Days out: See the Walsall Illuminations

It's lighting up time in the Black Country

Forget Blackpool. What about the Walsall Illuminations? It might not have the same profile but it is a big draw in the Midlands – one of the top 10 visitor attractions in the region. Three-quarters of a million people came to see them last autumn; this year there should be more, because it is the 50th anniversary of this annual festival of lights.

Forget Blackpool. What about the Walsall Illuminations? It might not have the same profile but it is a big draw in the Midlands – one of the top 10 visitor attractions in the region. Three-quarters of a million people came to see them last autumn; this year there should be more, because it is the 50th anniversary of this annual festival of lights.

The entrance to Walsall Arboretum, where the illuminations are displayed, is like a toy fort, with its clock tower flanked by red-brick lodges. The 79-acre Arboretum, created on the site of old limestone workings by Lord Hatherton, boasts a Japanese hornbeam, a Chinese pagoda tree and a Giant Sequoia from the US, but you will get only a glimpse of the greenery, illuminated by the glow of lights placed behind bushes.

The lime trees around the walls are laden with a crop of orange, red and yellow glowing bulbs, and near the entrance is a pair of blinking, fluttering parrots.

The first illuminations were held as part of the 1951 Festival of Britain. It was a modest affair, with people carrying candles in jars, and a few floodlit fountains. The next year they borrowed pieces from Blackpool, but in recent years Walsall has had its own team of people designing and making features, such as birds and sealife. There are also clowns with radiant noses, a giant jack-in-the-box in perpetual motion and, in the haunted section, bats and ghosts lurking in the branches.

In this anniversary year there are a couple of extra features: a corridor of light boxes signalling 50 years of rock music, with Elvis Presley belting out as you enter, and the Spice Girls as you leave. And 50 years of children's TV is also celebrated – Percy the Park Keeper is to be found in many flower beds, but there are also Teletubbies, Bob the Builder, Postman Pat, Rugrats, the Wombles and Pinky and Perky.

Round Hatherton Lake are brilliantly jewelled butterflies, robots and spaceships. On the lakeside stage is 2001: A Space Oddity, with a pair of aliens, their space-modified voices barely smothering the Black Country vowels. Close by is another show: a strikingly choreographed laser-lit interplay of waters and lights follow the theme of Return of the Jedi. As the ducks quack and the wind sighs in the trees, the teddy bears at the exit wave goodbye. There's another parrot squawking: "Thanks for coming. Come again soon."

If you get to Walsall early in the day, you can sample the other extreme with the Walsall Art Gallery, shortlisted last year for the Stirling Prize. But children will enjoy the Illuminations more. And in the finale next Sunday, simplified versions of paintings produced by workshops held at the Art Gallery as part of the nationwide Big Draw will be reproduced in fire.

Open until 28 October from 6.30pm, last admission 9pm, (01922 653148; www.walsall-lights.com). Prices: £4.50 adult; £3.50 child; £13 family (advance prices: £3.50, £2.50, £10). Visit the website for details of Big Draw ( www.drawingpower.org.uk).

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