Festival of Fire and Ice Durham

Stuart Forster reports on what to expect if you visit the festival of Fire and Ice Durham holds each February, attracting families into the cathedral city in north-east England .

Durham City hosts its annual Fire and Ice InDurham festival over two days during the February half-term holiday. The family-friendly festival features a city centre sculpture trail displaying hand-carved ice sculptures. Ice carving demonstrations and hands-on opportunities to give ice sculpting a go also feature as part of Durham’s Fire and Ice festival. Each day of the visually impressive festival culminates with evening shows (at 5.15pm and 6.00pm) in which dancing waters are choreographed to music.

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Durham’s Fire and Ice festival

I asked Adam Deathe, the Business Engagement Manager of Durham BID, to explain what the Fire and Ice festival is.

“Fire and Ice InDurham is a festival bringing together ice sculptures and also flaming beacons lighting a trail around the city. We’ll have about 12 ice sculptures placed strategically around the city encouraging people to explore the city, but also to admire the sculptures,” explained Deathe. Durham BID was established to develop a positive environment for local businesses in Durham’s city centre.

“We’ve got designs drawn from Greek mythology, local history, and stars of the stage and silver screen,” he added, referencing the Heroes and Villains theme of the 2019 Fire and Ice InDurham festival. The theme of the festival changes each year.

Visiting Durham city centre

“Durham’s a great destination for people to come and explore. It’s changing times for towns and cities across the country — we want to give people an additional reason to come and explore the city. It increases dwell time as well, so businesses benefit, and people have something to do during half-term,” said Mr Deathe. The family-friendly festival coincides with some of Durham’s food and drink businesses having their busiest trading day of the year.

Matt Chaloner concentrating while sculpting a minotaur in the cloisters of Durham cathedral during Fire and Ice Durham
Matt Chaloner will be sculpting at Durham’s Market Place during Fire and Ice Durham.

Sculpting ice in Durham Cathedral

In the cloisters of Durham Cathedral I met Matt Chaloner, the Master Carver of Glacial Art. Sculptors from the Liverpool-based company carve ice sculptures displayed during Fire and Ice InDurham.

“There’s going to be 12 carvings placed around the city…We’re also doing a live carving while we’re there. We’ve got a place where people can have a go themselves…We’ve also got a sweetie block where the kids and try and get sweets out of the ice,” explained the Chaloner as he carved a fearsome looking Minotaur from a block of ice. The mythical creature, from Greek mythology, features the body of a man and a bull’s head.

Normally people looking for things to do in Durham in February would find sunny, unseasonally warm weather a blessing during the half-term holiday. However, warm weather can detrimentally affect ice sculptures displayed outdoors.

“Obviously the ice melts a little bit quicker in the sun but our sculptures are designed to last in the summer inside hotels for weddings. They all melt in temperatures above zero, so it’s just a little bit quicker — it won’t affect them too much,” explained Chaloner.

Ice sculptures in Durham

Most of the sculptures are prepared in advance of the festival then displayed on a trail in Durham city centre. (You can download a trail map pinpointing the locations of the ice sculptures from the Durham BID website.)

“We have pre-carved most of the sculptures that we’re putting out. On the first day, because it’s a Heroes and Villains theme, I’m going to do Gizmo on the first day and a Gremlin on the second day,” said Chaloner of the festival’s live carving demonstrations. The sculpture is inspired by the character Gizmo, who appears in the movie Gremlins.

“Heroes and Villains is a good theme. We’ve got a Transformer, a bumblebee, a Wonder Woman and there’s a Lego Batman. They’re all really nice sculptures to do. We’ve got a fireman with a hose spurting water. It was a bit of a challenge to incorporate the prop inside so it’ll actually squirt water out. They’re all quite diverse,” explained the experienced ice sculptor.

Two versions of each sculpture need to be prepared ahead of the two-day Fire and Ice festival. That’s because of melting during the course of each day.

Matt Chaloner concentrating while sculpting the face of a minotaur in a block of ice at Durham's Fire and Ice festival
Carving the details of a Minotaur.

Larger than life sculptures

“We’ve got some that are one block sculptures, so about a metre by half a metre, and we’ve also got a larger than life-size Grace Darling in a boat. She’s a little bit bigger than me, sat down in a boat with an oar saving the seamen,” said Mr Chaloner of the heroine who rescued survivors from the wreck of the Forfarshire, a paddle steamer that sank off the Farne Islands in 1838. “I finished the second Grace yesterday. I was pretty chuffed with her! She’s quite an epic-sized sculpture.”

Mr Chaloner and his business partner at Glacial Art, Mat Foster, met at the University of Sunderland, where they studied sculpture and model making, and had ambitions to work in special effects.

“We set up in Liverpool 14 years ago and we’ve been doing it ever since. It’s just grown and grown. We’ve been to Alaska to the world championships to represent the UK, I think about 10 times between us now, in Latvia. I’ve been to Kuwait, we did stuff for Game of Thrones in Belfast. It’s really good because it takes me all over the place. Some weekends I can be doing an 18th birthday party and next week I can be on set doing props for a film. It’s a really interesting job with diverse clients,” said the sculptor about his career.

Minotaur ice sculpture sculpted by Matt Chaloner for the Fire and Ice Durham festival
Keeping a cool head is probably key to being a good ice sculptor.

Visiting Fire and Ice InDurham

Sculptures are unveiled each day at 10.00am and displayed until Fire and Ice InDurham closes at 6.15pm. So when will be the best time to visit , from the perspective of an ice sculptor?

“The earlier the better,” answered Chaloner. “Because they’re made of ice they change during the course of the day. When they’re first up they look fabulous but several hours later, even though they melt, they still look great. They would have changed forms and they start carving themselves, which is great — so if people want to see the ice do its own thing, try and come for the morning and stay through the afternoon,” he answered.

“I’m doing live carving at the Market Place, from about twelve o’clock. That’ll take about three or four hours and will be interesting to see. The lads have got a carving wall around the corner, where kids can have a go at ice carving,” added the sculptor while working on his Minotaur.

Sculptor Matt Chaloner looking at a flaming Minotaur sculpture displayed in the cloisters of Durham Cathedral
Ice sculptor Matt Chaloner at work on a Minotaur in the cloisters of Durham Cathedral.

Parking at Fire and Ice InDurham

During the Fire and Ice festival, car parking will be available in Durham’s city centre car parks plus in on-street spaces. They include the Riverwalk car parks, Prince Bishops Car Park and Walkergate Car Park.

Alternatively, you could use one of the Durham’s park and ride car parks. You can find them at Belmont, Howlands and Sniperly.

Here’s a map showing Durham City and the surrounding area:

Google Map showing Durham City.
If you’re a fan of public transport why not travel to Durham by train or bus?

Accommodation in Durham City

Thinking about visiting Durham for the festival and staying overnight? You can seen out accommodation in and around the city centre on Booking.com (£):


Further information

See the Durham Bid website for information about Fire and Ice InDurham and to download a trail map. Good news for dog owners; Fire and Ice is a dog-friendly festival. It’s also a wheelchair and pushchair accessible event.

This is Durham also has information about things to do and see in and around the city, which hosts the Lumiere Durham festival of lights every two years.

Photographs illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography, based in Sunderland and available for commissions worldwide.

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  • [email protected]

    March 1, 2019 at 15:59 Reply

    Great festival. I love ice sculptures.

    • Stuart Forster

      March 4, 2019 at 17:54 Reply

      There were some beauties on display in Durham.

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