Festival of Light, Longleat House

Until Tue 2 Jan

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The road snaking down to Longleat House as you enter the estate offers a taste of the excitement in store. For those familiar with Longleat’s safari park experience, the Festival of Light extends the appeal of this world famous visitor attraction deep into the winter evenings. We arrive mid-afternoon, too late to enjoy the lions and tigers, but there’s a definite sense of occasion as we see the vast magical stagecoach, complete with plumed horses and footmen, seemingly bearing Cinderella to the front door of the 16th century Elizabethan mansion.

As yet these huge sculptural lanterns are unlit, but the entertainment areas behind the house, featuring playgrounds, refreshment stalls and rides, are abuzz as children and parents wonder at the vast colourful flowers which have sprung up around the walls. The centrepiece is an enormous Christmas tree dominating the central courtyard and decked with a complex system of fairy lights. As dusk descends it’s a marvellous sensation to see the tree and flowers illuminate.

We are guided on a magical mystery tour taking us through walled gardens, archways and past a lake as each giant sculpture supersedes the next in drama and spectacle. Huge liquorice allsorts glow as we enter the Land of Sweets, from ‘The Nutcracker’. Then it’s ghostly polar bears and wolves as we move to ‘The Snow Queen’. Of course the pathway is crowded but there’s plenty of time to take photos and marvel at the skill of the craftspeople who’ve created these sculptures. ‘The Little Mermaid’, towering perhaps 20ft high on a rock by the shore, gazes wistfully at the galleon, alight on the lake, which carries her lover. As we pass by Hansel and Gretel and other fairy tale characters we re-emerge at the front of the house to Cinderella’s coach and the climactic view of a Russian Palace apparently under siege from a vast dragon. Although we visit on an evening of steadily falling temperatures, the glow of the lights and the thrill of the experience more than compensate for the chill in the air. A word of advice, though: with certain attractions closing early in winter, including the children’s play castle, it’s well worth getting full value for your entrance ticket by making a whole day of it and seeing the safari, too. (Mike Gartside)

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