LET THERE BE LIGHT.
A review of the Magical Lantern Festival by Fiona Duffy
Step aside tired, garish, Illuminations. There’s a new light show in town and it’s bigger, brighter and a sight for sore eyes.
The Magical Lantern Festival, from China, attracted 110,000 visitors when it made its debut in London last year – and this winter it’s simultaneously lighting up Birmingham Botanical Gardens and Roundhay Park in Leeds, before returning, once again, to the capital.
My husband makes a bleary-eyed drive past the Botanical Gardens in Edgbaston every morning on his way to work and was intrigued by the massive preparations… the unloading of giant structures, and the busy-ness of the high-viz clad teams who had transported the display from China.
nosier keener than anyone to see what was going on inside those walls when it was finally unveiled…. So was the first to insist on a visit.
Parking on-site is for blue badge holders only and visitors are warned they’ll need to use local roads – words right up there with ‘bus replacement service’ when it comes to dampening high spirits.
Anyone familiar with the gardens will know it’s a Crystal Maze type challenge to find nearby parking on the one-way system in that part of Edgbaston. But there really is plenty of parking in side streets if you head further afield (we found spaces a-plenty in side roads just a ten minute walk away).
As we neared the gardens on foot, the first lantern display appeared on the horizon – a riot of blazing colour against the falling dusk. ‘Oooh,’ we exclaimed as one, automatically quickening our pace. The show only opens at 5pm ensuring the lanterns are shown off to best effect.
In December, visitors expect a festive theme… and, sure enough, there’s a 12 foot Merry Christmas entrance arch and giant Christmas trees to knock your socks off but the focus quickly switches back to magical breath-taking displays that work all year round.
The layout of the Gardens resembles a Victorian park and meandering paths and hidden ponds make the perfect home for the Lanterns… each more spectacular than the one before.
Organisers promise ‘a spectacular fusion of art, heritage and culture’ celebrating a 2000 year heritage of lanterns festivals, and they more than deliver.
Giant birds and fish, a vibrant Taj Mahal, intricate flowers with unfurling petals, delicate butterflies, and over-brimming vases, were just a fraction of the displays, all created in a ‘how did they do that?’ explosion of pin-sharp colour. Some were close enough to touch… with visitors scrutinising or stroking the delicate fabric expertly stretched over intricate wires. Others were ‘view from a distance’ only.
Locals were touched to see a giant bull – a tribute to Brum’s famous landmark. But the show-stealer has to be the fairy queen and glittering butterflies taking centre place on the meandering, majestic lawns – the centrepiece of the display.
Even the refreshments on offer are magical… mulled wine and giant marshmallows you can toast yourself make a welcome change from the usual fare of chicken nuggets and chips normally doing the rounds at family attractions.
The icing on the cake was a free return ticket handed to everyone leaving the venue (but you’ll need your original ticket for re-entry). You don’t often get something for nothing these days so a gesture like this always goes down well.
Facilities were superb, right down to the VIP portaloos at the entrance (the poshest temporary toilets I’ve ever had the pleasure to use).
Mark our words, this display will be lighting up lives for years to come.
Advance tickets are £12.50 for adults, children £8.50 (under threes go free) and concessions £10.50 (add £1.50 per ticket if purchasing on the day) while a family ticket for four is £38 (or £44 on the day).
Open from 5pm to 10pm Thursday to Sunday and every day of the Christmas holidays (apart from Christmas Eve and Christmas Day) until January 2.
The festival will then move to Chiswick House and Gardens from 19 January to 26 February – with the added attraction of an ice rink (with separate charges). Festival tickets are slightly more expensive (£16.50 for adults in advance on weekdays; £18 on weekends – add £1.50 if purchasing on the day).
For details of all festivals visit www.magicallantern.co.uk