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, Durham’s Lumiere 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), while at Manchester’s Corridor of Light you can enjoy not only a plethora of luminous installations but a packed programme of specially-commissioned performance works by acclaimed international, UK and Manchester-based artists.
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
Every year, Penrith marks the change in seasons by transforming into a fire-lit wonderland for the Winter Droving festival. It’s worth travelling up to the Lake District for this one-day spectacle of outdoor arts, masquerade, food, fire and music. Combining large-scale and intimate performance, markets selling produce by local artisans, and lantern processions, there’s an endless amount to explore. As the colder nights draw in, raise a toast to Cumbria’s rural heritage.
The company responsible, Eden Arts, are known for their daring, eclectic events. Previous Winter Droving line ups have featured a “stage” made from an old tractor and Pint Passing, Egg Throwing and Sausage Eating competitions – imagination abounds at this nighttime extravaganza. You’ll laugh, drink, dance and delight in the traditional festivities, which coincide with the ancient Samhain festival, a commemoration of the end of the harvest season.
Blackpool’s Lightpool Festival (known affectionately by many as simply “the lights”) needs little introduction. The seaside town has been lighting up its promenade since 1879, drawing crowds from across the country and further afield. The first ever festival consisted of eight electric lamps; nowadays over a million bulbs transform the Blackpool skyline for 66 nights each year. Spectators can expect to be dazzled by light installations, art trails, carnival-style processions, live performances and 3D projections.
Watch out for the convoy of spectacularly lit trams making its way along the seafront – or hop on board to rest your feet as you take in the 6-mile stretch of lights. Parking your car and tackling the light trail on foot means you can skip the traffic, as well as exploring the installations at St John’s Square, Grundy Art Gallery and the Blackpool Tower – and grabbing some all-important fish and chips.
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.
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.
2021’s glittering programme has been put together by the same creative team behind Blackpool’s renowned illuminations; organisers say this year’s festival is shaping up to be the biggest and brightest yet.
The Arts Council and Cheshire East Council-funded Lumen LightLab project is dedicated to commissioning both emerging and early-career artists from the local area to create stunning new installations. The selected ideas for 2021 include a miniature forest made of recycled materials, a spinning carousel and an orchestra of instruments whose strings are replaced by beams of light.
Taking over the streets, squares and gardens of Lancaster for two nights every year, this festival of light, art and sound is a must-see.
Local and international artists are invited to create new light-based pieces; past works have included floating blimps resembling sea creatures, giant walking puppets, and a ginormous moon suspended inside the Priory Church. Each year the festival is rounded off by a striking fireworks display illuminating the grand castle walls.
The event aims to bring children and adults together with a host of interactive activities, markets and artworks, as well as highlighting the rich heritage of this historic city. Take a nighttime stroll through Market Square, the Judges’ Lodging, Dalton Square and The Storey and see these beautiful spaces illuminated as never before. Everywhere you look you’ll find films to watch, games to play, food to eat and performances to stand back and admire.
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.
Visit a gallery like no other – this celebration of illuminated art takes place at night along Liverpool’s famous waterfront. There are numerous installations spread across the 2km long walking trail, from giant imposing sculptures to photography exhibits, illuminated hanging artworks and light projections.
‘Rainbow Bridge’ was the talking point of 2021’s springtime festival – a 100 foot long, 30 foot high walkable sculpture made of 25,000 LEDs. In a massive coup for Liverpool, this was its first time being displayed outside of the US. There were plenty of opportunities to take Insta-worthy snaps, with angel wings, neon quotes and two metre tall dandelions to pose in front of.
Renowned artists from across the region partner with Liverpool’s leading galleries and cultural organisations to create a unique spectacle. River of Light visits Liverpool multiple times a year, so keep a keen eye out for the next sparkling instalment.
Lumiere is a jewel in Durham’s crown; a four-night light festival drawing crowds of thousands for over ten years. Shop fronts, parks and squares across the city are brought to life by mesmerising artworks and installations.
Local and international artists are tasked with reimagining buildings through light, hoping to change the way we see our urban surroundings. Created by Artichoke, a company known for bringing extraordinary art to unexpected places, Lumiere mixes family-friendly installations with ground-breaking sculpture. To say a variety of mediums are used is an understatement – in past years there has been everything from neon signs and fire breathing to film screenings and suspended lanterns.
People are at the heart of this crowd-pleasing festival, and there are always plenty of workshops and activities for children and adults to get involved in. Lumiere is returning in 2021 with the fitting theme “light at the end of the tunnel”.
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 55 windows were illuminated in the run-up to Christmas in 2020, 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.
Ignite at Gibside, 26 November 2021–2 January 2022, 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.