The UK’s largest light festival returns to Durham in 2023 with a promise of being better than ever. To help plan your visit or inspire you to attend, this is my guide to Lumiere.
Every two years, on four cold, dark nights of November, the city of Durham and the wider county transforms with the arrival of the UK’s largest light festival; Lumiere. The streets, the cathedral and many other iconic sights are lit up with giant outdoor art installations by world-renowned artists.
Lumiere first took place in 2009 with 22 installations and has grown into the festival we see today thanks to the producers Artichoke, This is Durham and Durham County Council. In this short guide to Lumiere, I’ll take you through the highlights of this year’s event alongside insightful tips to either help you plan your visit or inspire you to visit whether this year or in two years’ time. I’ll also share some of my personal favourite photos from recent events including Lumiere’s 10th anniversiary in 2019. You never know, some of the previous artworks may end up making a triumphant return in the future or becoming permanent fixtures.
A GUIDE TO LUMIERE 2023
WHAT TO EXPECT AT LUMIERE 2023
Lumiere returns to Durham over four nights from 16th to 19th November with over 40 installations. Last time out, Finchale Priory got the special treatment with a unique lightshow however, this year, Lumiere shines the spotlight on Bishop Auckland in County Durham with four works including two that interact with the Spanish Gallery and the Auckland Tower. Not only will visitors be able to experience plenty of amazing light installations in the city, you’ll be able to head to one of the county’s most revitalised towns which is also home to the excellent Auckland Project.
Lumiere 2023 promises to be bigger and better than ever and, now that I’ve been treated to a preview of the event, I can assure you that it definitely will be! Whilst I don’t want to spoil what’s on offer too much, I’ll highlight some of my favourites so you know what to expect at Lumiere 2023.
#28 Pulse Topology – Rafael Lozano-Hemmer
Let’s start at the best piece of artwork that Lumiere has ever showcased, Pulse Topology, consisting of 4,500 lightbulbs suspended in a wave-like form in Durham Cathedral’s nave. The view is spectacular enough but the unique connection to humanity is something else. Visitors can interact by recording their heartbeat, which then plays over the speakers, and is allocated to one of the many lightbulbs. That lightbulb burns brighter than all others for a short period of time and pulsates in time with your pulse (until another 4,500 visitors pass through and yours is ultimately replaced).
#11 – Parallels – Architecture Social Club
Deep under the Prince Bishops shopping centre, in what appears to be a loading bay, you’ll find Parallels created by Architecture Social Club (a collection of designers, architects, technicians and makers). The industrial setting is perfect for the show which incorporates thousands of lasers, smoke and sound. This is not one for those who suffer from epilepsy due to the flashing lights!
#14 – On Blank Pages – Luzinterruptus
You’ll find ‘On Blank Pages’ in the middle of Walkergate which is a very thought-provoking artwork that sparks conversations and invites visitors to write their thoughts on the UK’s justice system. There are hundreds of notebooks that can be written on along with many pages already covered with works and words from those incarcerated in HMP Frankland and a women’s prison too as well as refugees; those who have direct experience of the justice system.
#24 – Hurts So Good – Chila Burman
This is a unique set of neon light artworks in Durham’s market place that celebrates multi-culturalism with the artist’s own rich Hindu-Punjabi heritage providing the inspiration. You’ll find a neon white tiger along with references to Indian mythology, popular culture and political activism.
#29 – Illuminated Bottle Rack – Ai Weiwei
61 vintage chandeliers make up this impressive installation in the beautiful Chapter House at Durham Cathedral. The upside-down bottle rack is used as the branches of the even grander chandelier. I’m not sure there could be a more ideal location for this artwork; it definitely can’t be missed.
#30 – Inner Cloister – Adam Frelin
Durham Cathedral’s cloister is very famous, having been used as a filming location for the first Harry Potter movie. The art installation replicates the cloister’s arches and lights in sequence to emulate the passage of monks who wandered these very corridors.
