Enchanted Audley: Families' anger at last-minute cancellation of Christmas lights event at Audley End House and Gardens near Saffron Walden
Visitors on their way to Audley End House and Gardens were left fuming after organisers pulled the plug on the attraction's outdoor Christmas lights display less than an hour before the gates opened on Wednesday (Dec 29).
Families – one of whom had travelled for more than two-and-a-half hours for the Enchanted Audley event – were left consoling upset children who had been looking forward to the festive spectacular, in which the grounds of the historic stately home near Saffron Walden are illuminated and transformed into a magical winter wonderland.
Thursday's (Dec 30) final session in the season has also been cancelled. A notice on Audley End House and Gardens' website and Facebook page states it is "due to safety issues in our car park" following heavy rainfall.
"Unfortunately we have taken the difficult decision to cancel tonight's Enchanted Audley as the car park is still extremely waterlogged making it unsafe for visitors. We are so sorry for the disappointment and inconvenience caused and please be assured you will be automatically refunded," said the statement.
But the apology did little to appease angry customers, who flooded Audley End's Facebook page with comments. The announcement was posted at 4.20pm on Wednesday – 10 minutes before the first visiting slot. Many complained they had not received an email that owner English Heritage says was sent shortly after 3pm – and arrived to find the event closed. Others were en route and had to turn back.
"My one and only event with all my family together for Christmas," wrote Andy Braithwaite. "We were IN THE CAR on our way when the email came through. We are all so upset, especially the children and a disabled young adult who does not understand that we are now not going and basically went for a cross country drive instead.
"Please consider extending this event and giving free tickets to those whose evenings have been completely ruined and other costs involved too! The one safe outdoor event we could all attend together with our disabled child and all the family, totally ruined. It rains every year. It's always wet yet you haven't put measures in place to prevent this. What a terrible let down."
Olivia Culley was one of several who questioned why the car park for Audley End's miniature railway was not used or people were not directed to park in Saffron Walden, from where they could walk to the attraction.
"There is a car park opposite which could have been used at the miniature railway which could have solved the issue," she said. "Letting guests know through Facebook and not through a phone call or at least an email is unaccepatable, and when I tried to call I got hung up on."
Rob Daykin said: "Thanks a lot. I made a two-and-a-half-hour drive and arrived for my 5pm booking to be told you emailed me to cancel. An email at nearly 3.40pm is no good to me. I could have parked in Saffron Walden and walked to the property no problem if parking was the only issue.
"By all accounts from local people it's not like there was suddenly excessive rainfall earlier today."
Nic Webb said her five-year-old was "heartbroken" at the closure. "This was our last family event for Xmas and we were all so excited," she said.
Ellie Edwards urged English Heritage to have better contingency plans in place. "I have been a member of EH for years and never had a bad word to say – nothing but praise. But we are so gutted this was cancelled. We would have walked from an alternative spot miles down the road, done anything to see the lights.
"We were about 10 minutes away when the email came through. My six-year-old was still crying when I put her to bed. Just so gutted. Please have a contingency plan in place in future to avoid this and other families being disappointed."
A spokesperson for Audley End House and Gardens responding to the Facebook comments said that the miniature railway was owned by another organisation and other car parks were inaccessible. "The small hardstanding car park is currently where the fairground rides are set up. East car park is also inaccessible due to the event set-up. Apologies for the disappointment and inconvenience caused."
In a further statement issued on Thursday, English Heritage admitted it had failed to act quickly enough.
“We’re very sorry that Enchanted Audley was cancelled for its two final nights on Wednesday and Thursday, and especially for the short notice in letting people know on the Wednesday.
"We know how much people have loved Enchanted Audley and we were obviously hoping that Wednesday night's event could still go ahead, but as it got closer to opening, it became more and more clear that owing to heavy rain over the last few weeks and the waterlogged car park, it just wasn’t to be – we should have alerted people sooner.
"For Thursday’s event, we made sure to let people know in plenty of time. Anyone who booked tickets will be automatically refunded and, again, we’d like to apologise for the disappointment and inconvenience caused.”
An annual event, Enchanted Audley opened on December 9. Visitors were offered booking slots every half-an-hour from 4pm until 7.30pm to experience the magical light displays set up around the grounds, with the historic house lit up with festive projections, a dazzling light tunnel and colourful displays among the trees and lakes.