Efficient LEDs attract visitors to award winning UK castle

November 2008
5 minute read

Whilst attractions like award-winning Muncaster Castle in the England's Lake District overflow with visitors in the summer season, extending that popularity as the nights draw in is at the same time a challenge and a commercial necessity for operators.

Country houses like Muncaster have a great history of pioneering new technology. Peter Frost-Pennington, whose family have occupied the castle for 800 years, was thus maintaining a proud tradition when he turned to Marl for innovative LED lighting solutions that would not only make access safe and practical for visitors, but could become an attraction in themselves.

Major attraction

Muncaster currently attracts over 90,000 visitors a year, and the imagination and energy devoted to its development is reflected in the array of awards it has gleaned. In 2006 for example it gained the Large Visitor Attraction of the Year Award 2006, in the Cumbria for Excellence Awards, and in 2003 it won an Excellence in England award for the best visitor attraction.

One of the best ways of growing this number is to extend the season beyond the peak May – September months right out into the autumn. Usually Muncaster closes its gates at dusk, and visitors only see the splendid gardens during daylight hours. However as night time approaches the gardens take on a completely different persona, particularly as there is little residual light from anywhere else to disturb the sheer darkness of the rural Lake District.

Muncaster has much to offer the nocturnal visitor, not least reputedly England's finest array of ghosts, but there are some specific access issues associated with hosting of visitors after dark.

The most obvious is the 800m walk from the main gate to the castle, which would certainly need to be lit. Equally important is the need for emergency lighting, to maintain safety should the mains supply fail for any reason. The most significant challenge, however, is to give visitors a reason to come.

Metal Halide trial

In 2003, Peter Frost-Pennington started to experiment with floodlights around the gardens – placing 150W metal halide lights directed onto the trees and smaller 50W halogen lights as a fill-in along the walk from the car park. This "Darkest Muncaster" concept was established with the aid of grants from the Millennium Commission and Rural Regeneration Cumbria. The synchronised combination of lights, music, sound and special effects transforms Muncaster's famous gardens into an experience which tingles the senses and entertains the entire family.

Around the Castle itself, Peter created 2 separate lighting "shows" one using the front face of the Castle as a massive screen for computer projections and the other using programmed lighting units in the small valley or ghyll bordering 2 other sides of the Castle. For this ever changing "Ghyll Show" he used a combination of 500W Tungsten Halogen lights and the smaller 50W halogen lights since the standard metal halide lights take several seconds to reach full strength, and need a ten-minute cooling down period before restarting.

Although effective, these types of light are costly to operate. Lifetimes for both the Halogen and the metal halide lights are in the region of 1000 hours use, and their impact on the Castle energy bill was quite noticeable.

LEDs in Darkest Muncaster

As he developed and extended the Darkest Muncaster concept, Frost-Pennington identified Marl as a source of LED lighting, suitable for outdoor use that would match the light output of his existing units but using much lower energy – and with bulb life of 70,000 to 100,000 hours. Peter Frost-Pennington has added Marl LED lamps extensively into the Ghyll Show. Aztec 5W light fittings were installed in as many windows as possible on that side of the Castle, replacing existing 50W fittings. This gives a 90% reduction in energy use.

Marl RGB light engines are particularly effective in this kind of application, as they mix light colour at source – eliminating annoying effects such as triple shadows and fringes. They can fade elegantly from colour to colour – giving the impression that the building is ablaze for example, or providing a 'Mexican wave' effect. With over 16 million colours available for each light, the only constraint on the effects achievable is really the imagination of the designer.

Marl RGB colour change lighting solutions include built in DMX drivers, allowing direct addressing by control consoles. Working closely with lighting designers and Marl's technical staff, it is now possible to easily programme, change and improve shows. In the future, Frost-Pennington hopes to attract other artists and lighting designers to Muncaster to play with the system, creating bespoke effects and eventually co-ordinating these effects with music.

Protecting the environment

The environmental side of this operation is close to Peter Frost-Pennington's heart, living and working in one of England's most beautiful and isolated country areas.

"We're very aware of our surroundings," he explained. "Visitors are always surprised at how dark Muncaster is at night – and it was important to me that our effect lighting is contained to our premises, and doesn't cause unnecessary light pollution in the surrounding area."

Noise considerations ruled out fireworks. Muncaster is the Headquarters of the World Owl Trust – and hosts one of the finest collections of these birds. "Clearly we didn't want to stress our captive birds – let alone the wildlife of the area, of which there is plenty," explained Frost-Pennington. "Darkest Muncaster provides visitors with a breathtaking visual experience without the loud bangs of fireworks."

Finally, energy consumption is always an issue, both from a cost and a carbon emissions perspective. Frost-Pennington said "In one case, we were able to use a single 5W LED lamp to replace two 500W halogen units gelled with different colours. The energy savings achieved by moving to LED lighting are very significant."


Health and safety is always a top priority for Peter Frost-Pennington, and providing sufficient light to allow visitors to evacuate safely in the event of a power failure was an important issue.

"Normally, safety lighting requires a back-up generator to operate, but LED lights are so efficient that strings of them can be run from a normal UPS for the twenty minutes it takes for visitors to return to their cars," he explained. "This means that the safety lights come on instantly, avoiding the start up delay you would unavoidably get if we were using a generator."

The Future

LED lighting is advancing rapidly, with new and more powerful solutions emerging all of the time. As suitable solutions emerge, the 150W metal halide lamps lighting the path from the car park are obvious targets for replacement. LED lamps able to match the output of the 500W Tungsten Halogen lights are also on the cards. There are four projectors illuminating the front of the castle, and eight 250W up lighters covering the aspect facing the Ghyll. All of these could potentially be fulfilled with LED lamps.

England's country houses were amongst the first to embrace many technologies that are now commonplace in every home. Electric light is just one example. Refrigeration is another. Now again, Muncaster is leading the way with a new lighting technology.