TWILIGHT falls quickly at the end of this crisp November day. A hazy moon, nearly full, is bested by the warm milky orange glow of street lamps illuminating the growing queue of warmly dressed visitors outside Kew Gardens World Heritage Site.

At 5.30pm, Victoria Gate opens and we stream into a brightly lit courtyard. Outside the gift shop, a chunky Christmas tree adorned with festive fairy lights and substantial baubles of red and gold is the first festive tree (personally) seen this year.

Beyond the entrance ticket booths, crowns of mature and leafy evergreens, up-lit in blue, purple and green, form a multi-coloured backdrop against which the wooden huts of the Christmas market look surprisingly cosy. Staff wear Santa hats and smile as they serve groups of twos and threes.

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Now in its ninth year, ‘Christmas at Kew’ offers a way for the public to experience much of what this 120-ha site has to offer after dark. While not exactly ‘A Walk in the Woods’, an occasional series of features undertaken for Forestry Journal and essentialARB, the 14,000 trees rooted here represent more than 2,000 species vital to botanical and conservation research, and many are found nowhere else in the UK.

Never having walked a seasonal light trail before, let alone one lit by more than a million bulbs, there are no preconceptions. There is no physical map from which to navigate around the arboretum because Kew has gone paperless. It turns out not to matter. A working smart phone with good mobile data reception for scanning the QR code at the entrance provides this.

A bow-topped wreath stating ‘Welcome to Kew’ marks the beginning of the well-marked 2.4 km trail, for which a visitor should allow two hours to complete.

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Walking below the wreath, the haze turns to light rain. It does little to dampen the spirits because the first installation turns Camellia Walk into ‘Avenue of the Stars’, with 150 bright white stars lighting the way.

The edges of the fully accessible path are softened by leaf fall and the trail flits between some of the Garden’s 50 malvaceae (mallow). A wealth of botanical wonders, trees and shrubs, grow within 20 metres of the roped-off trail. Where they are not part of an installation or integral to a backdrop, their uplit forms provide a point of reference, lend interest or an edge in the surrounding darkness.

The lights of ‘Singing Trees’ (Ithaca) pulse in time to the gentle strains of ‘Once upon a December’ from the film Anastasia. The installation celebrates the entire tree. From the outer limits of the root zone to the tips of barren branches, colour cascading inwards, bathing all in a pink and blue twinkly glow.

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In sharp contrast, a thrumming instrumental cycle (of what could be classic festive rock tunes) accompanies ‘Blooming and Booming!’ (Adam Povey) at the Temperate House viewing platform. Squares of colour are superseded by rainbow strips and lasers shining through 15,000 individual panes of glass.

Renovations to the Temperate House (twice the size of the Palm House) finished in 2018 and it is once again home to 1,500 plant species, some currently threatened or on the brink of extinction. Kew’s website states the Temperate House is home to the Encephalartos woodii, a cycad from South Africa, entitled Kew’s loneliest plant. It is so rare that only one specimen has ever been found in the wild.

READ MORE: 6 of the best Christmas trees with a difference

With two in every five plants estimated as threatened with extinction, it is a reminder of why the work of Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, Wakehurst Place and partners is vital.

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‘On the Wings of Freedom’ (Arthur & Hemera), apparently a festive favourite, is a moving LED installation of what is first assumed to be yellow, orange and red poppies.

The artworks turn out to be butterflies, symbols of transformation, shape shifting and evolution. Moving on, penguins perched on piles of sleighs offer a cute reminder of colder climes, now that the rain has stopped.

The media pack states the trail features over 3,000 light fixtures and 25 kilometres of cabling. Beyond Red Oaks, uplit in phantasmagorical green, ‘Electric Avenue’ (Culture Creative) offers the chance to promenade through young species of cherry, outlined with multi-coloured neon string that is strung vertically, to the cheery tune of ‘Holly Jolly Christmas’. 2,000 metres of neon string have been added this year. It makes one wonder how much was used in previous years.

Each of the Trail’s 14 light installations and three laser displays provide photo opportunities. Dedicated backdrops include cheerful Christmas packages and KEW written in bold block capital letters. A group of Spanish visitors find that a temporary installation, a pink ‘Wishing Tree’, and the seats of ‘Mistletoe Wishes’ (Culture Creative) are their favoured spots for group photos.

