Lumiere: let there be light

– Originally published in Palatinate Comment in November 2015 –
Last week, Durham was transformed from a sleepy market city into a hive of activity. The fourth Lumiere arrived, bringing with it thousands of visitors to a city that wasn’t designed to be so crowded.

Only during the annual Miners’ Gala, when most students are back home, have I ever seen so many people line Durham’s streets. While the Miners’ Gala is a celebration of the mining heritage of Durham and its surrounding pit villages, Lumiere is simply a series of art installations bringing light to dark winter evenings.

The disruption caused by Lumiere is perhaps less justifiable, although the experience of watching such a spectacular event weakened my concern over the light festival’s negative effects. After all, during our time in Durham, we will experience just one or two Lumieres.

Visiting Lumiere on the Friday evening, before heading back home for the weekend, was a great experience. I was outside only a few hours and saw quite a few of the displays, from the whale under Elvet Bridge to the black hole consuming the Cathedral during the light show. Once I had seen what I wanted, I was able to walk up North Road and hop on a train, for an undisturbed night in my own bed.

However, it is the residents of Hawthorn Terrace I feel sorry for. While the music emanating from the Cathedral reaches inside of Elvet Riverside and even as far as Whinney Hill, it is just a low hum in the background. You can wash the dishes or procrastinate with the latest episode of your favourite show without much distraction. Over on Hawthorn Terrace, as one resident recently told a student news site, the incessant sound of ‘Home Sweet Home Durham’ is much more of an inconvenience. It seems more than a little unfair that the people living on that street have been singled out for misery during Lumiere. After all, the disruption for most students is restricted to being unable to access their college libraries up on the Bailey from 4.30-­7.30pm. Which isn’t exactly the most devastating of things to happen…

While people working in Durham may struggle to make their way home due to the traffic restrictions in place, Lumiere can only be positive for local shops and restaurants. It is also a good deal for other local businesses. With thousands of people brought to the city centre of Durham over the course of the weekend, stalls were set up outside of cafes and shops selling gloves, light ­up toys, coffee and mulled wine.

The wave sculpture in Fowler’s Yard brought increased footfall to the artisan shops nearby, and I spotted a gorgeous cafe I had never even noticed before. Lumiere has given people an excuse to explore the city, seeing the alleyways and small streets they might otherwise have missed. During the course of the academic year there is much tension between locals and students. Lumiere broke down the divisions between us, if only for a few short days. In the massive crowd standing in the mud on Palace Green, gazing up at the cathedral, you could not see who was a student and who was a local resident. When I spotted the light­-up car on North Road, featuring an iconic symbol from my home town, it reminded me that Durham isn’t really so far from home, it’s just that the city is a bubble, keeping us cocooned inside.

Lumiere burst that bubble and showed the true spirit of the city to us all. Just as during the Miners’ Gala, the people of Durham were brought together. And that is worth all of the disruption in the world.

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