Westonbirt creates an Enchanted Christmas

Walking through a wood at night isn’t an obvious crowd-pleaser but the Enchanted Christmas light show at Westonbirt is different. In fact, it’s become so popular this year sees advanced booking only and timed tickets.

The annual display is now in its 20th year and for many families seeing hundreds of lights transforming the National Arboretum is a traditional start to their Christmas.

Last year, more than 35,000 people visited the 12-day event, which runs on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings from the end of November until just before Christmas.

It’s the increasingly popularity that has led to the change in ticketing, explains arboretum spokeswoman Emily Pryor.

enchanted christmas
Coloured lights highlight the trees

“We’re striving always to improve the quality of visitors’ experience. We want it to be the best we can give.”

As a result, there will no longer be the option to pay at the gate and all tickets to the route will be issued in one-hour time slots, although people can enter the arboretum any time after 5pm to visit the restaurant and shop.

And Emily stresses that once on the illuminated trail there is no pressure to get around in a given time.

“Visitors can take as long as they need,” she says.

As well as new arrangements for tickets, the display in the Enchanted Christmas has also seen some changes with a complete overhaul of the equipment used to ensure an even brighter and more dazzling show.

enchanted forest
The lights create a magical world

This includes a more powerful machine to pump bubbles out into one part of the trail where they will be picked out by UV lights.

“It looks quite amazing in the dark,” says Emily.

Meanwhile, an ‘elf village’ for Santa’s helpers will have tiny houses lit up among the trees, while Father Christmas – dressed in the original, traditional green – will be taking Christmas requests and Mrs Christmas will be telling stories.

Although the one-mile trail follows a different route through the Old Arboretum each year, the concept remains the same. Lights in every shade from red, blue and white to green, purple and orange transform Westonbirt’s trees, picking out twisted limbs, fissures in bark or the graceful shape of weeping specimens.

Enchanted christmas
The Enchanted Christmas is a popular annual event

Some trees are lit with a steady spotlight, others are part of an ever-changing display as lights go on and off with timers.

Among the most popular elements are those that involve audience participation. The ‘singing tree’ has lights that are sound sensitive and visitors are encouraged to sing or shout to illuminate it. Elsewhere, a sequence of lights is triggered by visitors beating on drums.

And there is the chance to light up the Enchanted Christmas with pedal power by riding on a bicycle.

“It’s a huge hit with kids.”

There’s even a touch of disco with a huge mirror ball that reflects back onto the trees.

The Enchanted Christmas opens on Friday November 25 and runs on every Friday, Saturday and Sunday until Sunday December 18th.

The trail is pushchair and wheelchair friendly. Stout shoes, warm clothing and a torch are recommended.

For more details and booking information, visit Westonbirt

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Treetop walkway opens

A bird’s eye view of Westonbirt

It’s well known in my family that I don’t do heights. I was the child who had to be rescued from the playground slide and the only pupil not to ascend the Eiffel Tower on a school trip. So saying I was going to try the new Westonbirt treetop walkway was met with wry amusement. Would I cope, they wondered, or would it be embarrassing for all concerned?

I must confess to some nervousness as I drew up for the official opening by BBC Countryfile presenter Ellie Harrison. After all, at its highest point the new Stihl treetop walkway is a dizzying 13.5m, or more than 44ft, off the ground with a crow’s nest encircling a black pine, a wire mesh section and wobbly rope bridge. All well outside my comfort zone.

treetop walkway
BBC presenter Ellie Harrison opened the walkway

In the end, I needn’t have worried. Such is the design of this latest addition to the National Arboretum that even I was barely aware I had left ground level.

This is achieved by the clever use of the ground’s topography, taking it over a natural dip in the land, and the way the wooden structure gradually slopes upwards, a factor that makes it easily accessible to all and not just the fully mobile.

Fittingly, it’s made of wood – larch and Douglas fir – and held up by 57 wooden legs, the highest 14m.

treetop walkway
Lettering on the crow’s nest stairs

There’s attention to detail: the handrails are high enough to give a feeling of safety yet low enough for those below 6ft to see, while the railings underneath are designed to give a good view through for children or those in wheelchairs.

“You go on so many other features like this and you can only see if you are tall enough to see over the handrail,” comments arboretum director Andrew Smith.

treetop walkway
An Atlas Cedar is one of the first trees you encounter

He and the rest of the team are delighted with the result of what has been a long project. It includes the welcome building, which opened in 2014, and the Wolfson Tree Management Centre, which opened this week with the walkway; the Friends of the Arboretum raised £1.9m to fund this second phase.

