THE Christmas countdown starts in Toft Hill when the lights go on at this house.

Grandfather-of-seven Lewis McLeavey began decorating his home and garden in the centre of the village, near Bishop Auckland, in the early 1990s to entertain his own family.

Each year the display grew, and now takes almost three days to set up.

The lorry driver, who turns 78 on December 22, said: "The grandkids wanted to see people's lights and I thought, rather than trailing all over, I'd do it myself.

"It just got bigger.

"The next door neighbours always ask when they're going up, there's a bouncer along the road loves it, children, adults, teenagers, everyone says how much they love it.

"It is about the bairns, seeing a little face pop over the wall to look or hearing them talk about it is so special."

One treasured feature of the garden is a conifer covered in fairy lights – which Mr McLeavey and wife Lorna planted in memory of grandson Kieran who died at 13 days old, in 1994.

The years and weather have taken their toll on some of the decorations.

Mr McLeavey said: "They're getting rusty, held together with cable ties, some of the lights have gone out and one of my Santas got so brittle I put my finger through it.

"I cannot replace all the bits but keep patching them up.

"It isn't easy to get the freestanding ones now, we heard of a warehouse so drove down to Huddersfield, cost £90 in fuel but I'll go anywhere to get them,

"I saw this big £1,200 tree but she wouldn't let me have it, to be fair I'd have needed a big concrete block to stand it on and you couldn't replace the bulbs.

"I've lost a lot recently and some of them don't move anymore but still look good when they're all out together."

Neighbours have donated money towards the display in the past and a residents give £270 to Mr McLeavey to add to the display after Facebook fundraiser this month.

He said: "I opened a card and read what people had done and thought and it brought a tear to my eye."

Carey Latcham, who lives next door and started the online fundraiser, said: "Like most villages, we don’t have any Christmas lights, and Mr McLeavey's display lights our village up and gives families a place to go.

"Some children think it’s Santa’s house.

"I thought it was a good idea if everyone pitched in to buy a light or lights, to say thank you for giving our village some festive spirit."

The Northern Echo:

Living beside the A68, drivers often stop to admire the display.

Mr McLeavey said: "I've had people from Germany, the Netherlands and France stop on their way to Scotland for New Year.

"When the Polar Express Christmas train was running up Weardale, people were on the street in their pyjamas.

""Years ago, half a dozen police got out a van to take pictures and we were out once and got a call to say a bus of children with special needs were upset the lights weren't on when they drove past, so we came home so they could come back and see them."

And every year Daybreak Nursery takes children to see the lights, which are so impressive Santa has spotted them and visits to hand out sweets.

Nursery owner Joanne Hardy said: "It is an amazing experience for the children and Mr and Mrs McLeavey do it out of the goodness of their hearts. It is a special thing, they won't take a penny and I once sent them flowers to say thanks and got wrong for that."