Reviewed by Rachel Cassey-Holland
Stourhead House and Gardens is located in the southwest corner of Wiltshire. Last owned by the Hoare family, Sir Henry Hugh Arthur Hoare transferred the house to the National Trust in 1946 just before he died. The house is a replica of the original, which was gutted by fire in 1902, but many of the heirlooms were thankfully saved and are still on show today.
Whilst the house is an impressive Palladian mansion, what makes Stourhead famous is its gardens. Designed by Henry Hoare II they are based on classical references and mythology with a large artificial lake being the focal point, making it the perfect backdrop for a Christmas light trail.
You’ll need to drive there but it is well signposted and easy to find. Being a National Trust site, parking is plentiful and easy to get in and out of. When we visited the car park was very busy but there were no long traffic queues or time spent waiting around to get into the trail, mostly due to the fantastically efficient way in which it was organised and managed.
As we walked from the car to entrance we could see some old style fairground rides for the little ones and beyond that the ticket office and entrance benefitting from lots of helpful National Trust staff; you certainly won’t get lost or not know which way to go. Their helpfulness and friendliness were outstanding throughout.
2019 is the very first year that Stourhead is hosting its own magical illuminated Christmas Trail. Described as ‘a living work of art’, visitors are able to “walk through a Tunnel of Light festooned by over 100,000 pea-lights, beside twinkling hedgerows which lead towards thousands of illuminated lights on the Fibre Optic Lawn. Stourhead’s magnificent lake, reflecting classical temples, mystical grottoes, and rare and exotic trees, will provide the centrepiece for this immersive Christmas experience”.
The light trail is approximately a mile long and takes you on a meandering tour of the dramatic landscape and gardens of Stourhead. The concept for the trail is based on the popular Christmas carol, the Twelve Days of Christmas. In fitting with the nature of the carol where the gifts get more and more grand over the twelve days, so too the light trail becomes more and more spectacular as you progress through the journey.
It is worth noting that when we visited it was a beautiful but very cold and clear night, so my advice would be to make sure everyone is wrapped up warm – hats, gloves, scarves – all elements that make sure you enjoy your walk without feeling the cold. It was also very busy so keeping a constant eye on the little, and not so little, ones is a good idea. If you do lose anyone, there is little to no phone signal on the trail, so it would be a good idea to arrange a meeting place before you head out. The ability to do this is assisted by the large posted map of the trail right at the start, which encourages you to take a photo of it for reference along the way – so helpful!
The journey starts with a short walk down into the start of the trail where you walk over a small wooden bridge decorated with an arch of twinkling lights to welcome you to the walled garden with its grand glasshouse. The glasshouse is lit up in a striking pink light with some of the trees in the garden picked out and illuminated with hundreds of pink fairy lights. Dotted around the lawns are bunches of white roses of light which make a nice contrast to the pink of the main glasshouse. The arch leading away from the walled garden is picked out by a patterned projection of light drawing you out and down along a corridor of manicured hedges lit up by hundreds of tiny white lights.
From there you are led along the drive towards the main house where many of the large trees are picked out and illuminated by contrasting colours of light, blues, greens, oranges and reds all combining to give a stunning backdrop to the house in the distance, lit up in a bright magical blue. Nearer the house a row of trees had been turned into a living light show, lit up by ribbons of coloured light rope wrapped around the length of their trunks. In the background we could hear music, Isaac Watt’s Joy to the World with the lights on the trees syncing in time to the music. This display was spellbinding, and my 8-year-old son spent a long time watching the trees.
Near the top of the drive we could see a familiar red-coated and bearded figure standing next to two reindeer. People were stopping to have their photo taken with the famous man in red, so of course we stopped and had our picture taken with the great man who was in fine spirits even on a night as cold as it was.
Now the path was taking us away from the house and towards the first of the Twelve days of Christmas. Each of the twelve days is marked by a large wicker sculpture designed by Devon-based artist Woody Fox. The sculptures are picked out by spotlight so you cannot miss them, from the Partridge in a Pear tree all the way to the 12 Lords a leaping, they punctuate your trail perfectly marking your journey as you move from one day to the next.
This part of the trail was the most successful in terms of impact with plenty to surprises and delight as wound your way to the finale. Some of the highlights on the first part of the Twelve days trail were the Cathedral of Light, which was a magical walk through a pointed arched tunnel of 100,000 pea lights, making it a perfect photo opportunity, the fire garden with its rings of individual torch flames referencing many of the themes in the carol, as well as an incredible laser garden with bright green laser beams dancing across branches while dry ice provided the perfect fog to lend a mystical air to the backdrop.
Henry Hoare II designed Stourhead gardens to follow a path around the lake evoking a journey similar to that of Aeneas’s descent into the underworld, the many buildings revealing themselves as you made you way around the garden. Cleverly the lighting designers have illuminated each of the buildings and so they act as beacons giving you a point of reference to aim for on an otherwise dark and pitch-black landscape. The Pantheon, the Bridge of Flora and the Temple of Apollo are beautifully picked out, leading a magical and dramatic backdrop to the main light chapters.
The final chapter is marked by the most ambitious and spectacular light show of all. A giant series of light globes positioned on the lawn near the main arched bridge, looking beyond to the Pantheon picked out in blue. The breathtaking lights synching in time to The Carol of the Bells is a spectacle you will want to spend plenty time taking in, and a fitting end to a most magical Christmas light trail.
The final part of the walk takes you into the Spread Eagle Courtyard, where you can enjoy a warming mulled wine or hot chocolate, perhaps toast some marshmallows or choose something more substantial from one of the vans, before browsing the beautiful NT shops, where you can find beautiful artwork and gifts. Leaving the Courtyard takes you to the end of the trail and back where you started as well as the NT shop and café where you can find Christmas gifts, decorations and even Christmas trees.
To summarise such a beautiful and awe-inspiring experience is no mean feat, but it is an experience, which we and our children will remember eternally and one that I will recommend to absolutely everyone I know. 5 stars out of 5 just doesn’t seem adequate somehow. If this is the experience you are able to offer on your very first year then I can’t wait to see what you do next year. Thank you so much for this amazing opportunity.
Please see our video here.
Tickets cost from £12 (child) to £64 (family), booking fee may be charged.
For more information or to book tickets online visit www.nationaltrust.org.uk.
Stourhead, Nr Mere, Warminster, Wiltshire, BA12 6SH