Durham, England, Europe and Middle East, Trip Reviews, United Kingdom

Lumiere Festival of Light in Durham

23/11/2021 by .
Lumiere Festival of Light

Rupert Parker sees this northeastern city lit up for its bi-annual Lumiere Festival of Light

Forget Blackpool, Durham, in the North East, is where the real illuminations happen. Lumiere is the UK’s leading light festival and was first staged in 2009 here as a one-off but was so popular that it now happens every two years. In 2021 there are 37 works including, for the first time, six scattered across the county. It takes place over four days in November and over 150,000 people are attending.

I arrive in Durham for the first night and it’s obvious there’s something big happening as roads are being blocked off, parking is restricted and yellow coated officials are erecting barriers. Entry is free but people have had to pre-register because of Covid precautions, and all tickets have been snapped up. Fortunately, I’ve got mine and I set out into the countryside to Finchale Priory, a 12th-century holiday home for the monks of Durham Cathedral.

FInchale Priory

All is dark, as I’m escorted along a path until I suddenly come face to face with the ruins and the installation Solitude. Inspired by hermit St Godric’s life, Finnish artist Kari Kola has designed an atmospheric changing play of patterned projections on the priory’s walls, shining through smoke, accompanied by a soundscape composed by Sylvain Moreau. It’s brilliantly successful and it seems a shame that it’s only destined to last for four days.

Ushaw Hymn to the Big Wheel

Next, I travel to Ushaw Historic House to see Hymn to the Big Wheel by Liz West. No ruins here but outside the house is a collection of what look like multi-coloured shower screens. This is an immersive sculptural work and the optics and colours change as you move around the installation. People inside cast multi-coloured moving shadows on the ground, like a giant cosmic sundial.

There’s no time to see the other four installations in the landscape, as it’s now completely dark so I head back to the city to see what’s on offer. On the riverbank are a cluster of super-sized hinged angle-poise lamps and as I cross the river there are pairs of illuminated magpies perched on the lamp posts. Poetic texts scroll across the buildings above, drawing me further into the city centre.

One side of Durham Cathedral is home to shape-shifting video-mapped projections, inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead. This is In Our Hearts Blind Hope by Richard Hammarton, taking us a journey from reflection to celebration and from death to rebirth. It’s a stunning 12-minute sequence, starting with candles and reaching an electrifying crescendo with natural sounds of insects mixed with a vibrant orchestral score. Not least it allows you to contemplate the fantastic architecture that is the cathedral.

Durham Lights

Just nearby, on College Green is a glowing cityscape of lanterns, City of Light, City of Stories. Members of the community worked with lantern artists to create a miniature city out of wire and tracing paper. It sprawls across the green with illuminated streets, houses and architectural wonders. The soundscape fuses original music and poetry with stories gathered from locals, making a defiant gesture to town planning.

City of Light City of Stories

The historic marketplace has been colonised by a Gallic LED rock band, aptly named The Froggs. To the sound of what can only be French Pop, a huge group of white skeletal illuminated musicians bounce around the stage, complete with brass section, and a crazy singer gets all Mick Jagger. It’s a good place to warm up, tapping out the rhythms, and is certainly a crowd-pleaser.

The Froggs

I’ve seen these light installations in other cities, notably in Switzerland, and this is certainly up there with the best of them. The triumph is that it takes over the city centre completely and feels completely organic. Durham is bidding for UK City of Culture 2025 and has reached the shortlist of eight. Given this fantastic Lumiere Festival of Light, it justly deserves to win.


Tell Me More About Lumiere Festival Of Light In Durham


You’ll have to wait two years for the next Lumiere Festival of Lightn in 2023, but here is more information about this year.

Artichoke curated Lumiere Festival of Light and works with artists to create extraordinary and ambitious public art in cities, the countryside and on coastlines around the UK.

Visit County Durham has tourist information.




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