Stuart Forster reports on what to expect if you visit the festival of Fire and Ice Durham in February. The annual event attracts families to the cathedral city in northeast England.
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Durham City hosts its annual Fire and Ice InDurham festival over two days during the February half-term holiday. The 2023 edition is on Friday 24 and Saturday 25 February.
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.
The event starts at 10.00 am each day and the visually impressive festival comes to an end with an evening show at 6.00 pm.
2023 Fire and Ice InDurham
Fire and Ice InDurham is a free-to-visit event. There’s no need to pre-book tickets to attend the 2023 edition.
The theme of the 2022 Fire and Ice festival was Science. The 2023 Fire & Ice Durham has Steampunk as its theme.
Maps showing the location of the ice sculptures will be available at Durham Town Hall and from the Gala Theatre. They will also be available from event stewards and the Fire and Ice Facebook page.
Fire and Ice is a dog-friendly festival. It’s also a wheelchair and pushchair-accessible event, making it ideal for families with young children.
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 ahead of the 2019 edition.
“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 Adam. 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 Adam. The family-friendly festival coincides with some of Durham’s food and drinks businesses having their busiest trading day of the year.
Sculpting ice in Durham Cathedral
“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 try and get sweets out of the ice,” explained Matt 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, unseasonably warm weather a blessing during the half-term holiday. However, warm weather can detrimentally affect ice sculptures displayed outdoors. That means it’s best to visit the Fire and Ice festival early in the day if you want to photograph the sculptures at their most pristine.
“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,” he added.
Ice sculptures in Durham
Most of the sculptures are prepared in advance of the festival and then displayed on a trail in Durham city centre.
“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 Matt in 2019 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.
“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 Matt 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.”
Matt and his business partner at Glacial Art, Mat Foster, met at the University of Sunderland. 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 Matt about his ice sculpting career.
Visiting Fire and Ice InDurham
Sculptures are unveiled each day at 10.00 am and displayed until Fire and Ice InDurham closes at 6.00 pm. So when will be the best time to visit, from the perspective of an ice sculptor?
“The earlier the better,” answered Matt. “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 marketplace, 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.
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 Durham’s park and ride car parks. You can find them at Belmont, Howlands and Sniperly.
If you’re a fan of public transport why not travel to Durham by train or bus?
Here’s a map showing Durham City and the surrounding area:
Travel to Durham
Durham lies on the UK’s East Coast Main Line, making it easy to visit by rail.
Hotels in Durham City
Thinking about visiting Durham for the festival and staying overnight? You can seek out accommodation in and around the city centre on Booking.com:
Durham BID’s Life InDurham website has information about shopping in Durham and places to eat and drink.
Thanks for visiting Go Eat Do and reading this post about the festival of Fire and Ice Durham. If you are looking for places to eat and drink in Durham, take a look at this review of the food and cocktails at Turtle Bay Durham.
Photographs illustrating this post are by Sunderland-based Why Eye Photography.
Stuart Forster, the author of this post, is an award-winning travel writer. His work has been published by The Independent, National Geographic Traveller and Wanderlust.
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