Mount Stewart Festival of Light

I loved the Enchanted Evening events they used to run in Botanic Gardens as part of the Belfast Festival. They were, for us, easy to get to, compact, beautiful, mysterious and fun. It has been a sore point for me that they have been absent from the Festival programme for the last couple of years, although this year’s lovely Havannas event from Catalonia did somewhat make up for it.

Regardless, I decided to book tickets for the National Trust Mount Stewart Festival of Light event, and take the kids for Halloween, since on Halloween night the Festival of Light was going spooky for the night. I didn’t attend the preview and forked out for the tickets myself, so the following are my disorganised but honest thoughts.

First up, the good points. If Botanic Gardens appeared beautiful and mysterious lit up at night, the sprawling grounds of Mount Stewart appear even more so, with a kind of spooky, shadowed grandeur. The huge, regal trees appear both magnificent and menacing, lit in eerie neon shades from below, and all the more so with a haunting soundscape of horror move soundtracks bellowing out from behind random shrubs. Not even the fairly constant rain could detract from the good humour.

Wobbly camera phone pic

Wobbly camera phone pic

On an aside note, I have never seen so many North Face jackets in one place since I went to see Leonard Cohen in Kilmainham in 2012. The Festival of Light brigade also attracted a fair number of pater familias equipped with head torches. One particularly helpful gent even offered to pause beside us, giving us the benefit of his radiant light so that my son could squeeze into the second seat in the pram to take a break from all the trudging.

And yes, there was trudging. A lot of trudging! The rainfall of yesterday had turned Mount Stewart’s meandering paths into epic mudflats, not to mention the sodden grass and, more pressingly, the overflow carpark, which had descended into a kind of chaotic Glastonbury as families in masks with head torches and raincoats attempted to push cars firmly entrenched in the mud to safety. In the dark. Again, a very helpful gent, this time one in a skeleton mask, gave us some unasked for but extremely welcome assistance.

I couldn’t help but think of the public liability insurance and the health and safety nightmare this event must cause for the organisers. A lot of the carpark fields and large sections of the path round the lake are very poorly lit. Of course this must be the case – the gardens are not usually open at night, so lighting is only required for this one event. The National Trust do advise you of this when you are booking tickets. I am sure National Trust know what they are about, but, nonetheless, the combination of darkness, small children, older people on crutches and using walking canes, cables leading to lights and speakers, tree roots, deep puddles and slippy mud was making me more nervous than I care to admit….pure risk assessment Halloween-themed anarchy!

The Halloween performers were rather erratically spaced around the path and as many adults had come in costume, just for fun, it was, in fact, rather difficult to discern who was just having a bit of craic and who was in full performance mode. This was quite carnivalesque and fitting to the slightly unheimlich atmosphere but undoubtedly the lack of signage, lighting and obvious performance lent the whole proceedings a slightly Beckettian air. There were gourmet burger stalls, a Javaman coffee van (but of course), some child-oriented light up tat and lit up tents to shelter in but otherwise no real focal point performance-wise. I would have liked to know the significance of the Festival of Light – is it related to Samhain, or Diwali, or both, or neither? But there we all were, going for a strange, rainy walk in the dark, with spotlights tracking across a lake, trees lit up in unnatural colours, horror music blaring from behind bushes and a stately regal house looking impassively down on us all.

I can't go on. I'll go on.

I can’t go on. I’ll go on.

Festival of Light continues til 16th November.

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  • In the interests of full disclosure, my kids are under 5 so I was only forking out for me and other half, so £20 for us or, for families with over 5s, you could get a family ticket for £30.

    Was it worth £30? Ordinary price to visit Mount Stewart is £13, so Festival of Light is an extra £17. You don’t get anything to eat or drink, the lighting effects are undeniably brilliant, the music is atmospheric but not live, you can only visit certain parts of the gardens (due to it being pitch dark everywhere else) and there is a lot of queuing involved.

    So maybe not exactly “worth it”… but given that it’s a comparable price to a family ticket to multiplex on a Fri night with popcorn and drinks, Festival of Light is, for my money, definitely a more memorable evening than the newest Pixar release.

  • Lookingglass

    I pre-booked and paid for 13 tickets for family members as a Halloween ‘treat’. We were undaunted by the rain, arrived at around 7.20pm and made our way through the walkways towards the entrance in good humour and high spirits, although it fleetingly crossed my mind that there seemed to be as big a crowd exiting the event as there were entering.
    I had viewed the promotional video and expected to see a spectacular sight on reaching the lake, but the reality was heart-sinking….an expanse of dark water broken here and there by flashes of white light, and across on the other side, sparsely spaced globes of coloured light at the base of the tree line. My first thought was,” God, somebody has forgotten to turn the lights on!”
    Long lengths of ground-level cable that should have provided illumination along the pathway lay dark and lifeless, and many of the coloured light boxes that I think should have thrown splashes of crimson and green among the branches were instead placed in such a way as to dazzle the eyes as we passed by.
    Once or twice there was an attempt at entertainment, but there was a distinct air of an amateurish ad-lib quality to the dialogue, with the exception of the lake ‘witch’ who injected a tremor of excitement among the children, and almost scared me, too.
    If the ‘witch’ was a member of staff she deserves a raise for creating perhaps the only memorable amusement of the entire visit.Some people had taken to venturing into the woods, lured by the sound of ‘spooky’ music only to discover nothing but a lonely loud-speaker set among the shrubbery.
    The teepee had apparently hosted something, but we saw nothing of it….no notice of show-times, and as far as we could understand, it was over for the evening.
    I would say the event lacked drama, lacked imagination,lacked atmosphere and even lacked lighting..in a word, lacklustre.
    On the way home the kids came up with ideas that could so easily have transformed the experience, perhaps a little ‘Hansel and Gretel’ house in the woods where you could peep through the windows to see the witch busy about her work and maybe two children locked inside a cage. Maybe a Ghost Ship on the lake, lit only by lanterns with only the sail illuminated with a ghostly glow. We also thought the mini dramas should be better spaced and better placed, with at least the ‘skeleton’ of a script.
    Proper entertainers, too, fire-eaters, magicians, some creepy creatures, a whole host of improvements which we would be happy to share with the ‘organisers’ of this event.

  • Yes, this was one of my favourite things about the Enchanted evenings events in Botanic – there were performances everywhere, puppets, people dancing, huge big blow up decorations lit up with spooky lighting, live music, regardless of the weather. I kept wandering around Mount Stewart, like yourself, thinking there would be *something* happening around the next corner. And there never was!!!

    Your kids should be involved in the brainstorming for the next event.

    The tents seemed, as far as I could see, to be mainly a place to consume your expensive burgers and coffees in. The only obvious performer was the lady pretending to tell fortunes and read a crystal ball on the way in.

    It was very like a Beckett play – it was very beautiful, at times, but ultimately, very confusing!!

  • NT Mount Stewart

    We are very sorry to those who had a less than satisfactory experience at Festival of Light.

    Please drop us an email at mountstewart@nationaltrust.org.uk with your contact details and one of our team will reply to you shortly.

    As with any event, we appreciate you sharing your feedback with us.