Thursday, 26 November 2015

Magical madness: Go to The Festival of Light at Longleat

A day that begins with a monkey on your windscreen and ends with a giant illuminated silk teapot is no ordinary day.

I knew from watching the recent TV series All Change at Longleat to expect the unusual. My head was filled with little surreal backstories from the programme. Like how they had to round up the two hippos who live in the river so they didn’t chew up the Chinese workers obliviously setting up the lanterns on the riverbank. 

But I had no idea just how deliciously surreal a day it would turn out to be.

As we drove into the estate, we caught glimpses of the lanterns in the daylight. Even unilluminated, they looked amazing. Huge. Intricate. Fantastical. Everything from this 100m-long dragon... a herd* of zebras on the front lawn.
*I've since found out the correct word is a 'dazzle' of zebras (couldn’t be more appropriate in this case!)

We couldn’t wait for the switch-on at 4 o' clock.

But first for an altogether different kind of excitement. Tickets to the Festival of Light included the safari park and we just had time to squeeze it in.

They gave us a CD to put on as we drove through the animals with a commentary by Steve Backshall (off the telly mum!). Two minutes in and he’d already created an air of tension and extreme danger in our own car. He even made the flamingoes sounds scarey.

Our favourite bit was the monkeys. We had one peering in at us within seconds. 
They swung on wing mirrors, scrambled across bonnets and rode rooves like little daredevil train-surfers. 
We felt for the poor woman on stop-the-monkeys-sneaking-out-of-the-enclosure-on-a-car duty. She looked exhausted. 
I was disappointed that we only caught a sliver of the rear end of Annie the elephant. I had a real fondness for her since the episode where they’d shown her stoically hobbling half a mile to this, her new home. A marathon for a 58-year-old elephant.
As we entered the Lion Holding area (“You have to hold a lion?!” asked my daughter, horrified. That Backshall bloke was really getting to her), the woman at the entry gate leapt out of her shed. “Do you know your bumper’s hanging off at one end?” she said. “It might attract attention from some of our animals. We have some very badly-behaved lions.” Blimey. We taped it back on quick.
Once we were completely sure we were back in a wild-animal-free zone, we parked up, hopped out the car and headed for the Adventure Park. We had half an hour before the lanterns were turned on. Enough time to bumble and giggle our way through the mirror maze...
Come face-to-furry-face with what must be the tamest bats in the world in the Bat Cave...
And embark on the Jungle Cruise down the river.

The low Autumn sun shining on the trees made the trees look like they were on fire. 
But there was no time to ponder the natural beauty of the surroundings because the boat was instantly a-squeal with excitement: We were surrounded by jumbo Sea Lions ducking and diving around us. (You know, like you often get in a river meandering through the grounds of an English stately home. Told you, this place is bonkers.) We were even allowed to feed them fish for an extra £1.
The guy giving the commentary was full of interesting snippets (Did you know 700 people are killed by hippos every year?!). He was also bone-dryly funny: “And as we head back you'll get a great view of the Chinese lanterns...if you like that sort of thing.”
And it was around that moment that they were switched on. But not, as we'd expected, in one single flick of a switch. No. They did it gradually, layer upon enchanting layer, so just when you thought it couldn’t get any more glowy and magical, it did. 

Back on land, we wandered amongst the lanterns, gazing and a-mazing at them close-up. The number and size of them was astounding. 

A 20-metre-high pagoda...
A whole underwater city of sea creatures...
A corridor of curtains you could walk through...
A 50-metre-long dragon boat on the water... 
Another pagoda (I love the way the moon snuck into this picture without me noticing)...
And a bamboo forest of pandas...
The sign for that one made us laugh...
Not entirely realistic? Really? Get away! Pandas actually like to live on their own, not in groups, it continued. Ah, okay...

All the lanterns were hand-crafted in silk by a team of artists from Zigong in the Sichuan province of China, famous for this skill. “It must have taken them ages and ages,” said my daughter. “Remember when me and daddy made that zebra head lantern thing out of paper – that took like two hours. And it was all wonky.”

Our favourites were the life-like animals. If you looked long and hard enough, you'd catch one nodding its head or raising its hoof or swishing its tail. Which made them seem eerily still and alive all at the same time.
We couldn't resist following this line of ‘magic mushrooms’...
...which led us  this place really is full of surprises! – to a tent where a Chinese plate-spinning, juggling, acrobatic show was about to begin. Most mind-blowing of all was the 'face-change' act. With a single swipe of his finger, this man could change his face mask/paint/skin (what even was it?) in a millisecond. We still have no idea how he did it. 
Then it got really weird. Within minutes of leaving the crowd in the show tent, we found ourselves in a twee Cumbrian village on our own, in the dark. It seemed we'd accidentally stumbled into Postman Pat Land. 
By now I was starting to think someone had slipped some magic mushrooms in my take-away coffee.

We nearly didn't bother going into Longleat House itself (also included in the price). It was getting late and I'm not really a stately home kind of person. Too stuffy and formal for me. What I really wanted to do was snoop around the out-of-bounds bits...
Sneak upstairs and find the apartment of the eccentric and colourful Lord Bath (I was sure from the TV programme it was the top left window). Maybe share a glass of wine with him (funny how telly makes you feel you know someone). But I'm so glad we did decide to go in. 

It was gorgeous. Warm glowing fires, twinkly lights, incredible ceilings and  yet another surprise!  fairytale characters, pumpkins, carriages, beanstalks round every corner. From Scrooge counting his money in the study...
To Little Red Riding Hood in the corridor, loitering, staring strangely...
She may look sweet here, but believe me, she was creepy sweet. 

You know, if Lord Bath had jumped out at us from a cupboard next, I don't think we would have raised an eyebrow. But I settled instead for these portraits of him on the wall.
He may have handed the running of the estate over to his more conventional son a year or so ago, but his spirit still seems to be very much at the heart of Longleat.

“That was brilliant,” said my daughter as we weaned ourselves away back to the car. “Yes, literally!” said my husband.

As he turned on the windscreen wipers, my daughter screamed, "Noooo! There’s a monkey paw print on there – that’s our souvenir.”

Too late. All evidence gone.

And now I’m left wondering if perhaps it was just a weird, weird (wonderful) dream. 

Longleat's Festival of Light is on until January 17th, 2016, Visit the website here.


  1. Wow, that looks amazing! I really want to visit now, we would love it!
    Thanks for linking #LetKidsBeKids

  2. Wow! I am so pinning this for Travel Destination. Thank you so much for the detailed insight. There are so many things to do. I am amazed! #LetKidsBeKids

    1. I know - I had no idea how much there would be to do there - and we didn't even do it all! Thanks for pinning.