Norfolk: Light of the east

It's one of the lightest days of the year, and I'm in the dark. The kind of dark where you can't see your hand in front of your face. The kind of dark where you wonder if your face exists any longer.

By Sarah Barrell
Published 23 Jun 2015, 12:29 BST

My rising panic is only checked by the murmur from the guards outside. This isn't incarceration but installation – of the contemporary art kind, but I'm feeling somewhat persecuted.

"How long did they say it would be before something happened?" I ask my companion. "Five minutes? I'm putting my phone's torch on…"

But before I can, I spot a watery white glow. This precipitates the sort of confused conversation you'd expect in a retirement home: "Can you see it?" "See what?" "The glow!" "What glow… oooh, maybe. I dunno my eyes aren't up to much these days."

I start to wonder if we're part of an observational art joke; a sort of thinking person's You've Been Framed and that any moment the lights will snap on to reveal someone feeding our comments live to Twitter.

But the darkness remains. The glow gets stronger; no longer watery but smoky, somehow illuminated from within, revealing just a hint of the room's perimeters. A silent 10 minutes is spent relaxing into this impending dawn before we conclude the show's over. Outside, even shielded by sunglasses, the day is laser-like. All corners of the landscape – trees, manicured lawns, hedges – seem sharp-edged, reflective, shining like glass that might shatter in a moment.

'Light is a powerful substance. We have a primal connection to it,' says the exhibition blurb from James Turrell, the American artist behind this installation, St Elmo's Breath, set in an 18th-century water tower in the grounds of Norfolk's Houghton Hall. Considered to be the country's finest Palladian mansion, these days people visit Houghton as much for the contemporary art in its gardens: sculptures by the likes of Rachel Whiteread, Anya Gallaccio and Turrell.

Turrell's new Lightscape exhibition includes a dusk spectacle lighting the west face of Houghton itself. It's a civilised space for an artist whose lifetime's work involves carving 'apertures' into the Rhoden Crater, an extinct volcano in the Arizona desert. But light is the business to be in this summer, in Norfolk.

In the nearby town of King's Lynn, a cross-channel son et lumiere collaboration is lighting up such key buildings as the 17th-century Custom House, the Minster and… a branch of TSB. Rather than being a forced bit of Euro culture, it's a proper municipal happening. Crowds appear at twilight to oooh, ahhh and take tripod-steadied photos as flowers unfurl magically around rooftops, moons and stars from a firmament over church steeples and nautical maps decorate ancient plaster, recalling the town's powerful history as a Hanseatic port.

In this, the UNESCO year of light, it's worth following Lynn's waterways into the wilds. Norfolk's big sky country is one of best places to contemplate light's effect on human kind. The nearby beaches of Heacham and Hunstanton are rare east coast spots where the sun sets over the sea, home to some of the UK's most prolonged sunsets. And around the solstice, this is about as long as it gets. Let there be light.

For self-guided tours of Norfolk and overnight stays:


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