Sunday, 22 January 2017

Review: Chiswick Lantern Festival 2017

A miniature version of the world has appeared in west London. Sadly, London hasn't finally got its own mini Epcot (I wish), but the Magical Lantern Festival at Chiswick House and Gardens goes part way to recreating some of the cities and cultures of the world in light form.

Entry to the festival is via the Duke's Avenue Entrance to the gardens, a fair old trot away from Chiswick train station. Being the sort of people who like to be tucked up in bed at a reasonable hour, we'd opted for the earliest entry slot, 5pm, but the length of the queue suggested that plenty of other people had the same idea. Once the gates swung open, the crowds dispersed to see the light installations lining the main avenue into the gardens. With illuminations on both sides, it's hard to know which way to look. The signs of the Chinese Zodiac are all represented, but most impressive is this recreation of London's Houses of Parliament:

At this point, we hadn't actually shown our tickets, and were wondering if there had been an oversight (/why we'd actually bothered paying if we could get in for free) when we rounded the next corner and hit the back of the next queue. Cleverly, the queue overlooked a luminous recreation of all things Parisian, keeping visitors occupied while they waited.

After walking and queuing for so long, plenty of people were keen to find the nearest toilets, which turned out to be in the cafe next to the ticket gates. Unfortunately, the cafe only has four cubicles in the ladies, and presumably a similar number in the gents, resulting in lengthy queues (we waited around 20 minutes).

Surprisingly, the venue doesn't seem to have made any provision for extra facilities at this point. If you're tempted to cross your legs and wait until the next opportunity arises, be warned that it's a decent walk away (it took us around 40 minutes to get to that point, and once you've passed certain points, the stewards won't let you go back on yourself -- a clever way to keep the crowds moving, but not helpful if your kids decide they need the toilet when there isn't one nearby).

Facilities used, we hit the lantern trail, which was already heaving with people. The first stop was the above part-Arabic, part-Dutch style offering. Each display has an information plaque describing what it represents, but at some points the crowds were too deep to see this, and guesswork had to come into play.

Weaving past some impressive but poorly lit anamatronic knights on horses, the trail leads downhill towards a lake -- and here's where the biggest problem of the night presented itself to us. The paths are extremely poorly lit (or not lit at all) in some places, making for quite a dangerous experience. Parts of the paths along the trail are tarmac, while others are rough, gravel material, and when you can't even see your own feet, it's easy to trip up over a loose stone or a bump -- not to mention inadvertently venturing onto the mud verges and slipping. We didn't see anybody actually hit the deck, but several people came close. The argument may be that path lighting would detract from the lanterns, but so would having to call an ambulance if someone breaks an arm or leg.

The lake setting itself is beautiful, causing stunning reflections on the water (or, on this particular night, ice) surface. The theme of the festival is the Silk Road, and camels feature heavily. If you want to keep the kids -- or yourself -- entertained as you walk around, count how many camels you see. Answers in the comments please.

One of the most popular lanterns, at least among younger visitors, is this one, nestled away on a muddy detour away from the lake. Recognise these two?

Just past Aladdin and Jasmine are the next set of toilets, a marshmallow stall (couldn't get near it for the crowds) and a van which, judging from the aroma wafting through the crowds, was doing a roaring trade in mulled wine. If you're thinking of indulging, bear in mind that the next set of loos aren't until the funfair at the end of the trail.

After your pitstop, the trail continues over the lake, via a rather steep humped bridge -- one of several points along the route at which I'd disagree with the organisers' assertion that the festival is "accessible to wheelchair users" (mud, bumpy terrain, loose gravel and steep hills are also not wheelchair-friendly elements).

At this point you may be starting to flag. Beautiful though the lanterns all are, it starts to get a bit same-y, and your focus switches to warding off frostbite in your fingers. Fast forward the next few, until you get to this wonder:

The picture does no justice to the scale, but it's pretty much a lifesize temple. Impressive, and undeniably beautiful, but for me the highlight of the festival was this series of Chinese style arches:

From here, it's just a panda and a couple of fish to the funfair, ice rink and food area.

The last lanterns before you enter the 'entertainment area' are these toadstools. It's worth noting that once you enter the area, the stewards won't let you back out onto the lantern trail, so make sure you've taken all your Instagram shots and haven't lost any gloves/hats/small children before you pass this point.

The food stalls on offer here are as expected -- more marshmallows, duck wraps, crepes, churros, burgers, that kind of thing -- but the queues ruled out us even contemplating eating here, not to mention the lack of seating. The synthetic ice rink is fine for kiddies, but for ice with a side of lights, you'd be better off heading to the more impressive Canary Wharf. After a quick lap of the entertainment area, we beat a hasty retreat.

The lanterns themselves are beautiful, and well worth going to see, but the event could be better executed -- more toilet facilities and better lighting on the footpaths would be a start. We visited on the opening weekend, which had sold out -- it may (or may not) be less busy on other weekends later in the festival.

Going to the Magical Lantern Festival? Top tips: 
  • Take a torch. Attach lights to your children and anything else you don't want to lose.
  • Allow at least two hours to get round everything (the website suggests 75 minutes, but allow for getting stuck in the crowds). 
  • Prepare to do a lot of walking, including on uneven and muddy ground.
The Magical Lantern Festival is at Chiswick House and Gardens until 26 February 2017.

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1 comment:

  1. Ohh, I went that year. It was the second visit. Unfortunately, we preferred the previous year as found that 2017 was too commercial.