As the colder and darker nights draw in, it can be tempting to settle into the sofa and hibernate away until summer returns. But you’d be missing out on some of the most exciting events in the North – light festivals.
You might associate festivals with summer and music, but these illuminated events are a celebration of the magic of the festive period and the beauty of the buildings all around us. Some are more traditional, marking the end of the harvest season, while others showcase cutting-edge light technology; you’ll see everything from handmade, candle-lit lanterns and puppets to large-scale LED and neon sculpture.
Towns become nighttime, open air galleries with something to discover around every corner. All sorts of communities get involved, from huge cities like Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds, to tiny villages like Saltaire, seaside towns like Blackpool and country estates like Saltwell Park. Shop fronts, parks and squares are transformed by stunning projections and brought to life by performers who breathe fire, dance or juggle glowing pins.
Liverpool’s River of Light, Kendal Torchlight Carnival and Light Night Leeds will take your breath away with their mesmerising lasers and towering installations. At The Lanterns at Chester Zoo, meanwhile, you can get away from the hustle and bustle and relish the beauty of nature. At carnival-esque festivals like Blackburn Festival of Light, you can get lost in dancing, acrobatics, live bands, parades and games (and don’t forget the all-important food and drink).
All the festivals in our guide have one thing in common; they celebrate the talent of local and regional artists, and they want everyone attending to join in the fun. Whether you’re getting involved by crafting your own wicker lantern or interacting with touch-sensitive installations, get ready to be fully immersed in the experience.
Here are our picks
We all know and love the animals that bring Chester Zoo to life, but after dark the most popular tourist attraction outside London is transformed into an illuminated wonderland. There are eleven different fantastical worlds to explore, each filled with costumed characters, colourful lanterns and festive scenes. Grab your own twinkling lantern to guide you through the zoo’s light trails. Wander through floral and animal illuminations that’ll make you feel like you’re in a tropical paradise, an underwater reef, a vibrant desert, or a starlit wintry glacier. There are surprises around every corner – you might even catch a glimpse of Father Christmas himself.
You’ll see the zoo in a whole new light as the animals are tucked up sleeping. Not only is The Lanterns a feast for the imagination combining theatre, art and adventure; your ticket sales help support the zoo’s vital conservation work.
Glow at RHS Garden Bridgewater, Until 30 December 2022, from £6.00 - Book now
Get ready to be wowed as spectacular illuminations light up some of RHS Garden Wisley’s most iconic sights, including the Old Laboratory, Rock Garden and Seven Acres.
Follow the enchanting new route and see the garden glow brighter than ever, with more lights, fountains, music and fire displays, and an amazing white Christmas-themed horticultural display inside the Glasshouse.
Head to Manchester’s buzzing Salford Quays district in December for one of the biggest digital light festivals in the UK. Each year the waterfront is taken over by highly-Instagrammable light sculptures, displays and installations, which all have interactivity and playfulness at their heart. Immerse yourself in an outdoor virtual world.
Past festivals have seen a towering sculpture of a hooded youth, lit up by data taken from sensors detecting audience stimulation; illuminated seesaws which burst into sound and light as more couples begin to play; a floor which uses trackpad technology to illuminate your feet with blossoming flowers and a giant screen which reveals a heart-shaped design when people standing before it hold hands.
With a mix of mirrors and LEDs, childlike games and cutting-edge tech, Lightwaves is a fantastic free festival to wander around alone or explore as a group.
Lighting up Crewe on the final Friday of November, Lumen is a festive spectacle bringing thousands to the town’s Market Square. Combining acrobatics, interactive installations, projections and lantern processions, this month-long festival is guaranteed to go off with a bang. Join crowds of people from Cheshire, Derbyshire and further afield for the big switch-on, and return to Crewe throughout December for more dazzling attractions.
Bring in the New Year at Heaton Park’s award-winning lantern and light festival. The park’s unique exhibits combine art, music, lasers and light for a truly immersive experience.
Lightopia sees the historic Heaton Hall covered in twinkling snow and visited by a certain man in red. You could easily lose yourself in the park’s many twisting trails, but make sure not to miss the Lakeside Water Show, a breathtaking projected display that reflects in the water’s shimmering surface.
The animal-shaped lanterns on display across the park are made using traditional Chinese techniques for a colourful, visually striking experience. There are also huge musical instruments you can play by hopping along the keys; a magical trail of illuminated trees, and an astronomy-themed display which lights up the signs of the Zodiac. Lightopia is a celebration of all things sparkling, sure to get you in the festive spirit.
Experience something different this festive season at out-of-the-ordinary Saltaire. Since 2006, the residents of this quaint village have been transforming their windows into the doors of a giant advent calendar.
A record 65 windows were illuminated in the run-up to Christmas in 2021, the festival attracting a growing audience from across Yorkshire and beyond. Make sure you print out the calendar map so you don’t miss any windows en route!
Starting from the beginning of December, a new window is “opened” each day – you can keep coming back to see more illuminations shining from the cottage windows. Whether you choose to walk or drive around the streets, you’re sure to spot something weird and wonderful, from spinning carousels to falling snow. You might see Santa Claus and his reindeer, or a reference to your favourite festive film. Some houses even play hymns or Christmas hits to accompany their displays.
Blackburn Festival of Light is a staple in the community calendar; a lantern parade led by talented local artists.
The festival engages the whole town through fun activities leading up to the night, including lantern-making workshops allowing you to march in the parade. If you can’t make a lantern, glow sticks and fairy lights will do – this festival is all about joining in with the dance, song and laughter. Grab a burger or a bag of churros to warm you up as the night turns cold.
With music from drummers and carol singers, and performances from fire breathers, jugglers and gymnasts, the whole event has a strong carnival feel. Finishing with a grand fireworks display, this is a festival of non-stop entertainment.
The Festival of Light has put Blackburn on the map, enabling people of all ages and from all backgrounds to come together and celebrate the region’s creativity.
Christmas at Gibside, 1 December 2022–1 January 2023, free entry - Find Out More
A trail of fire and lanterns illuminates the splendour of Gibside’s eighteenth-century Georgian gardens. This is a brand new way to experience the flora and fauna that make Gibside Hall and Gardens such a must-visit attraction.
Get ready to be immersed in a fantastical world, away from the hustle and bustle of modern life.
Weaving through the walled gardens, you’ll see lights twinkling from every tree, fairies hiding around hidden corners and glowing mushrooms sprouting from the ground. Watch out for flaming lanterns and magnificent wicker sculptures of woodland creatures. As you pause to reflect on the stunning landscapes you’ll hear a specially commissioned magical soundtrack.
Spend a magical evening with family and friends, gently strolling through several winding paths that stretch across the 600-acre garden. Finish it all off with a mulled wine, wurst or hot chocolate from one of the festive food and drink stalls.