SIX theatrical Christmas trees are taking centre stage at National Trust’s Chirk Castle this festive season, inspired by original 1920s pantomime scripts and photographs belonging to the castle’s former residents.
While a trip to the local theatre to enjoy a pantomime is a Christmas tradition for many families in Wales today, for the De Walden family, who lived at the castle between 1911 and 1946, lavish performances at home were the custom.
Father of six and one of the richest men in the realm, Thomas Evelyn Scott-Ellis, 8th Lord Howard de Walden, wrote six pantomimes based on popular tales, which were performed by his family and close friends at the castle from 1923 to 1931.
These original scripts and photographs were unearthed from the archives by the Trust and to celebrate the collection, the conservation charity will bring the pantomimes back to life through a series of bespoke Christmas trees, each adorned with handmade decorations that depict the family’s favourite pantos, from Puss in Brutes to Beauty and the Beasts.
A dedicated team of staff and volunteers have spent hundreds of hours handmaking decorations, costumes and props for a Christmas of Make-Believe, which visitors can experience from 30 November 2019 to 5 January 2020.
Thomas Seymour, the grandson of Lord Howard de Walden, said:
“It was 1922 and the children wanted to act. My grandmother Margherita had six children under the age of ten with her husband Tommy so there were plenty of roles to be played.
“Over eight years, Tommy wrote six pantomimes with parts for all the family and friends. These were humorous adaptations of popular fairy tales, garnished with puns and wordplay, ridicule, slapstick and literary allusion.”
The family played many of the parts and brought in close friends and renowned designers such as costumier, Bruce Winston to bring the stories to life through flamboyant costume and sets.
Seymour added: “As the children matured, Tommy’s pantomimes grew more sophisticated. The Sleeping Beauty is a Shakespearean spoof in blank verse.”
The productions were put on after Christmas and located at the end of the Long Gallery, with the King’s bedroom serving as the Green Room.
The six trees of make-believe at Chirk Castle
- Cromwell Hall: Puss and Brutes. In the entrance to the main castle, this tree is based on the pantomime that the family put on in 1929.
- Grand Staircase: Jack and the Beanstalk. This large tree takes up the whole of the Grand Stairwell and has a model of Chirk Castle built on a cloud fashioned around the carriage lantern above the tree, with a beanstalk climbing all the way up and a model of Jack and the giant. Based on the family pantomime from 1931.
- Dining Room: Beauty and the Beasts. This tree is based on the family pantomime from 1924. It has paper flowers in red and yellow climbing up the tree out of a storybook.
- Saloon: Peter Pan. Lord Howard de Walden was the man who never grew up, and this tree represents his character and also his children playing in the castle. The tree is based on Peter Pan, with recognisable elements from the story, toys and games, and a fairy trail lighting it up.
- Long Gallery: Theatrical Tree. The Long Gallery was the room where the pantomimes were often performed, and this tree tells that story, with theatrical masks, scripts, and lights. Reproductions of the actual costumes that the family used to wear are displayed here.
- Bow Drawing Room: The Reluctant Dragon. Based on the family pantomime from 1923, this tree features a large red dragon.
Lord Howard De Walden and his family putting on a pantomine in the 1920s. Image credit Howard De Walden Estates.
See the Reluctant Dragon Christmas tree at Chirk Castle. Image credit: National Trust/ Natalie Overthrow.
It’s not just Chirk Castle with its theatrical decorations. Interpreting the history, conservation and cultivation at Dyffryn Gardens, visitors will be able to enjoy an interactive tree trail around the house and gardens. Built by staff and volunteers, trees made from logs from the arboretum, coal hangings to represent the Cory family’s link to mining, and floral and vegetal decorations to celebrate the grounds and kitchen gardens are just a few to be found.
At Dinefwr, the artist behind Abergavenny Food Festival’s much-anticipated market hall decorations has designed a forest worth of wildlife themed trimmings depicting the animals found at the country park to dress the trees. From the famous White Park cattle and fallow deer to woodland creatures, the decorations will be made from recycled fabric and foliage from the grounds.
Finally, staff and volunteers at Erddig will be using resources harvested from the estate to create trees big and small to tell the stories of skills past and present. From miniature forests made of gingerbread in celebration of recipes from cooks gone by to intricate paper crafted trees inspired by former servant, Betty Ratcliffe’s artwork. Visitors can also stroll under an avenue of stars within the shelter of garden trees, sculpted by local willow artist Mai Thomas, whose work is inspired by the natural landscape.
Jon Hignett, the National Trust’s Visitor Experience Manager at Chirk Castle, said: “Our special places are coming to life this Christmas as we celebrate traditions old and new through a series of magical tree trails and enchanting displays across Wales.
“From Chirk Castle’s pantomime-inspired Christmas to Dinefwr’s natural festivities, there are hundreds of handmade decorations to enjoy, each offering a glimpse into our places’ past and present-day tales.
“As well as making memories, by visiting us this festive season, you’re also helping to protect historic buildings, gardens and outdoor spaces for the future.”