It appeared to have been occupied by a gigantic, lurid army of gnomes, reindeers, snowmen, mermaids and fairies.
I’m not talking about titchy little models here. These things were huge, and there appeared to be hundreds of them. It felt as if I’d entered a slightly creepy theme park based on one of Walt Disney’s psychotherapy sessions.
It turns out that the super-sized installation is known as Bright Lights Botanic, “Northern Ireland’s first festival of light”.
According to the festival’s website, it involves 18,000 light bulbs, 25,000 metres of neon tubes and 10,000 metres of tree lighting, as well as 40 tons of steel and 20,000 metres of cable.
On most evenings between 11th November and 9th January, you can pay to spend an hour viewing the illuminations.
It doesn’t come cheap, however. Tickets cost £22 for an adult and £14 for a child or over-65, while children under 2 get in free. The festival’s Facebook page is already awash with people complaining about the eye-watering prices.
Perhaps the substantial entry cost is not surprising, given that the whole darn thing has been shipped to Northern Ireland from China, where the figurines are made.
Bright Lights Botanic is the creation of Zigong Lantern Group from Sichuan in southwestern China, which specialises in bringing customised lantern shows to venues around the world.
Zigong Lantern Group prides itself on its site-specific installations. Indeed, on the day I walked through Botanic, crews of workers, many of whom had come all the way from the Zigong factory in Sichuan, were busy unloading, unwrapping and setting up the figurines.
As you can imagine, this created quite a stir among passers-by. Like several other people, I watched as a gargantuan red and white toadstool was hoisted into place outside the Palm House.
I snapped a picture of the surreal sight with my phone.
Immediately, a local man in a high-vis jacket stopped me. “Taking photos of these workers is not allowed,” he said, before identifying himself as the site manager.
“Why not?” I asked, amazed.
Mr High-Vis didn’t — or perhaps couldn’t — give me a reason why I was not permitted to pop a pic of a huge spotty toadstool being borne aloft by a group of unidentifiable men in hard hats and face masks.
To be fair, when I subsequently spoke to Joe Gallagher, the affable Northern Ireland promoter behind the festival, he said that the manager had been wrong to intervene.
It did seem particularly absurd, given that Bright Lights Botanic itself was publishing photographs on social media of the workers installing the show.
But I’ve got to say, the authoritarian attitude on display increased my misgivings about the gnome-laden extravaganza.
Botanic Gardens is one of Belfast’s most beautiful parks. It’s a much-loved green space in the city where people can come to relax, and perhaps find some peace, among the trees, plants and spacious lawns, all of which are cared for by its dedicated team of gardeners.
For the best part of three months, that space will be chock-full of garish fairy-tale figures.
Where normally beds of snowdrops or winter-flowering pansies bloom, you’ll be more likely to find a giant steel-framed rose.
Look, I can appreciate the skill that goes into making these models, and maybe they look better when they’re lit up at night. But during the day, they only serve to detract from the natural beauty of the gardens.
I was keen to find out which committee or department of Belfast City Council had given permission for this lengthy, costly take-over of our lovely park. After all, it impacts substantially on the space available for citizens to use and enjoy.
But no dice. All a council spokeswoman would say was that “it’s an external event that has been granted permissions by Council to take place at our parks like other events in our parks.”
When my children were young, I remember taking them to the wonderful Enchanted Evenings that were held in Botanic Gardens. These were illuminations on a much smaller, more evocative scale. Actors, musicians and performers interacted with the youngsters who came to visit, eyes round with wonder. It was truly magical – and at a fraction of the price.
There’s no interaction with the static exhibits of Bright Lights Botanic. An hour’s viewing is probably more than enough — once you’ve seen one LED-lit gnome, there’s only so many more you can take.