Durham Lumiere 2011

“STOP MOANING!” shout Mum and I in unison at the whinging fifty-year-old who’s throwing a paddy in the front seat. He’s my Dad, and we’ve dragged him to Durham on a cold November night when he’d much rather be at home on his sofa guessing the judges’ scores on the Strictly Come Dancing Wembley special.

“HRMPH,” he replies, extra loud this time, as we hit another queue of traffic. It’s Saturday night and we’ve come to see the Lumiere light festival. “Media attention has been huge, it looks amazing, and it’s Saturday, of course there’s going to be quite a lot of people there,” we tell him over and over again, but he’s not having it; he’s missing Brucie and Tess.

‘Quite a lot of people’ is a huge understatement – the city is packed. Thousands of people – 140,000 to be exact – have squeezed into the narrow cobbled streets, some waving glow sticks, others brandishing hot dogs, all with smiles on their faces, except of course for Dad.

Following the massive crowds we eventually make it to the Market Place where we’re met by a huge snow globe covering the statue of the third Marquess of Londonderry. The neon lights adorning the plinth the horse stands on read: I LOVE DURHAM. It’s really tacky, but a brilliant welcome into the city.

Having never been to Durham before though, we’ve got no idea how to get to the cathedral so we just join the massive crowds that look like they’re trying to head in that direction. A one-way system and no signs telling you where to go makes the whole thing unnecessarily chaotic. “It’s a good job we’re not claustrophobic,” I hear a woman next to me say to her little boy who is wedged between the legs of much taller adults. Another lady tries to get to her family meal at La Tasca. “The table’s booked for 8, everyone else is there and I’ve been stuck in this crowd for an hour and a half,” she wails.

It’s crazy, we knew it was going to be busy but not this busy. “It had better be worth it,” pipes up the moody toddler. Wait, I mean Dad.

Eventually we reach the cathedral where hundreds gather to watch Crown of Light, a series of images from the Lindisfarne Gospels projected onto the building’s north face. In short, it’s spectacularly disappointing. Having seen the mother of all light projections at this year’s Illuminating York we were expecting something a little more sophisticated than still images on a canvas as brilliant as Durham Cathedral. I’m starting to think Dad had the right idea wanting to stay at home after all…

However all whinging is suddenly cut short as we leave the show early and enter the cathedral. Inside, a group of French “fire alchemists” named Compagnie Carabosse have filled the building with lanterns made from miners’ vests, bathing the cavernous interior with a warm, orange glow. I’ve never seen anything like it – it’s beautiful. A man at the altar with his guitar fills the building with a soundtrack that can only be described as Enya on acid, while everyone else walks around open-mouthed in awe.  It’s spectacular, and for the first time tonight, Dad’s stopped whinging.

Outside, the cathedral grounds have been transformed into some sort of weird medieval pageant. Fires contained in small plant pots gently swirl up the trunks of trees while other larger ones spit furiously to cries of “WOAH!” Hot coals encased in spheres of mesh are dotted around the grass like red planets, and creepy sculptures line the gardens’ edge. There’s nobody telling us to keep away from the fire, instead we are free to explore, soak up the atmosphere and warm our hands on the flames. It’s absolutely incredible, the atmosphere is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before: a mixture of Leeds Festival and a medieval bonfire night.

On a high after the amazing sights at the cathedral, we wander for hours around Durham’s winding cobbled streets, stumbling across a number of installations, including Deadgood Studios’ Rainbow, a piece bathing Prebends Bridge in multicoloured light while projecting a faint rainbow onto the inky black sky. After a series of wrong turns and charming little backstreets we also find Peter Lewis’ Splash which, through some crazy piece of engineering, has turned Kingsgate Bridge into an enormous, illuminated waterfall. There’s something  ethereal about it – it doesn’t seem real – it’s as if it’s appeared by accident, and could disappear at any minute.

As if Durham wasn’t charming enough, Lumiere and the throngs of people it brought with it made for an unforgettable night. Yes there were crowds and the organisation could have been better, but these were soon forgotten at the sight of these incredible pieces of art.

“Well, I’m really glad I came – that was brilliant,” says Dad as we get back to the car. Says it all really.


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