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Parent’s watch as small children hopscotch on large snowflakes projected onto the walkway just metres from an old-fashioned funfair. For one token per ride, a carousel, helter skelter, swing boats, and miniature train carriages that run through ‘Kew Station’ provide seated entertainment for (possibly) weary smaller legs before their ‘Surprise Encounter’ (Rusticus) with a warmly-dressed ‘live’ Santa and his wicker reindeer, frozen in time beside a wooden hut.

On the way to ‘Christmas Beech,’ a variegated holly’s prodigious red berry output is illuminated orange. From the base of ‘Christmas Beech’, approximately 120 years old, 3 km of fairy light bulbs have been carefully and meticulously twined around the trunk, up and along the lower branches, bathing the bark in a calming silvery-white glow, an ethereal foil to the still-green and orange leaves of a tree on the turn. Up close, this prettiest of trees is the work of Kew’s arboricultural team, some of the 100-plus people involved in creating and constructing the trail.

Hot chocolate and marshmallows provide a sugary pick-me up beneath the burnished bronze glow of mature sweet chestnuts to the east of the tree-top walkway. The sugar high fuels an adrenalin rush triggered by the ‘Neon Night Garden’ (Culture Creative). Vivid neon strings of electric red and blue resemble static lasers as they refract between the stems of Douglas fir and hemlocks they are securely strapped to. A spiky, seemingly electrified Cedrus brevifolia crown – wildly and dramatically backlit in blue - resembles strobe lights pulsing in time to Tchaikovsky’s 'Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy'. 

Two thirds of the way along the trail, new installation ‘Spheric’ (Mandylights) is a 15-metre wide dome constructed over Kew Lake’s Sackler Crossing. More that 2,000 individually controlled LED bulbs pulse colour to what sounds like the same music that accompanied the Temperate House display (Blooming and Booming!). Stewards do not know what the music is, so they and I remain in the dark. In good weather, the reflection of this dome over the Lake offers the illusion of a complete orb. The moon illuminates autumnal reds of Chinese Tupelo trees and the autumnal oranges of Black Tupelo trees across the water. A lake reflection offers an oddly blurry but pleasing photographic result.

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From the roped off path, the species identification plates attached to each trees’ stem are unreadable. Unable to identify with certainty those utilised by ‘Trinity’ (Novak), it must suffice to say that the three trunks provide a narrow canvas on which videos of botanical illustrations, leaves, seeds, holly berries and acorns tied to trumpets and baubles with red and gold string are projected, an alternative and atmospheric use of what in places other than Kew might be classed as timber.

Unlike the wooden huts busily offering mulled cider and hot chocolate along the trail, an all-white Winter Terrace, complete with blankets and '70s swing seats, is relatively quiet.

It offers the last chance to take a selfie or to sip a glass of champagne.

A jaunty walk to the tune of the ‘Twelve Days of Christmas’ through ‘Rainbow Trees’ (ArtAV) leads to an avenue lined with the spiky fronds of ‘Red Herbarium’ (Tilt), a nod to the bright red metal staircase and railings in Kew’s herbarium building, a cataloguing and storage facility that contains 95 per cent (330,000 specimens) of global vascular plant types (ferns, lycopods, gymnosperms – including conifers and cycads – and flowering plants).

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There is more to see in addition to the installations mentioned here. The trail finishes at a viewing platform on the far side of the lake in front of the (currently) pink Palm House, a living laboratory dedicated to the world’s tropical rainforests. Behind the permanent statue of ‘Hercules fighting Achelous in the guise of a snake’ (Francois Joseph Bosi), stars of light and several water fountains have been installed to provide a 20-metre water screen on which to project the laser spectacular.

Watching the ‘Yuletide Magic’ (Lightworks/Definitive Special Projects/ArtAV) finale, mulled wine in hand, timespieces tick, dancers whirl and twirl, stars, snowflakes and bright, bright lasers flash and swirl. This visitor leaves brighter for having experienced ‘Christmas at Kew’.

‘Christmas at Kew’ runs until 9 January, 2022. For further information visit