During the medieval period, the grand estate known as Kingston Lacy was part of a royal estate within the manor of Wimborne in Dorset. The manor house stood to the north of the present palazzo, close to a deer park. Supporters of the Crown were allowed to let the estate. After it was sold at the beginning of the sixteenth century, it had several short-term owners until it was bought by Sir John Bankes in 1636; the family were destined to own the estate until 1981, when it was given to the National Trust. This wealthy family had also acquired the royal castle of Corfe, which was their principal seat until it was destroyed during the Civil War in 1646, and Kingston Lacy became their permanent home.
The preservation of large swathes of countryside in the county of Dorset is owing to the Bankes family’s long period of ownership and the bequest to the National Trust: when Kingston Lacy was given to the National Trust in 1981 it was their largest bequest to date. Successive heirs to the Bankes family home have been responsible for many improvements to the estate, including the construction of the eighteenth-century Italian palazzo and the creation of formal gardens.
The family also amassed one of the most impressive collections of artworks in the country, as well as the largest private collection of Egyptian artefacts. This collection is housed both in the palazzo and in the grounds. Visitors cannot fail to notice the nine-metre high Philae obelisk on the south lawn; it once stood at the entrance to the Temple of Isis on the sacred island of Philae in Egypt. A second obelisk and sarcophagi also grace the gardens.
Magic Moments at Kingston Lacy
Today this historic property is also famous for its Christmas lights. During December the gardens are transformed, as if by magic, into a winter wonderland. As dusk falls, bright lights start glowing around the palazzo, over the lawns and amongst the trees. Last Christmas they were spectacular, with a fire-breathing dragon on the lawn, and enchanting ‘little people’ in the Fernery. This year, passing up the long drive I watched a floodlit Kingston Lacy House going through a kaleidoscope of colours from pale lilac to a very deep green.
As my pre-booked ticket was checked and I was being guided into a parking space, glimpses of children’s fairground rides and the succulent aromas of street food heightened my anticipation. Any concerns that this trail would be the same as last year’s display were swept away, as we followed the well-marked route past the Fernery into the extensive grounds at the back of the house. Father Christmas had arrived and was greeting guests outside a brightly lit hut as he posed for photographs, watering can in hand. No time to ponder on the reason behind this utensil as my breath was taken away by the sight of the Neon Tree – a whole tree, including roots, outlined in colourful lights. Beyond this tree I could see a rainbow of floodlit trees lining the path on either side.
I stepped aside to let people through so I could enjoy the ambience – coloured lights on a crisp clear night. Wonderful. Not long after passing the front of the house, the crowds had started to thin out as people paused to wonder at what they were seeing and to enjoy their children’s excitement. The trail took me through a wooded area and across a laser-lit carpet puddled with giant snowflakes, towards an arch formed from a row of huge hearts. This arch was approached by an avenue of small trees clad in sparkling lights, changing colour, brightening then dimming.
As I turned off the circular perimeter path into the illuminated avenue of grand, colourful trees I was greeted by the sound of beautiful music: Swan Lake. The perfect choice for a saunter through an enchanting wood.
Leaving the avenue of magic and stepping across more giant, golden snowflakes I walked under the amazing neon strings – narrow strips of coloured lights suspended above me in angular formations.
More magical moments, as I passed by a patch of delicate white Christmas roses and then walked through a garden of Triffid-like dandelions.
Throughout my journey along the Christmas Lights Trail I had caught glimpses of cascading yellow lights that resembled a waterfall. As I approached, I realised it was the Christmas Cathedral: an archway of lights, that took me back towards the house.
I was nearing the end of this extraordinary trail. It was a delightful, hour-long experience and an opportunity to see the fabulous Kingston Lacy House in a different light.