Emma Townshend: "Kew's Winter Wonderland isn't quite last Christmas's vintage, but it's still light years ahead"

This year you can't move for Christmas lights, says our gardening correspondent

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The Independent Online

Look, I don't want to sound churlish, but I don't automatically love Christmas lights. You can't just stick 'em up and expect me to automatically drop my jaw and go "Wow" at them. So, when I set off in December 2013 to Kew, for the opening of its very first Winter Wonderland, I wasn't feeling at my most enthusiastic. I was worried, if I'm honest, about just how exactly wondrous it was all going to be.

Yet all that changed when I got through the gate. For Christmas 2013, Kew created something extremely odd, eccentric, arty and magical. A walk by the lake, lit only by Chinese lanterns in pink, red and orange; a curling arc of fire proportioned according to the Fibonacci sequence; a huge Anish-Kapoorish flower curled in the centre of the waterlily house's dark water. So the big question about Kew's Winter Wonderland 2014 is (as my friend Anna put it on Facebook): "Is it as magical?"

Well, the short answer, for me, is no. Kew's Winter Wonderland this year is certainly much more Christmassy than 2013's. I suspect that this may be a response to a core of last year's visitors, who looked at the singing trees and conceptual lightshows and asked, in bemused fashion, "But where are the Christmas lights?"

This year, you can't move for them. There are loads, plus a veritable plague of small Christmas trees with lights on, and you know, I can take 'em or leave 'em. Mostly leave 'em.

I don't want to sound complainy, but honestly, they made something extraordinary at Kew last year, and instead of holding on to it, they've watered it down.

However, there are still wonders to see, if you hold your breath. The lake, for instance, with new jets sending huge fountains into the air, lit with soft colour. A crazy winter king, 20ft tall, covered in ivy and holly, graces the Princess of Wales Conservatory, while children are engaged by jugglers posing riddles and twisting rainbow diabolos. And nearby wisteria growing over an old wrought-iron pergola is hung with soft rose-pink lightbulbs, in an understated but completely delightful way. I like these simple effects almost the best of all: for a second, the pink light and the arbor make it almost feel like summer.

Winding your way further along the route, you'll come to an installation by French design studio Tilt, which has made stuff for Bestival as well as international festivals of lights such as the Fête des Lumières in Lyon. These are extraordinary: gigantic flowers in the night, looming out of Kew's magnolia plantation with a playfulness and grandeur that lifts the heart.

Then there are the old-fashioned fairground rides: my son, who is five, was completely entranced by the helter-skelter, and the view of lights from the top alone is well worth the £2. And the huge dragon's breath puffs of flame on the river front of the Palm House are pretty pleasing to a five-year-old, too, it turns out.

The biggest new pleasure this year, though, is the careful labelling and lighting of many of Kew's specimen trees. I've lived near the gardens all my life and know the trees on Kew's tarmac paths pretty well, but there were plenty of surprises even for me, and any arboreally minded visitor will be thrilled by some of the discoveries to be made. In particular there's an oak tree, its branches covered in moss and lichen, hung with three chandeliers, lighting up the wilderness with an elegant strangeness that will stay in my memory for the rest of my life.

So my advice would be to go if you can, and try to ignore the actual Christmas lights. Signed, an arty, conceptually minded, Scroogeish, unrepentant big-tree fan.

Four more bright ideas

Hanging lanterns

For a beautiful night right out of a Chinese folk tale, order these showerproof nylon lanterns in pinks, reds and oranges. £3.99 each, hanginglanterns.co.uk

Dragonfly drama

Create a magical feeling with the playful colours and shapes of 30 Solar Dragonfly garden fairy lights from Lights4fun. £12.99, amazon.co.uk

A touch of Lapland

Argos's 120-light Micro Icicles offer a wintry glow from LEDs that will give a fairy feel to any garden, twined round pots and into shrubs. £12.99, argos.co.uk

Rudolph & friends

If you prefer things a bit more cheeky, Argos has a nodding reindeer made of Christmas lights that's just right for your front garden. £31.99, argos.co.uk

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