‘Christmas at Kew’ is big thing in terms of London Christmas activities. So big, in fact, that booking opens in June and it usually sells out completely.
This is why we visited Kew on the 4th of January, the penultimate day before it closed for the year. It was still sold out, it was still chilly enough to warrant a hat and mulled wine was still on sale for £5 a cup. Unfortunately, as soon as the clock ticks over into the New Year, spending £5 on a drop of mulled wine stops being festive and starts being a spectacular rip-off for what is merely hot wine with a cinnamon stick floating in it.
It seemed mildly in keeping with my general attitude to London events to attend a Christmas event in early January, when Christmas cheer has worn off and many of us have begrudgingly stumbled back to the office. That being said, the first week back at work is probably the best time to attend a fun event. It’s not hard to feel full of unnatural glee in the two weeks before Christmas, even though Christmas actually tends to be an expensive and stressful time of year, spent with people you rarely see, cooking vast volumes of food and buying hand cream for at least half of your relatives.
The challenge is to keep the glow even when everyone starts eating kale and talking about how many crunches they did that morning. ‘Christmas at Kew’ may well be the perfect solution.
Jake works in lighting most of the time, so I was walking the Kew trail with a
know-it-all expert. That meant that, along with looking at the pretty lights, I was also learning more about neon than I could ever hope to forget.
(I read this paragraph to Jake and his only comment was, “neon lighting. Neon’s just an element.” Thanks, babe.)
I jest. It’s really cool walking around with someone who knows their stuff. However, if you don’t happen to have a lighting expert for a partner, then I’m sure you can find something in the beautiful displays and constant waffle and churro stalls to keep you interested, if you try really hard.
Kew is set up as a trail, so you are neatly guided through each display. There are thousands of lights all timed to music, stars made of fire, lasers, lighting domes, a walkway of dangling lights called ‘squid soup’ and enormous flowers. Almost everything changes colour. Everything is oversized and towers above you, which definitely adds to the spectacle. At the end, there is a light show where video and words are projected onto the water from the fountain in time with lasers and music. It’s awesome.
One of the major downsides of any well-known activity like this is, of course, everyone wants to attend. There are so many people shuffling by each exhibit, queueing to get the same blurry phone photograph of a tree made of green neon tubing. It’s not a problem as such – the nature of it being ticketed means that it’s never truly overcrowded – but just know that you’ll be sharing your timeslot with many other patrons.
It is also designed, literally, to make you spend more money after already buying the tickets to get you through the gate. The fixed trail not only leads you through the exhibits but also through the numerous Christmas markets, selling mulled wine, toasted marshmallows and sweet potato fries for obscene prices.
Now, I love mulled wine. I love toasted marshmallows. There are a lot of things I would give up before renouncing sweet potato fries. But there is a limit to how much of your money it’s reasonable to spend buying novelty sugary items from a fake log cabin and, by January 4th, I’d say most of us have hit that limit.
I would advise eating beforehand, so if you do decide that a Nutella waffle is an urgent requirement – a decision I support greatly – you know it’s out of genuine desire and not ‘my stomach needs to be filled immediately,’ an unfortunate state to be in when you’re trapped in a maze of psychedelic lights and overpriced beverages.
My favourite displays were the oversized flowers and swirls, the enormous star walkway and the colour-changing boats. It is quite long, especially if you’re attending with a lighting junkie, and given the temperature I was definitely under-prepared on the layers front. I think that this is also a marketing ploy, as the hot drink stalls become more prominent as the path continues. The organisers know you’ll be under-dressed and in need of hot wine to warm you up, and they’re right.
We got so cold that we decided that mulled wine was necessary and if it cost £10 for two cups then so be it. After making our way to the nearest mini market, we found out that they’d sold out. So we kept our money, but couldn’t even feel smug about it.
Overall, I liked the lights a lot. They were very pretty and lots of the displays were very impressive, especially those that were timed to music. The final display is very sophisticated, with lasers and lights and video and the absolute banger ‘Let It Go’ blaring together to create a great atmosphere. Your toes may have fallen off at this point but if there’s anything to make you forget that fact, it’s a Disney soundtrack.
That being said, I’m not sure I would call it a must-see Christmas item. If you are particularly interested in lights, walking around outside in winter with hundreds of strangers and throwing your money away on novelty churros, this is definitely for you.
If you go, you’ll probably have a good time, I really believe that. But I also believe that if you stayed home with a hot chocolate and watched Frozen you’d also have a good time. Though maybe this is my cold January heart already losing the Christmas magic.