A visit to Waddesdon Manor at Christmas will get even the Grinch into a festive stupor. Each year this grand 19th century house, built by banker Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild to house his exquisite decorative arts collection, transforms into a winter wonderland. From elaborate music-themed displays to winter light trails and fair, there’s plenty of sparkle, glamour and fun for families in this award-winning Christmas experience. Ring those sleigh bells – I’ll take you on a family-friendly tour of Christmas at Waddesdon Manor.
Decorated rooms at Waddesdon Manor
Start with a wander through Waddesdon Manor – with some thirteen Christmas trees and a mind-boggling 3,000 baubles, it is dripping with decorations. This year sees a musical theme, inspired by traditional carols and contemporary Christmas songs. The decorations surprise throughout, from the life size sheep grazing amongst the wood panelling and chandeliers in the ‘Whilst shepherds watch their flocks by night’ room, to the record spiral staircase with vinyl dangling like flattened baubles. Music accompanies each room, enhancing rather than overpowering the decorations.
Some of the installations are refined and artistic, like the ‘Nutcracker’ installation with piles of ballet shoes resembling croquembouche and a smashed porcelain plate chandelier. Others really ramp up the cheese, such as the room where white footprints lead to Father Christmas’s legs dangling out the chimney. Each room has an accompanying board which gives history and context to the Christmas song.
My absolute favourite is the traditional games room with giant figgy pudding plonked centre of the historic pool table. The decorations strike that perfect balance between tasteful and frivolous, no mean feat with such an imposing historic house. Waddesdon Manor was a place to entertain family and friends over long weekends, and these decorated rooms really help to convey this sense of conviviality in a fun, light-hearted way.
Children’s House Trail at Waddesdon Manor
Pick up a free children’s sticker trail from the welcome host before you enter. Hidden around the Manor are biscuits, each depicting a different instrument. When you find the biscuit, add the sticker with the matching instrument to complete the bird orchestra picture. It’s simple, well produced and worked well for my five and seven year old, although it has little to challenge older kids. Sometimes my children can become bored and disruptive inside historic houses, so it was great to see them dashing through the rooms in search of those elusive biscuits. The room hosts were very accepting of excitable children and we felt welcome throughout. The house is busy – indeed, it is fully booked every weekend before Christmas – but we were able to go at our own pace and find spots to rest and soak it all in.
Winter Light Trail at Waddesdon Manor
After the Manor, head down the central avenue and take the signposted entrance to the Winter Light trail on your left. This illuminated walk takes you around Waddesdon’s Pleasure Gardens, and is best after dark.
The cold misty air and rainbow coloured lights bathing the trees make for a thrilling, atmospheric walk. Museum Girl loved exploring this enchanting forest, dashing through the dark to the next installation. Next time I’d attach a little running light to keep track of her whereabouts. I can imagine for smaller children this trail might be too dark without a torch, especially as there are unlit curbs and other trip hazards along the route.
The trail is a good length for children, without too much time between installations. I enjoyed the variety of tone, from the slightly spooky spider-like fibres covering the roots and branches of a tree in a ravine, to the uplifting, energetic disco balls whose reflections dance through the golden tree canopies. There’s even interactive ‘tap boxes’ to orchestrate bursts of bright coloured smoke, but unsurprisingly there was a lengthy wait to man the controls.
The trail culminates in Marble Valley, where classical music swells as changing colour globes cascade down the hillside, surrounded by brightly lit trees. Don’t do what we did – we accidentally went the wrong way round the light trail, so began with the finale and ended on the gentle introduction. As a result we felt rather disorientated throughout, going against the crowds!
Christmas Fair at Waddesdon Manor
Lining the avenue leading towards the North Front of the Manor is a charming winter fair, lit by festoon lights after dark. There are over 80 independent traders, housed in traditional wooden chalets, selling everything from gifts and decorations to hot festive foods and drinks. The market was popular but still had plenty of space to browse, and only short waits for the most popular items. We indulged in hot fudge hot chocolate, complete with cream and marshmallows. Unfortunately the highly recommended sausage seller had completely sold out by 5pm, although handmade sausage rolls went down well, even if I would have preferred them warm. The stall holders change weekly, and a full list of sellers is available to download here.
