Greenford illuminations

A couple of years ago Hugh Bonneville, star of “Downton Abbey” and “The Monuments Men” tweeted that no one does Christmas like New York. I tweeted back that it was obvious he hadn’t been to Greenford at Christmas, along with links to some photos. Thanks to his retweet thousands of people got a glimpse of British suburbia during the festive season. One Greenford household remains unaware that a Hollywood star loves their giant inflatable snowman.

It isn’t a universal habit in Greenford but it has become increasingly common for householders to mark this time of year by putting up some kind of display involving lights. Some of them have been doing it for years and their contributions to the illuminations become landmarks throughout December. Rudolph’s legs twitch beneath eaves that glisten with blue icicles in Greenford Road and three boxes tied with ribbon flash in turn big-medium-small-big-medium-small on the A40. There would probably be complaints, possibly even petitions, if they didn’t appear.

Over time they have been joined by Santas, snowflakes, other unnamed reindeer and the occasional sleigh. One house has accumulated fairy lights, inflatable snowmen and glowing silhouettes to the point where it must be a challenge to reach the front door. This year the collection includes an arch with “Merry Christmas” on it in front of the doorway. I mean, quite literally, in front of the doorway as it’s at chest height, so they must have to work their way under it to get into the house. The display is often complimented by a large, grumpy black and white cat who sits under the arch glowering at anyone walking past.

I used to wonder where on earth these things could be bought, I’d never seen them on sale anywhere so it must have taken a dedicated Christmasophile to track them down in the past. Today you can buy them online from DIY companies and supermarkets, in fact if this has inspired you to follow the example of Greenford’s more extrovert householders they are probably available at a lower price in the New Year. For £25 you can make your house look as though it’s dripping with the kind of icicles you only see north of the Arctic circle, although I’m not sure how the reindeer there would react to the flashing versions.

The flashing is something else. I’m surprised flights in and out of Heathrow aren’t warned in case they take a wrong turn and land on Greenford Flyover. One house in a side road that you would ignore the rest of the year becomes a startling wall of light visible from the A40, as giant snowflakes rotate through several colours. The ones I find disturbing involve fairy lights draped across houses, gardens and Christmas trees that look as though the controls are in the hands of someone experiencing a very bad trip or trying to induce one in passersby. Frenetic flashing in acid greens and reds aren’t as easy on the eye as gentle twinkles in shades of blue.

When I shared a photo of a particularly exuberant contribution to West London’s domestic Christmas displays the most common reaction was “How does anyone in the bedrooms at the front of that house get any sleep?!” My thought was “How does anyone across the road get any sleep?” If you’re not a fan of Santa and his little helpers, or regard the Christmas season as overcommercialised and too far removed from its origins as a religious festival it may start to grate on you after the first evening.

Most of these displays are tolerable and tolerated for a few weeks in the spirit of the season but I’ve noticed that a trend for households to have a mesh of lights across the front of their house throughout year has not caught on as it has in other areas. One appeared in Greenford Road but was eventually removed. At Christmas, even without a helping of snow, it looks acceptable. The rest of the time? Tacky…

I’m amazed that anyone can be bothered to put in the time and money to maintain, store and put up/take down all this stuff. It must involve some seriously scary moments on ladders at heights usually encountered by roofers and birds. Think of the space it must take up in the loft or the garden shed throughout the rest of the year. The strand of fairy lights that leave you feeling misty eyed and romantic on Christmas Eve could be regarded as nothing more than a tangly nuisance when that small but essential bit of lawnmower falls in amongst it in August.

I’m not a Christian but I do find it sad that there is more of this kind of thing and fewer of the Nativity scenes that I remember from childhood. I expect someone somewhere has a flashing Nativity set and I’m sure the Three Kings would lend themselves to an interpretation in LED but they haven’t appeared in Greenford yet. I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before they do.

The Christmas tradition that you can be sure of in Greenford is the sign outside the Bridge Hotel which counts down the days. It used to be up all year round but, in a effort to spruce up its appearance the management removed it. A public outcry saw its return for a few weeks each year. It’s as low tech as is possible, no flashing or twinkling, but in this part of the world it means that Santa is on his way.

Images and text © Albertina McNeill 2014. Do not reproduce without written permission on each occasion. All rights reserved. Do not add text or images to Pinterest or similar sites as this will be regarded as a violation of copyright.