Westonbirt Arboretum transformed into a Winter Wonderland

PUBLISHED: 00:15 19 March 2010 | UPDATED: 15:34 20 February 2013

Westonbirt Arboretum

Westonbirt Arboretum

This month sees Westonbirt Arboretum transformed into a magical wonderland. <br/><br/>worda and pictures by Mandy Bradshaw

Westonbirt is justifiably famous for its autumn colour when the arboretum is set ablaze by the fiery tones of turning leaves, chiefly from its maple collection. Yet this month sees a colour display of a different sort that turns the trees into living sculptures.

The Enchanted Christmas is an illuminated trail that encompasses some of the national arboretum's most popular features. Using coloured lights and timers, the trail isolates individual specimens, turning the spotlight on their shape and form.

The event, now in its 12th year, started when lights were used at an open-air concert that was held at the arboretum and it was decided to light neighbouring trees as well as the stage. Staff soon realised that the trees were attracting as much attention as the musicians and the idea was born.

At first the trail was run in the autumn as part of the celebration of seasonal colour, but it was soon decided that the naked branches of winter gave a better effect, showing the twisted shapes of the trees.

Indeed, it is only when the trees are lit that you begin to realised how much the average visitor misses in daylight. Lighting the trunks reveals the intricate patterns of bark, while the branches, stripped of their foliage, leave eerie shadows. With the rest of the arboretum still in darkness, it creates a magical atmosphere.

Each year the team at Westonbirt try to vary the experience, to encourage families to return. This year, the route, though still through the Old Arboretum, has been altered to allow different trees their moment in the spotlight.

The theme is the changing seasons and the mile-long trail is divided into four distinct sections.

"We are trying to do something to remind people that we are not just here for the autumn, explained events manager Simon Hough.

"We are using parts of the arboretum that are at their best at different times."

It starts with autumn and the colours used will be predominately reds and yellows, with some lights making the shape of leaves, or wildlife on trunks and the ground.

"We will be highlighting some of the trees that will be in the last throes of autumn colour, notably the maples, which are what Westonbirt is most famous for," said Simon.

Winter will be a stark contrast with silver, blue and white light dominating.

"We are trying to get the atmosphere of the winter wonderland as much as possible."

The dark foliage of conifers will be highlighted to add to the picture and the emphasis will be on the skeletal shapes of other trees.

How to make spring different to the autumn section has been the cause of some debate. The solution was to focus on Westonbirt's spring flowers, particularly the rhododendrons and azaleas that produce a riot of colour in April and May. To reflect this, the colours will be oranges, purples and blues.

"We might incorporate a bit of sound, such as bird song, to suggest the start of spring. We want to stimulate a few other senses rather than just sight."

Finally, visitors will enter summer, where trees will be bathed in green light. Here, the star of the show is likely to be a magnificent oak that is a head-turner in summer when it is in full leaf.

It's not just the trees that are the draw, though. Carol singers, festive food and gifts all contribute to the atmosphere, while in December Christmas trees are on sale.

In addition, there is the chance to see Father Christmas, who will be officially opening the spectacle on the first evening at 4pm and then greeting visitors on the other dates.

Staging the month-long event - the longest in Westonbirt's packed calendar - is a mammoth task. Planning takes weeks and barely has the autumn colour festival finished, than work starts on The Enchanted Christmas.

Setting up takes a fortnight and specialist companies are brought in to help. For the second year, the display is in the hands of lighting design firm, Astral Design. The eco friendly firm uses bio fuel - in this case old chip fat - to power generators that run the energy efficient lights. Not only does the bio fuel have a lower carbon cost, it causes less damage if accidentally spilled and its fumes are less harmful to the trees.

Over the years The Enchanted Christmas, which costs around 70,000 to stage, has grown in popularity and it now ranks as one of Westonbirt's biggest events, attracting about 10 per cent of the arboretum's annual 360,000 visitors.

"It extends the season for us and is vital to the arboretum's income."

Yet it is more than just about money: Westonbirt's mission statement is to connect people to trees and Simon believes this unique experience does just that.

"We are trying to get people to think about trees, why they are important and the part they can play in mitigating climate change.

"We have a grade one listed landscape and champion trees. The drama of that lit up at night is something you have to experience."

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