Manor illuminations at Waddesdon
Watch the fairytale facade of the Manor house as it is illuminated by two light shows, accompanied by rousing music. I must confess that this is the one part of the Christmas at Waddesdon Manor that I was underwhelmed by. The lights and architecture is impressive, but perhaps I’ve been spoilt with light shows in the last year. For me, the best ones for me always reveal more about their subject, which this one unfortunately didn’t.
Illuminated Woodland Trail at Waddesdon Manor
There’s still one more light trail to take, this one the other side of the Manor. A walk down Kitchen Drive will be rewarded with a series of swirling patterns, which proved as irresistible as a muddy puddle when it comes to children jumping in them! I loved the Wigwam Cafe, with its sheepskin lined seats and roaring fire, made safe for little ones by its protective sides. I can’t imagine a more atmospheric place to stop for a warming drink.
Nearby is a light installation which invites you to ‘tap’ to choreography the colour of the almost blinding beam. It took quite some time to encourage the children away from this.
Begin the Illuminated Woodland Trail by passing through the ‘I Saw three Ships’ archway, inspired by the carol and the Sèvres porcelain ship vases in the House. This second light trail felt like more of a discovery, especially as we were often alone. The decorations made by local school children are certainly simpler, but we loved the way they clustered together to decorate the tree boughs, and how the autumnal leaves carpeted the floor. The path was very well lit and easy to follow, although it is uneven in places and there were stairs to exit which might make it unsuitable for those with buggies.
The Stables at Waddesdon Manor
Unfortunately we arrived at the Stables too late to explore, which is a particular shame as many of you tell me this is the most family friendly part of Waddesdon. Inside the Coach House is a kinetic light installation where dozens of orbs of light rise and fall from the ceiling to the floor. Giant fairy light baubles take centre stage at the Stable Courtyard. And there are two children’s activities running in the Stables (weekends only until 22 December 2019) – letter writing to Father Christmas (£1 per letter, cash only) and lantern making (£4 per child). It’s worth noting that the bus which transfers you between Waddesdon and the car park stops here, so it is a good place to end your visit.
Tips for visiting Waddesdon Manor with kids
- Allow plenty of time for your visit: 45 minutes to an hour for the house tour; 1 hour 30 mins for the outdoor light trails; plus time for the stables, market and to warm up round the fire in the Wigwam Cafe. Our three hours wasn’t long enough so we missed out on the Stables children’s activities.
- Transfer between the welcome pavilion and the Manor or the Stables is via a 20 minute lit walk or a free transfer bus. We waited only a few minutes to board the bus in both directions. Allow 20-30 minutes from parking to arrival at the Manor.
- You must pre-book tickets for the decorated rooms. At the time of writing, weekend tickets are sold out until 22 December 2019. I suggest visiting on a weekday, or booking now for a visit after Christmas.
- Sign up to Waddesdon’s newsletter to be the first to hear of extra weekend ticket releases https://waddesdon.us18.list-manage.com/subscribe?u=fdcd028587c50b53b361e222e&id=c3578ea45a
- Light Trails are free with grounds tickets, which do not need to be booked in advance.
- National Trust and Art Fund members get in FREE to the grounds.
- Wear warm clothing as the trail was very cold and exposed in places.
- The Manor is not suitable for buggies.
- Consider bringing a torch or head torch for the Winter Lights trail as it is very dark in places, with unlit curbs and other trip hazards.
We absolutely loved our visit to Waddesdon Manor, so much so we want to make it an annual tradition. The imaginative house decorations, fun children’s sticker trails, diverse light displays and charming winter market all make for a fantastic festive day out. Even though it’s a popular event, it was completely manageable with my crowd-averse children, and we still found moments of quiet magic, particularly on the Illuminated Woodland Trail at the end of the evening.
Disclosure: We visited Waddesdon Manor in November 2019 with Museum Girl (5) and Museum Boy (7). We were given free press tickets to the house and grounds.
Christmas at Waddesdon Manor runs until 5 January 2020. Open Wednesdays to Sundays 11.00am-6.00pm, closed 23-26 December 2019. Also open 30 and 31 December 2019.
Tickets grounds only from £11 Adult; £5.50 Child; £27.50 Family (2+3). FREE National Trust and Art Fund members.
For more information visit their website: https://waddesdon.org.uk/whats-on/christmas/#christmas-highlights
PIN FOR LATER: