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A festival of lights

Dome and Arches by Luminarie de Cagna, part of Lumiere Durham 2017. Image: Matthew Andrews

Stuart Forster is drawn to the bright lights of Lumiere Durham


Durham’s streets are rarely busy on chilly autumn nights. Tonight, though, the UK’s biggest light festival, Lumiere Durham, has drawn thousands of well-wrapped people to the north-eastern city.

Under normal circumstances I’d be able to stride uphill to Palace Green, the lawn between Durham Cathedral and the motte and bailey fortress that’s now part of Durham University, in just a couple of minutes. Not today. I’m shuffling behind a family dawdling with a pushchair and boxed in by chatting, hand-holding couples.

I’ve got plenty of time to view the equine statue of the Third Marquess of Londonderry, in military uniform, on Market Place. He became part of a giant snowglobe during the 2011 edition of Lumiere Durham, when a giant Perspex dome was popped over him. Wind machines intermittently whipped up a storm of Styrofoam particles inside the hemisphere. A neon light, on the plinth, glowed ‘I LOVE DURHAM’ in pink capital letters, all the creation of French artist Jacques Rival.

International and UK-based artists have participated in Lumiere Durham since its inception in 2009. My favourite installation so far has been Mysticète, a video sequence of a breaching whale. Projected onto a misty screen of water on the river, and synchronised to a haunting soundtrack, the work made a surprisingly realistic impact when seen from Elvet Bridge in 2015.

The 2017 edition of Lumiere Durham saw 29 artworks displayed around the city, which occupies a steep-sided hill on a jutting loop in the River Wear. That geography helped make the peninsula easy to defend during medieval times, explaining why William the Conqueror ordered a castle to be built here in 1072.

On Saddler Street, children twirl luminous toys. A queue backs out of Bells Fish & Chips — maybe I’ll return later. A few feet away, a man slips a curry sauce-smothered chip into his mouth.

He’s probably devoured his supper by the time I eventually lay eyes on the illuminated facade of the cathedral. Along with the castle, the Romanesque place of worship has been a designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1986. Previous editions of Lumiere Durham have featured colourful illustrations from the Lindisfarne Gospels being projected onto the cathedral.

This year Methods, a new work by Pablo Valbuena, will be accompanied by the ringing of the cathedral’s bells. I wait for the show to begin.


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