REVIEW: Illuminated Arboretum Light Trail at the National Memorial Arboretum (Christmas 2021 & 2022)

Join us as we recount our enchanting December 2021 and 2022 visits to the 'Illuminated Arboretum' event at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

Distant view of vibrant lights extending skyward from Armed Forces Memorial at Illuminated Arboretum, Staffordshire.
A breathtaking view of the Armed Forces Memorial, brilliantly illuminated and serving as the focal point of the Illuminated Arboretum event at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.

Introduction: A Christmas Tradition in the Making 🎄

In the run-up to Christmas 2021, and again in 2022, we made our way to the magical 'Illuminated Arboretum' event at the National Memorial Arboretum (NMA) in Alrewas, close to Lichfield in Staffordshire. Our first visit in 2021 was such a photographic feast that we decided to return, this time opting to soak up the sights and sounds, camera-free. Just a heads-up: our 2021 trip took place during a COVID year, with restrictions as part of the experience.

Mia cuddling into Max's cheek, both wearing bobble hats and warm winter coats at the Illuminated Arboretum event.
Mia warmly embracing Max as they arrive together at the Illuminated Arboretum event.

A Serene Setting: The NMA 🌳

The NMA is a serene, year-round place of remembrance, perfect to visit with or without kids. Living only 25 minutes away, we frequent this peaceful locale, which reveals itself differently in every season. In 2019 and 2020, we missed out on tickets for the highly sought-after Illuminated Arboretum event, so our anticipation was sky-high this year. The weather played its part perfectly; cold and slightly misty, it added an atmospheric backdrop to our after-dark adventure. On our approach down the A38, we caught sight of the light projections from the Armed Forces Memorial—the centrepiece of the Arboretum—which sent waves of excitement through us all.

Steps in the foreground, tree-lined path leading to NMA's Visitor Centre and Restaurant, warm white twinkling lights glowing in the distance.
Gazing from the Armed Forces Memorial towards the NMA's Visitor Centre and Restaurant in the distance.

The Experience: A Thoughtful Journey 🛤️

At the time of booking, we chose the first available timed entry slot of 5pm, keeping in mind that Holly, our one-year-old, typically nods off around 6pm. We arrived at 4.45pm and joined a short queue, eager for the event to open. Our tickets were scanned right on time, and we were ushered to the start of the trail.
I won't detail every sight and sound we encountered, but the theming, lighting, projections, music, sound effects, and interactive elements were harmoniously united to craft a magical yet respectful experience, true to the spirit of the NMA. This isn’t an over-the-top Christmas display with animatronic characters; instead, it is a thoughtful, evocative journey that weaves the memorials seamlessly into the experience.

Mia with her back to the camera, captivated by an animated owl light projection looking towards her and the camera.
Mia, captivated by an animated owl light projection, beaming with delight.

A Closer Look: The Armed Forces Memorial ✨

As we made our way around, we were captivated by the Armed Forces Memorial, especially when seen up close, luminously adorned. The emotional journey continues as you ascend, either by stairs or accessible ramp—the latter is my choice, as it offers a chance to admire the NMA from a unique vantage point and to reflect on those who lost their lives.

Red light illuminating the uppercase inscription on the Armed Forces Memorial, reading "They died serving their country. We will remember them."
Emotional inscriptions grace the summit of the Armed Forces Memorial.

Mid-Trail Delights: Food and Comforts 🌭

Midway along the trail, a pleasant surprise awaited: two food truck setups—one offering hot and cold drinks (and mulled wine!) and sweet snacks; another serving a variety of German sausages. Our little family treat—tea, muffins, and a remarkable 'Bockwurst' hot dog—was reasonably priced at £13 for the lot. Plus, conveniently placed toilets were a welcome sight.

Alt Tag: Max stands at the start of a path, framed by hundreds of warm white light bulbs draped through tree trunks, guiding him through a maze-like clearance in the Arboretum.
A captivating light installation illuminates the expansive grounds of the National Memorial Arboretum, inviting exploration and wonder.

Feeling Safe and Exclusive: COVID Considerations 😷

Even though the presence of COVID still lingered, we felt incredibly safe. We were nearly alone on the trail, adding a sense of exclusivity to our visit and allowing for uninterrupted photo ops—despite our older phones' low-light limitations.

In deep darkness, Max and Mia walk side by side, backs to the camera, guided by neon bands intensely illuminating their path.
Max and Mia navigate another maze-like path, guided by vibrant neon luminous bands lighting their way.

Meeting the Makers: A Conversation with Neill 🤝

During our tour, we had the pleasure of meeting Neill Martin-Hoare, the NMA’s Events Manager. We chatted extensively about accessibility and the new initiatives planned to enhance the experience for visitors with additional needs.

Immersive and interactive statue of a man with a vibrant image-based projection overlay, featured towards end of trail.
An engaging statue installation encountered near the end of the trail, inviting interaction and immersion.

A Return Visit: Christmas with Family ❤️

Our second visit, in the run-up to Christmas 2022, was equally enchanting, with an extra sprinkle of magic as Alex's parents joined us—her love for Christmas clearly inherited from these two. The weather was considerably colder this time, so a word to the wise: bundle up for this outdoor spectacle.

Alt Tag: Dawn and Max sharing a heartfelt hug, each holding a large light bulb in their hands, in memory of a loved one during our 2022 return visit.
Dawn (Alex's Mum) and Max share a moment as they prepare to hang a light bulb in memory of a loved one during our 2022 return visit.

Looking Forward: Future Plans and Financial Considerations 💷

Although we toyed with the idea of returning for Christmas 2023, we’re considering a break to perhaps revisit the following year. Amidst a backdrop of financial strain due to the Cost of Living Crisis, this event—calmer and more budget-friendly than other light trails—stands as an inviting, heartwarming option.

Max and Mia cuddling under an illuminated sign spelling "MAKE A WISH" in uppercase light bulbs, after enjoying the Illuminated Arboretum.
Max and Mia sharing a warm cuddle at the trail's end, celebrating a fabulous evening spent at the Illuminated Arboretum.

Conclusion: A Cherished Tradition 🌟

All in all, we can't recommend the 'Illuminated Arboretum' event at the National Memorial Arboretum highly enough. It holds a special place in our hearts, and we’re ever thankful to the NMA, a charity that relies on the generous support of its visitors. It’s not just an event; it’s a tradition that we adore.

Joe, Alex, Max, Mia, and Holly, all smiling brightly in a family selfie at the end of the Illuminated Arboretum trail, surrounded by the vibrant lights of the iconic tunnel.
The Pendlebury family capturing a joyful selfie moment in the radiant light tunnel, marking the grand finale of the Illuminated Arboretum trail.