Behind the scenes of Christmas at Hever Castle

December 12 2023 | Castle

You might be a planner or a last minute buyer but chances are you won’t be thinking about Christmas more than a year in advance.

But at Hever Castle & Gardens it takes 13 months to plan the Christmas activities for visitors so preparation for November 2023 started in October 2022.

It is an all hands on deck affair with staff members from retail, maintenance, housekeeping, visitor services, marketing and gardening all involved.

Design Manager Caz Pagden starts working on props for the festive trail in January and continues working on them throughout the year. Everything is made in house.

All the contractors from Father Christmas to the fairground attractions are confirmed by the end of January.

With the debrief from the previous year done Retail Manager Ashley Collins attends the main Christmas trade fairs; one in Birmingham and the biggest one in the world, Christmas World in Frankfurt in January.

He looks for new stock for the Hever Shop as well as any additions needed for the decorations in the Castle.

He says: “Some of the stands have over £1m worth of decorations. There are 3,000 stands with 60,000 people from around the world. Most of the companies I use in Europe only supply three or four organisations in the area so it is pretty exclusive.”

When Ashley returns from the fairs he only has a few weeks to plan what he would like to order as he needs to confirm his stock requirements by the end of February to arrive from the first week of September.

Adding the extra Christmas stock to the system is a big job for those working in the Hever Shop. Usually there are 3,000 items at one time sold in the shop – Christmas adds an extra 1,500.

In May/June meetings take place with heads of departments for more detailed planning of the event including any additional storytellers, where any extra food provision is needed as well as marketing materials.

Every year the historic attraction tries to have one or two new things to improve the visitor experience.

Marketing starts by the August bank holiday weekend and annual members can start booking in September with non members two weeks later.

From the end of August there are monthly planning meetings. At the end of September visitor services, maintenance and retail have separate meetings to put together a more detailed time frame of actions needed. A calendar with a daily countdown from 1 October is put together.

Festive items will go on sale in the shop from the third week of September.

September is also the time to start thinking about the decoration of the Castle. As items arrive everything is grouped together in terms of the room it will go in and all the lights are checked.

On average each tree has a minimum of 200 lights on them or candle lights.

Head Gardener Neil Miller puts in the order for trees in October for the Castle, the bed and breakfast, grotto and Christmas trail.

Sixty per cent of the trees are from Kentish suppliers with the rest from the UK. Each year 50-100 small Christmas trees are planted on the Estate so in about 10 year’s time the site will be more sustainable.

From October the lighting starts to go in, organised mainly by Kent-based STL.

The second week of November the trees come in. They have to last 6-8 weeks so they are put in at the last minute and well watered (especially the ones near the open fires). Some of them have to be replaced and are done just before Christmas.

It takes around 10 people two days to dress the Castle for Christmas. Inhouse florist Pamela Brise themes the flowers around the rooms.

Extra operations staff are drafted in every day from the second week of November doing jobs such as building the grotto and putting together the Christmas trail (which is different every year).

A staff preview event is held before the event opens (17 November this year) to iron out any teething problems before it opens to the public the following day.

Then the first day after the first of January everything is taken down and the trees are shredded and recycled for compost.

About the event this year:

Rooms of the Castle will be beautifully decorated with twinkling lights and welcoming log fires.

Visitors can enjoy another story from the Festive Forest for 2023 and explore the charming ‘Lost in the Festive Forest’ Christmas Trail with Red the Squirrel.

Discover the story of Ted, the forgetful old bear who has lost his way in the Festive Forest.

Visitors can see the animals in their habitats and houses along the trail with the story featuring Red the Squirrel, Ted and his friends including Shrew, Beaver, Fox and Mole.

The captivating handcrafted bespoke displays on the Christmas Trail includes a visit to Mr Stitch the Shrew in his beautiful Tudor style tailor shop, Patrick Mole star spotting in the observatory, Woody the Beaver toasting marshmallows around a campfire and Ted being guided home by Red.

On selected dates visitors can meet characters from the Festive Forest in the grounds of Hever Castle.

The magical Christmas Lights experience starts from 4pm when visitors can wrap up warm and enjoy a walk under the stars to explore the grounds. Witness the enchantment of the Castle, gardens and lake festooned with fabulous colours and twinkling lights, capturing the spirit of Christmas.

Revel in the Christmas spirit at Hever Castle from 18 November – 1 January, now in its 17th year.

Christmas decorations and gifts are now on sale in the Hever Shop.