CHRISTMAS has come to Warwick Castle – with a light trail through the grounds, an ice skating rink beneath the turrets, stories with Santa in the Great Hall, and a festive food and drink market.
Opened last night by Britain’s Got Talent sensation Eva Abley, the teenage comedian who stole the heart of the nation as she joked about her cerebral palsy in this year’s final, the seasonal special runs all the way through to January 3.
Eva at the Castle (pic courtesy Eva Abley)
Here’s what to expect from this year’s incarnation…
First sight of the castle from the entrance
Your first view of the castle as you enter the grounds is, as always, impressive. It is, after all, one of Britain’s mightiest. Painted in shifting colours, Guy’s Tower stands high above a modest Festive Market, which is lit by strings of Christmas lights.
Festive food and drink beneath the walls
There’s seasonal music playing and enticing aromas from the food and drink stalls, which offer festive fare such as chestnuts – you can toast your own – mulled wine, spiced apple cider, candy floss and all manner of sweet snacks.
Food stalls in the festive market
It’s effectively street food fare so you should expect prices to match. On our visit, a modestly-sized slow cooked hot pork roll cost £7.80 and a small paper cup of mulled wine weighed in at £6.30. There’s a small licensed pop-up bar with Purity beers.
The castle courtyard
There were long queues for the early time slots on the Lights Trail either because of first night excitement or people ignoring the advice to turn up only five minutes before their start time, so we headed instead into the Castle Courtyard.
Exterior of the State Rooms
Initially it looked rather dull and dark, as if it was closed (the Santa sessions are usually daytime only, but we had a special evening peek) but after a while light projections gave the walls a merrier makeover. Still, we felt they could make more of the area.
Inside the Great Hall
While we waited to take the grandkids in to the Stories With Santa session, we strolled through the state rooms, each of which had a Christmas tree and festive finery. The Great Hall boasted a huge tree but otherwise lacked somewhat in Christmas spirit.
The castle corridors dressed for Christmas
Still, the hall is an attraction in its own right, with impressive suits of armour and weaponry on display. Watch out for the child’s armour and Cromwell’s death mask hanging on the wall, the latter enough to give even Santa a shiver down the spine.
A familiar figure and his missus
Speaking of whom, the Santa sessions start with an elves’ workshop and some fun and games as your little angels are enlisted by Mrs Claus (from a TV monitor) to help repair the compass on which Father Christmas depends – and save Christmas Day.
They bicker like every married couple
Then you’re ushered into another room where Santa and the missus are waiting in person to chat with the kids, sing carols and hand out presents at the end. They’re a great couple – gently bickering between the chat with the children to keep mums and dads entertained too. A photographer takes pictures of kids with Santa, but they’re not included and cost a small fortune so take your own!
Beginning of the light trail
There’s another photographer taking group photos – again, they’re not included in the price – as the Light Trail leads down a path lined with pulsing poles into the Peacock Garden. Here, you get your first real view of the attraction, stretching away across the grounds. There’s plastic matting on the pathway so you don’t get too muddy.
Giant tree reflected in the water
An early photo stop is the huge Christmas tree standing above the fountain pool, its simple warm white lights reflected in the water below. On the evidence of the first night, it will be one of the most popular selfie spots on the trail.
Star attractions along the route
Wherever you walk on the trail – it’s clearly signposted and one-way – you’ll see lights ranging from stars and animals to more abstract attractions. Some areas are more rewarding than others, and there are occasional sparsely populated stretches.
The Orangery in a new light
Looking back up to The Orangery – a restaurant and coffee bar by day – you’ll see that it, too, is bathed in changing colours (although, strangely enough, we didn’t spot any orange in there!) Still, it’s pretty in pink, too.
Warwick’s huge trees bathed in light
Although the carefully created light displays are the main attraction, the Castle’s ancient trees are support act stars of the show, cleverly spotlit to show off their size. Sometimes you can’t do better than Mother Nature.
Medieval Village halfway stop-off
At the halfway stage there’s a tented ‘Medieval Village’ which isn’t just for fun – there are toilets, a coffee bar and banqueting table here for those who welcome a break, particularly on a chilly, rainswept evening.
We loved the field of umbrellas – such a simple idea but well-executed – which changed colour in timed order on the Oak Tree Lawn. It looked a little like a very sedate festival field, perhaps a VIP camping area at Glastonbury.
Tribute to the Queen
There’s a lovely touch as you approach the profile of the late Queen Elizabeth II. Loudspeakers broadcast a recording of Her Majesty reading her Christmas message, a nice little surprise that had to be agreed, one assumes, with the Palace.
Video screen close to the tunnel entrance
Another must-stop site is the big video screen which comes up shortly afterwards on the trail, playing a unique film made especially for the event. It’s an entrancing watch, albeit a short one, and we’d have liked more. Maybe next year?
Entrance to the tunnel
Sometimes, you know, you really don’t have to re-invent the wheel. Tunnels of light have been a staple at Christmas shows for many years. The trick is to do them really well if you want to create the ‘wow’ factor that will impress young and old alike.
Shifting rainbow lights
This one works well, rainbow colours marching ever onward toward the end, both along the sides and overhead. It was here that we saw the largest number of people stopping to get family snaps and selfies on opening night.
Highlight of the trail
Our party was a three-generation affair: mum, dad, two boys aged 8 and 11, and the grandparents. Afterwards we all agreed that this was probably our favourite stretch of the Light Trail, which had led up from the river and illuminated bridge below. It took us around an hour to walk the trail, including occasional photo stops.
The skating rink beneath the tower
On, then, to the ice rink which sits beneath the castle ramparts and the impressive Guy’s Tower. It’s here, with a soundtrack of seasonal hits, that you’ll feel most Christmassy, especially if you’re out on the ice, skating in the night. Penguin and whale skate aids for youngsters are great fun, although they cost £5 to hire.
The rink is larger than expected
It’s larger than we expected, having last visited the event some years ago, and time slot tickets ensure that it doesn’t get too busy. Sessions are 45 minutes each, and experienced skaters are on hand to help the hapless – they soon got the novice grandchildren underway for their very first time.
Snowflakes fall on the tower
All in all, an enjoyable evening, although it doesn’t quite match the big budget light show and decorations down at Blenheim Palace. It is, however, family-friendly and there are plenty of helpful staff on hand to offer advice and assistance if needed.
Gosh, the guards are getting taller!
A word about pricing. There are all manner of permutations of ticket packages on sale. As you scrimp and save for Christmas, be warned that the attractive £20 daytime ticket (which doesn’t include the light trail, skating or Santa) soon starts to get more expensive when you upgrade.
Buy a ticket combining daytime admission and either the after dark light trail or a 45-minute skating slot, and it’s £25.50 – a decent saving of £10 on the package if the elements were to be purchased individually.
Next up are day tickets including Stories with Santa which are from £31, and are already fast selling out. There’s the option to include the light trail for an extra £15.50, adding up to £46.50 a head (and that’s for anyone aged over three).
If you want to go the whole hog, with daytime admission from 10am to 4pm, Santa, skating and the evening lights from 4.30pm, then we reckon it will set you back from £62 a head, and prices are slightly higher at weekends. Don’t forget parking from £6, too.
If you just want an evening out, then the Light Trail and skating are £15.50 each, so that’ll be £31 a head. It’s surely a missed opportunity that there isn’t an evening ‘skate and trail’ combo offered at a discount. It would be a big seller.
When you add up all the little extras, such as photos, skate aids and locker hire, food and drink, gift shop etc, it’s expensive – so check detailed ‘Christmas at the Castle’ pricing, availability and booking here. There are discounted rates for annual pass holders.