“For several years people have been looking at visuals and the visuals don’t live up to the reality. It exceeds expectations.”

What took me by surprise was the sheer beauty of the thing. The lines are sleek and sinewy, the Siberian larch handrails have a tactile quality and the shape has an organic feel. True, the ground beneath still shows the scars of building but given time that will repair and once newly planted trees grow up the structure will sit comfortably in the landscape.

treetop walkway
The rope bridge is designed to wobble

At 300m long – almost the length of the Millennium Bridge – the Westonbirt treetop walkway is believed to be the longest of its type in the UK yet because it snakes into Silk Wood with generous curves you can’t see more than about 50m at any one time. It’s a factor, believes Andrew, which fits well with the picturesque style of Westonbirt, started in the 1850s by Robert Holford.

“One of the features of the arboretum is its snaking paths. This has a ‘what’s round the corner’ type of feeling.”

In contrast, the start of the walkway, designed by Glenn Howells Architects, gives an unparalleled 360 degree view of the arboretum and the historic downs, now restored thanks to the relocation of the entrance and car park.

treetop walkway
Education is a key part of the new development

It also gives an unprecedented view of part of the arboretum’s world class collection. One of the first close-up encounters is with a magnificent Atlas Cedar.

“On that sort of tree the cones sit on the top of the branches so you don’t normally get to see them at ground level, unless they fall off,” says Andrew with a smile.

Westonbirt’s dendrologist Dan Crowley explains that more trees have been planted along the route, including walnuts, maples, alders and a hemlock.

treetop walkway
There are lots of facts about trees along the route

“We’ve planted a black walnut, which will provide really strong autumn colour, and a big leaved maple from the West Coast, which will become a really big tree in the landscape.”

Yet, while these mature there is still plenty to see, not least from the information points with facts and figures about trees; I learned that elm is used for coffins, boat-building and furniture, grey poplar for matchsticks and European box in violin fittings.

It promises to be a huge draw but one that Andrew is confident Westonbirt can cope with; staff will be monitoring numbers for the first few days to ensure the walkway doesn’t get too crowded and it is designed to accommodate more than 270 people.

treetop walkway
The walkway is designed to hold nearly 300 people

And what of the scary bits? Well comfortingly, the 10m-long mesh walkway is made of Elefant mesh and is narrow enough so that you can avoid it, although looking down on a tree below is an experience not to be missed. The rope bridge does wobble but has slats rather than being purely rope and was short enough for me to brave. I even ventured up onto the crow’s nest, which moves somewhat alarmingly in the wind giving a real sense of the trees swaying, and I didn’t need rescuing. In fact, driving away, I decided I had actually rather enjoyed the whole experience.

The Stihl Treetop Walkway is open to the public from Wednesday April 27. Admission is included in the normal entry price. For details, visit Westonbirt Arboretum

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Westonbirt goes sky-high

Visitors to Westonbirt will get a bird’s eye view of the arboretum when a treetop walkway, part of a £1.9m project, opens next month.

The 300m walkway is 13m high and is believed to be the longest of its kind in the UK. It will be unveiled by BBC Countryfile presenter Ellie Harrison before opening to the public the following day on April 27.

Built from larch and Douglas fir, the structure has been designed around the topography of land near the arboretum’s entrance, allowing easy access without the need for a lift or steps, and is supported by more than 20 pairs of timber legs, which range from 2.5m to 13.5m tall.

westonbirt arboretum
Pairs of legs support the walkway. Photo: Westonbirt Arboretum

It follows a serpentine path through trees into Silk Wood and is designed to educate as much as provide a unique view over the arboretum. Along the route there are interpretation boards giving tree facts and explaining woodland management, such as coppicing, a quiz game and telescopes that can be used to spot things placed in the trees, including fungi and insects.

The route also takes in a crow’s nest, a metal mesh-floored section and there’s the chance to divert down a length of rope bridge.

“People have been enjoying the views of Westonbirt from the ground for generations,” said arboretum director Andrew Smith. “The time has come to offer our visitors a new and exciting way to see the arboretum by getting up close and personal with the canopy, just like our tree team!”

Money for the walkway and a new tree management centre, which will include an interpretation area for visitors, has been raised by The Friends of Westonbirt Arboretum.

Access to the STIHL Treetop Walkway will be included in the arboretum’s normal entry free.

More information: http://www.forestry.gov.uk/westonbirt