In the darkness of a Northumberland wood, birdcages studded with coloured lights hang from branches; somewhere above, a ghostly bird sings. A copse of soaring pines glows, bathed in eerie fluorescence.
Over 12 December nights, visitors to the Grade 1 listed gardens of Belsay Hall — a 30-acre property 14 miles north-west of Newcastle, in northern England — saw the landscape in a new light.
“It looks totally different when it’s lit up,” said Jonathan Snodin, a buildings manager from Durham, on a family visit to the Enchanted Belsay illuminations.
“I think it was enchanting,” added Justine Payton, a doctors’ practice manager who, with her parents and sister, had made a 120-mile round trip from Berwick.
A boom in after-dark illuminations between mid-November and early January is transforming the fortunes of many historic properties in the UK, boosting revenues nationwide by tens of millions of pounds as public spending cuts force them to explore new funding streams.
“They are all under commercial pressure,” said Anna Leask, professor of tourism management at Edinburgh Napier University. “They have to try to develop new products and experiences to make use of what they have.”
In the UK, where the glitzy illuminations at Blackpool’s seafront have extended the summer season since 1879, there are now two distinct activity streams.
One is free street events displaying artist-commissioned illuminations, usually funded by public bodies and businesses. Examples of these are the Lumiere events in Durham and London, staged by Artichoke, a public art production company.
Inspired by the Fete des Lumieres festival in Lyon, which began in 1999, Durham county council has staged Durham Lumiere for four days in November every two years since 2009. It said the first five delivered an economic boost of more than £28m and attracted 840,000 people. Lumiere London 2018 generated £20.4m in visitor spending and £5.4m in wider economic impact, officials said.
The other, fast-growing trend is illuminations with paid-for access. Properties launching illumination events this year include Walmer Castle in Kent and the Stourhead estate in Wiltshire. An “immersive walking tour” using light projections will be held for the first time at Edinburgh Castle.
“All the venues I’m aware of are seeing sharp growth this year,” said Dominic Hare, chief executive of Blenheim Palace, home of the dukes of Marlborough in Oxfordshire. A study by Oxford Brookes Business School estimated Blenheim’s 2018 light trail generated £11.2m in gross value added for the area, attracted 219,279 visitors and supported 214 jobs.
More than 1m visitors, paying on average £17 each, are expected to visit the festive season light displays that production company Raymond Gubbay (RGL), owned by Sony, is staging at Blenheim and six other major UK historic houses and gardens. “They’ve become a core Christmas activity around the country,” said Joni Marks, RGL’s chief development director.
Mr Marks previously worked at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, London. Seven years ago, the gardens experimented with light trails to encourage visits at the quietest time of the year and help offset declining government funding. “We’ve gone from no one coming in to 300,000 people coming in after dark,” he said.
RGL designs and installs the illuminations, sharing profits with the venues. Low energy LED lighting helps control overheads.
Longleat, the Wiltshire stately home and safari park owned by Ceawlin Thynn, Viscount Weyouth, staged its first Festival of Light in 2014, employing Chinese lantern artists to create dragons and temples alongside giant recreations of the park’s animal residents.
Chinese artists continue to work with the Longleat team. Combined with Santa attractions and the safari park, its illuminations period, from early November to early January, now accounts for a quarter of total annual attendance. Adult day tickets on weekends cost at least £34 and all December weekends sold out. Daily capacity is 7,000 people.
The National Trust, the UK’s largest conservation charity, has gone from holding one ticketed illumination event in its gardens in 2012 to 20 this season, and also has nine other late night events. Visitor numbers in the run-up to Christmas have risen fivefold since 2010 to 2.5m. English Heritage, a public body turned into a charity that began illuminations in 2017, saw fourfold visitor growth during the same period last year. In 2018, its Enchanted events generated £850,000 in income. It had six sound and light installations this year.
Mr Hare at Blenheim believes the public’s enthusiasm for illuminations reflects wider social trends. “It’s the growth of experience over material gifts,” he said of visitors. “They value having time together.” And, he added, such visits look great on Facebook and Instagram. “It’s a series of perfect moments.”
Belsay’s illuminations aim to surprise. “The best exhibits are the natural ones, the illumination of the trees moving in the wind,” said visitor James Mackie, who was struck by how darkness and lighting combined had shown him features he had never spotted during daytime visits. “If you can see everything, you don’t see anything.”