Every year, I watch the Notting Hill Carnival celebrations in London on TV and I wish I was there. Second only in size to Rio, this is the biggest street party in Europe, and carnival-goers from all over the world flock to this West London district to celebrate Caribbean culture every August Bank Holiday. Since spending three months in Jamaica a few years ago, I am very fond of Caribbean culture and, in particular, the friendly, upbeat nature of Caribbean people, so Notting Hill Carnival has been on my bucket list for a while now.
History of Notting Hill Carnival
The first ever Notting Hill Carnival took place in 1966, following a series of carnival-style Caribbean cabaret acts and beauty contests organised by civil rights activist, Claudia Jones. When Claudia died in 1964, a former Social Worker who ran the Voluntary Neighbourhood Service (VNS), Rhuanne Laslett, took over and, in 1966, she relaunched the Carnival in Notting Hill in an attempt to “take to the streets using song and dance to ventilate all the pent-up frustrations born out of the slum conditions”. Find out more about Carnival’s roots on the official website.
This year, I was overjoyed to be one of those people with thanks to Travelodge, who kindly put me up for two nights in Travelodge Covent Garden so I could attend Carnival. Notting Hill Gate is only a 10-15 minute tube ride from Covent Garden via Holborn station, so the hotel was ideally located for travelling to Notting Hill.
This year, Notting Hill Carnival remembered those who lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower fire in North Kensington on 14th June. The 24-storey tower block was engulfed in flames, while local residents and firefighters watched on helplessly. It took over 24 hours to bring the blaze under control and in video footage, you could see people jumping out of their windows to escape the fire.
At present, 80 people have been confirmed dead but with many tenants still ‘missing’ and many unidentified, the official death toll is expected to rise considerably. Meanwhile, the majority of the families and individuals who lost their homes in the fire are still waiting to be re-housed. Sadly, 20 survivors have attempted suicide according to charity, Silence of Suicide. What makes matters even worse was that the spread of the fire was completely unavoidable; after the fire, it emerged that the cladding placed around Grenfell Tower in 2015 had contributed to the spread of the fire.
Grenfell Tower is located along the carnival route and seeing the charred remains of this inner city tower block left me feeling numb, and angry at our government for failing to prevent this tragedy. A minute’s silence was held at 3pm on both days of the carnival in honour of the Grenfell Tower victims, while many people wore green to show their support for the campaign. Hearing the sound systems, bands and carnival goers fall deadly silent sent shivers down my spine and made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end; it was one of the most emotionally moving experiences I’ve ever had.
On the evening of Saturday 26th August, the Carnival kicked off at 6pm with the Panorama in Emslie Horniman Pleasance Park, Bosworth Road. This free, family friendly open-air event featured a range of entertainment, including national steel band performances.
Meanwhile, from 8pm until 10pm, the Association of The British Calypsonians hosted performances from UK Calypsonians and visiting international artists in the London Calypso Tent in the Carnival Village at the Tabernacle in Powis Square, just off Portobello Road.
The first full day of Notting Hill Carnival takes place on Sunday and is commonly referred to as ‘Family day’ because the atmosphere is generally a little tamer than on Bank Holiday Monday.
The festivities got off to a very early start at 6am with Jouvert, when carnival-goers celebrated the opening of the carnival by dancing and performing in the streets, and throwing paint over each other, to the sound of steel and riddim bands, and African drummers. The three-hour long procession started and finished at Canal Way, Ladbroke Grove.
Later on, the Children’s’ Parade saw kids show off their colourful costumes on the carnival floats.
As usual, lots of static sound systems were also set up throughout Notting Hill for the Carnival; this year, no less than 38 sound systems lined the side streets, blasting out all kinds of music, from reggae, soca and dancehall, to ska, rap and hip hop. It can be tricky to navigate your way to and from the different sound systems, so I recommend printing off a copy of Time Out’s Notting Hill Carnival route map, or if you can get signal on your phone, use the interactive version on the day.
I couldn’t believe the scale of Notting Hill Carnival; I knew it was big, but I was surprised at how big it was. No matter where I turned, I saw a sea of people standing in front of me.
Local residents opened up their toilets to the public in return for a fee of around £2-3, while some sold food and drink to passers-by.
To eat, you could take your pick from authentic Caribbean food like jerk chicken, goat curry, rice n’ peas and festival dumplings or choose from a range of alternative cuisines.
The first day of the carnival drew to a close at around 8.30pm. If you’re going next year, I recommend leaving early if you want to avoid the crowds at the tube stations!
Monday Parade – ‘The Grand Finale’
Notting Hill Carnival peaked on Bank Holiday Monday, as the main carnival parade took to the streets from around 9am onwards, continuing on loop throughout the day.
A seemingly never-ending line of floats and open-top buses carried musicians, performers and hosts along the carnival route.
They were followed by the flamboyantly dressed dancers that Carnival is so well-known for.
Think feathers, sequins, glitter and lots of bling, teamed with infectious smiles, singing and laughter.
Not to mention a whole lot of booty-shaking!
The dancers were incredibly friendly, happily posing with me for a photo or two.
As well as soaking up the atmosphere at many of the different sound systems, we took some time to appreciate the musical and cultural performances taking place on the World Music Stage in Powis Square, including UK Calypsonians, soca artists, visiting international artists and aspiring new acts.
Monday definitely seemed to be the busier day of Notting Hill Carnival and some of the sound systems attracted big, boisterous crowds. While everyone seemed as though they were just out to have a good time, it was overwhelming at times – probably not helped by the fact that I’m only 4ft 11, so I felt a little claustrophobic surrounded by lots of people taller than me!
If you’re thinking of attending Notting Hill Carnival next year, do it! It was one of the happiest, funnest experiences I’ve ever had and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Here are some tips to help you make the most of your time at Carnival:
- Wear a comfy pair of trainers, as you’ll be on your feet for a while – we walked around 20 miles over two days!
- Take a bottle of water to stay hydrated
- If you’ll be drinking alcohol, save money by buying your booze from a shop and taking it with you in a carrier bag
- Agree upon a meeting place with your friends, in case you get separated (as there are so many people at Carnival, it’s often difficult to get phone signal)
- Consider carrying any cash and valuables in a bum bag for safe-keeping
- Dress bright and bold – anything goes! Check the weather forecast and dress appropriately
- Don’t forget to print the carnival route map to take with you
- Bring a portable, folding chair if you struggle with being on your feet for too long
- Take some wet wipes or hand sanitising gel with you
- Bring some cash for food, drinks and (if you don’t want to brave the Portaloos!) residents’ toilets
Roll on Notting Hill Carnival 2018!
Have you ever been to Notting Hill Carnival and, if so, how was your experience? If you haven’t been, would you like to go?