The entirety of Durham cathedral and the buildings that surround the square are lit up with an hour-long loop of shapes and geometric patterns. This is beautiful to watch though you may find that you don’t stay for the full hour. If you return at different times, you may however catch different parts of the loop!
Bishop Auckland – Highlights
We spent a short time in the market place of Bishop Auckland where there are four pieces of artwork on display for visitors (who can attend with no ticket). In order of the most impressive first, The Drop on the Auckland Tower, Amalgama Spanish Gallery, Illumaphonium and Flowers and Chandeliers.
HIGHLIGHTS OF PAST EVENTS
I’ve visited Lumiere in Durham on three previous occasions; once many years ago back in 2011 and then twice in 2019 and 2021 having been invited by Artichoke to experience a sneak preview of the festival. I’ve seen many different pieces of artwork but I can’t share photos of every single one as it would take too long! So, here’s a short collection of my favourite images of Lumiere past.
PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS FOR LUMIERE
The main question I always have when visiting Lumiere, given that we are talking about night photography, is whether you should take a tripod or not. A tripod is of course essential in certain situations but, with the Fujifilm cameras, I’ve never been afraid to raise the ISO (and in turn deal with more noise in the images) so that I can shoot handheld.
I now have the Fujifilm X-T5 which has one of my favourite ever features built-in and that’s the In-Body Image Stabilisation. This means that it’s even easier to ditch the tripod as you can open the shutter for much longer; I’m talking super sharp photos from shutter speeds like 1/4 of a second! So, therefore, in my view, you could easily leave the tripod at home and still capture great evening shots.
In terms of lenses, I found that my favourite images were, as always, shot with the Fujifilm 35mm f/1.4. That lens is just magical. I also enjoyed using the Fujifilm 18mm f/1.4 for wider shots.
I’d also say that you shouldn’t be afraid of the weather. Yes it’s likely to be cold and wet but I found that some of the best images come from the reflections of the artificial light in puddles and off the cobbled streets.
Thankfully, Lumiere is completely free to attend though tickets are required for entry to Durham’s city centre (the peninsula) during the peak times of 4:30pm to 7:30pm. Tickets do sell out quickly so, if you didn’t manage, don’t worry as you’ll still be able to experience the whole of Lumiere until 11pm each night. Things can also get a little busy with ticket checks so be prepared. From 7:30pm onwards, you don’t need a ticket and you may end up experiencing the festival with fewer crowds.
HOW TO GET TO LUMIERE
The best way to get into Durham to visit Lumiere is to utilise the Park & Ride service with five sites on the outskirts of the city. Additional parking spaces have been added bringing the maximum cars that can be parked at any one point up to 6,000! To avoid painful traffic jams, I’d highly recommend spending £2 on the shuttle buses which run regularly until 11:30pm.
Travelling to Bishop Auckland is much easier and you’re probably less likely to be stuck in traffic though you never know! There is amble free parking in the evenings in Bishop Auckland or you can jump on the #6 bus from Durham.
WHERE TO EAT / DRINK / STAY IN DURHAM
For four nights, Durham will see a huge influx of visitors both those living locally and those who have made the trip especially to experience Lumiere. Hotels and B&Bs will often be fully booked for this event so make sure you plan ahead and book early. A few great places to stay in the centre of Durham are the Radisson Blu Hotel on the River Wear, Hotel Indigo and, for somewhere a little more luxurious, 40 Winks Guest House.
There are of course many great places to eat and drink in Durham that we could be here all night so I’ll just leave a few of my favourites here: Flat White Kitchen, Tango, Head of Steam & Pizza Punks. If you want more detailed information, head over to my specific posts ‘The Best Places to Eat in Durham’s City Centre’, ‘The Best Bars and Pubs in Durham’, ‘How to Spend a Perfect Weekend in Durham’ or ‘The 6 Best Cafes in Durham.’
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