a satisfying and warming meal, while we waited for our booked festive trail time slot.
We then went back into Stourhead and enjoyed the festive lights trail, leaving us feeling as if we had had the full festive experience. It also meant that we could explore the full grounds during the day, as much of the garden is closed for the festive lights trail, and you are confined to shuffling around just a mile of garden with hundreds of other people.
There are plenty of places to eat in the area other than the National Trust café, which tends to be packed in the cold weather. The Spread Eagle is within walking distance, or you could drive a couple of miles to The White Lion in Bourton. Either way, a couple of hours out before you face the festive trail is a good idea.
There is no denying that the festive lights trail in this and other National Trust properties have their detractors. You are packed closely with other people, all fighting to get a good view of the lights, trying to avoid other peoples phones thrust in front of your view, and being forced to take evasive action against the selfie sticks and over excited children.
A mile of garden filled with lights can feel like a very short distance when you've paid nearly £30 per person, and the mince pies and mulled wine are so overpriced that even an extortionist would blush.
That being said, they do provide a glow of joy in the depths of winter, particularly for families with young kids, who will find it a magical experience.
Stourhead Festive Lights Trail
Postcode: BA12 6QF
Parking: The car park can get busy and be prepared for a bit of a walk through the mud to get to the entrance
Facilities: There is a café and pub on site as well as assorted food and drinks stalls
Trail Dates: The trails run from the end of November to early January, and start at around 4.30pm. The house is closed at this time and is not part of the trail, as are some of the further reaches of the garden. The trail itself is about a mile long; it gets very busy and can take about 60-90 minutes to walk if you really take your time.