Lighting Up The Night

Lighting Up The Night

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Rob looks at how Christmas at Kew fits into a tradition of illuminated London gardens. See more of London’s best Christmas lights on Hazel and Joanna’s walks this Christmas see

Christmas at Kew

Christmas at Kew picture Hazel Baker

Every Christmas seems to bring a news story about a poorly executed “winter wonderland” attraction that is forced to close early, visitors high hopes dashed by either tatty sheds posing as grottoes, drunken Santas or sad looking reindeers standing in mud. Or at the other extreme good Christmas attractions can become so popular that a visit involves shuffling slowly through a crowd. However in London we are very lucky to have the perfect place for a bit of midwinter magic, the Christmas trail at Kew Gardens. The trail is a mile long, lighting up the area around the Decimus Burton designed Palm House. Coloured lights illuminate the trees and decorative urns, while clever projections transform the buildings by the pond into a mass of snowflakes. In addition coloured light sculptures compliment the natural surroundings of the Woodland Garden. Kew have resisted the temptation to over fill the place, timed tickets make the experience more of a wondrous stroll rather than a short tempered shamble. It all works at a very basic level – its hard not to feel a tingle on the back of the neck when you see the dancing coloured lights against the darkness of the winter. It’s a piece of winter magic.

Christmas at Kew picture Hazel Baker


Although Christmas at Kew has a very modern feel it is part of a tradition of illuminated gardens in London going back to the 18th century. There is probably a basic human need to see warm coloured light on a cold winter night, and no doubt that would be some of the attraction of the flickering candles in a dark medieval church. However outdoor lighting proved more difficult. London’s Pleasure Gardens began opening in the 1660s – places to escape the seething mass of people that London’ was coming. They offered the opportunity for some healthy fresh air as well as tea drinking, musical entertainment, theatre, sports like bowling and of course the opportunity to meet members of the opposite sex in a less formal setting. However it is not really until the 1740’s that gardens illuminated at night become popular. Oil lamps powered by whale oil became available, and larger ships capable of catching larger sperm whales which yielded a more powerful oil, meant that the cost of powerful lamps came down. The most effective use of these were at Vauxhall Gardens. Guests would arrive at the gardens by boat, stroll in the arbours until dusk and then settle down for a grand picnic supper. Once they settled  a whistle was blown and servants simultaneously lit over a thousand oil lamps, bathing the garden in light to dramatic effect.

vauxhall gardens illuminated

Thomas Rowlandson, Vauxhall 1732, painted in 1784 picture courtesy Princeton University. Note lamps hanging on the trees.

The hours of darkness don’t seem to have been entirely trouble free, in 1764 the owners of the gardens were forced to put an advert in the Public Advertiser newspaper statin

“Intimations having been made of inconveniences attending the keeping open the back walks after the lamps are lighted The proprietor takes this opportunity to assure the public, that he has made such dispositions in his gardens as will prevent all future objections of that kind and preserve the requisite decency and decorum.

It is not clear what exactly the threat to decency was but Vauxhall Gardens became notorious as a place for men to seek liaisons with prostitutes. Vauxhall soon had competition  on the other side of the Thames at Ranelagh Gardens which also included illuminations and fireworks as this advert from 1864 describes

AT RANELAGH-HOUSE, This Day, being the 19th Instant (being the last Time of opening This Season) will be an elegant FIREWORK, with several new transparent Paintings and Illuminations, besides those exhibited at the late Fireworks, making the Whole much superior to any Thing of the Kind ever given there before. 
    The new Serenato, called The EPHESIAN MATRON, will be performed between Eight and Nine. There are to be two Sets of Music on the canal to play alternately, and during the Firework (which begins exactly at Ten). The music composed by Mr. Handel, for the grand Firework in 1748, will be performed in the New Orchestra, lately erected in the Garden, which will be elegantly illuminated.

Oil lit gardens continued to be popular for another century but in 1885 the floodlit gardens at the International Inventions Exhibition in South Kensington were powered for the first time by electric lighting. The Times was full of praise for this new way of lighting – as this clipping from the May 26th edition illustrates


Times May 26th 1885

The Times May 26th 1885

Gas lighting had not had its day however. In 1894 a spectacular exhibition took place at the Olympia exhibition hall called Constantinople in London. Olympia was transformed into a quarter of old Istanbul with streets and alleyways, markets, a lake and gardens that were illuminated by night. While the whole feel of recreating Constantinople seems to have been quite effective, it must have been an unusual sight to see it populated by Victorian Londoner’s in top hats and coats, as this illustration from The Penny Illustrated Paper shows


Constantinople in London exhibition Olympia 1894

Constantinople in London exhibition Olympia 1894

The Penny Illustrated Paper were particularly taken by the coloured illuminations

“In the Crystal Garden at Olympia one is surprised by the blaze of light and colour from arches of pendant glass lustres (white and crimson) the gas lights being cunningly hidden behind double rows of crystals. Further pleasure is caused by the faint tinkling, as of far off bells, from the glasses striking together when the breeze stirs them”

It does sound rather beautiful! During the 20th Century illuminated gardens became a regular feature of seaside resorts – notably Bournemouth, Eastbourne and later Blackpool (and if you have not seen Blackpool Illuminations you really should) however the capital seemed not to offer such attractions, its illuminations being the brightly coloured advertisements that were beginning to be a feature of Piccadilly Circus. However in 1930 London Zoo was opened on Thursday evening, lit by decorative lighting until 11pm. This was something of a bold experiment for the Zoological Society, who were not keen on the public coming in at all. Their president Lord Bedford had long resisted the idea of opening the Zoo on Sundays, as the crowds that came would cause annoyance to Fellows of the society. However the idea of a floodlit reptile house, aquarium and bird house was something he thought might be interesting, despite concerns from some that it might keep the animals awake. The evenings proved very popular, with crowds enjoying military bands and avenues bedecked with coloured lamps. The Fellows were allowed into a specially cordoned off area of lawn where they sat in deck chairs. No harm seems to have come to the animals, and the polar bears stayed up for a late meal at 10pm.

Evening opening at the Zoo Illustrated London News June 1930

Evening opening at the Zoo Illustrated London News June 1930

Christmas at Kew doesn’t offer animal attractions but it sits in a great tradition of Londoner’s promenading in floodlight gardens. There’s no more civilised way to experience some Winter Magic! Christmas at Kew is open every evening until 3rd January – pre book here   Hazel and Joanna can show you the best of London’s Christmas lights on one of their walks – see for dates and tickets.


Christmas at Kew Pictures copyright Hazel Baker









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