Romance or religion, the reason is not important to those who confess a burning desire for candles, reports Meg Carter
Julia likes hers long and thin. Lesley prefers hers white. Helen keeps hers in the fridge to make them last longer. They're practical, they're romantic and now they're trendy - candles have become the latest Nineties obsession.

Forget Emporio Armani, your local wax boutique is now the place to be seen. Across the country, candle shops are opening and business is booming - British shoppers are expected to spend some £30m on candles this year.

The reason is simple, according to Marjorie Bannister, co-founder of Wax Lyrical, which began in 1990 with a single store and now has 21 branches: candles are the ideal Nineties accessory. "Candles are living things, unlike any electric light bulb," she explains. "The flame is hypnotising and it creates an atmosphere of tranquillity. They turn your home into a place of retreat.

A former financial consultant, Ms Bannister first recognised the potential for candle culture in Britain while on a business trip in Iceland. "Icelanders realise that candles are the quickest way to add light and warmth to your room, whether at breakfast, lunch or dinner time."

Wax Lyrical was launched to enable people "to create a beautiful atmosphere, to reintroduce candle use as part of everyday life," she says. And it seems to have worked. With just 10 shopping days to Christmas, the Hampstead branch of Wax Lyrical is packed.

Helen, 30, is shopping for Christmas but has decided to "treat herself" instead. She is buying a floating candle set which includes a glass dish and coloured beads. "I really started buying candles when I had a house to put them in. Since then, I haven'

t looked back - I now have at least 12 candlesticks and candles in every room," she says. However, she is choosy. "I don't like anything colourful or scented, and I only like black iron sticks."

Lesley, 31, is a self-confessed "candleholic" who regularly frequents church suppliers; her collection includes two 5'6" Victorian candlesticks she found at a jumble sale. They had been converted into electric lights, fitted with candle-shaped glass bulbs. She has since restored them and they now hold six church candles in her bedroom.

The most likely place a candle will be lit is in the sitting room, closely followed by the dining room, bedroom, then the kitchen, according to research conducted by Wax Lyrical. But bathroom use is growing fastest, which makes this Christmas's "must ha v e" buy - a chrome soap rack with built-in candlestick and wine glass holder - a snip at £74.99. "Plain or scented, candles are the perfect accessory for a long soak, with a glass of wine," Ms Bannister says.

Church candles, beeswax and floating candles are current best-sellers, according to James Johnsen, marketing director of Price's, the country's oldest candle supplier.

"It used to be a very traditional market," he explains. "Now it's much more fast-moving, with fashionable designs and colours." Terracotta, for example, is definitely in. And Price's recently designed a special range of day-glo candles, in lime green andelectric blue, for The Conran Shop.

Last year business was up 20 per cent on 1991, and this year we anticipate at least the same rise again," Mr Johnsen says. But there is still room for significant growth. While annual candle consumption in Scandinivia averages some two kilos per head, the UK figure is a fraction of this. And while Christmas accounts for significant sales, candle-buying is fast becoming an all-year-round phenomenon.

This has been put down by some to New Agers and a renewed interest in spirituality in the countdown to the new millennium. Those in the industry offer a more practical reason.

"Recession always benefits the candle industry and not just because of the threat of industrial disputes and blackouts," says Sue Spear, owner of The Candle Shop in London's Covent Garden. "They are cheap and simple, an easy way to make your home look nicer. Your carpet can be threadbare and your paint flaking, but in candlelight they will look a million dollars."

With people unable to afford to go out as often as they might like, and with many aspirant homeowners frustrated by rising interest rates, many people have been forced to reassess their personal definition of luxury,'' Mr Johnsen adds. Candles, costing anything from 50p to £40, have a feel-good factor.

"As people become more environmentally aware, they see candles - especially the plainest, simplest ones available in no-nonsense plain cardboard packaging, as complementing the Nineties climate of opinion that is against excess and surplus fripperies," he adds.

Ms Spear, however, is unconvinced that candlemania is a Nineties phenomenon. She's seen it all before, she says: her first candle shop opened in 1971 and ever since then interest has ebbed and flowed. I'm not interested in candles simply as fashion accessories," she says. "If I had been I would have gone out of business long ago."