About This Festival
London’s Notting Hill Carnival is one of the largest street festivals in the world, and when you’re dancing in the middle of narrow alleys, it sure feels that way. This celebration of diversity was founded to help overcome racial tensions; throw a massive party for everyone to dance away their differences, and introduce culture through something everyone can enjoy—music. More than 40 years later, Notting Hill has gone from poor to posh, and this carnival is one of the wildest outside of Rio.
Notting Hill Carnival Builds Bridges
Notting Hill wasn’t always the upscale and fashionable district you saw in the eponymously named movie starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. Until the mid-1980s, it was a run-down and impoverished neighborhood home to a large population of West Indian immigrants. Racial tensions were high hitting a peak during the 1958 Notting Hill race riots, instigated by the Teddy Boys, a group of working-class whites bitterly opposed to the influx of Caribbean immigrants. Things escalated to critical levels when a mob of 300 rioted through Notting Hill attacking West Indian residents in their homes. The sentencing was tough for those involved (up to 5 years jail time), but extra-judicial steps were required to repair race relations.
In January 1959, the carnival got its humble start at St. Pancras Town Hall. Claudia Jones, an immigrant from Trinidad, had a vision to throw a mixed celebration to repair cultural differences and celebrate diversity. The first incarnations were indoor events featuring Caribbean music and were considered a great success even though they were sporadic in nature. In August 1966, Jones’ vision transformed into a hippie-inspired festival when a street party for local children met up with Russell Henderson’s steel band. It was the addition of Jamaican-style sound systems—ragtag party machines united by a generator, a mountain of mismatched speakers, truck and DJ—in 1976 that took the Carnival to new levels.
Swayed by the growing party vibe, attendance swelled to more than half a million, and this raucous free-for-all was plagued by civil unrest and a number of violent riots. Police responded by assigning more than 11,000 officers to the event. In more recent years, better organization and a larger police presence has allowed for this huge party to occur with very few incidents since 2008. Prince Charles himself has long been a supporter of the festival, which is estimated to bring in at least £100 million each year.
Strutting Their Stuff
Since this is the largest free street festival in Europe, you might need some help finding your way around. Start by looking at a festival map for the year, as the route frequently changes (the usual starting point has been Emslie Horniman’s Pleasance in nearby Ladbroke Grove). The event goes on for a full 3 days, starting with the famous steel drum competition on Saturday. The Panorama Competition gets going around 7pm and hosts the best steel drummers from around the island. Sunday is a kids parade with prizes for the best costumes, and despite the following day’s raucous activities, it’s very family-friendly.
Monday, known as Adults Day, is a bank holiday, and things take a sexy twist. Officially, the massive parade focuses on four styles: masquerade, steel drums, calypso, and SOCA (sounds of the Caribbean and Africa). Unofficially, the float music clashes with the incredible amount of Jamaican-style sound stages resulting in mashups of calypso vs. drum and bass, dancehall vs. disco. This “battle of the bands” makes for some frenetic and full-contact dancing. The costumes are as beautiful as the copious amounts of bare flesh, with silver-sequined G-strings shaking along to the sounds of samba. The best costumes are seen in the Mas bands (that’s short for “masquerade”). If you want to join them and don’t have a crazy costume, 10 quid gets you a colored t-shirt and a spot to party and dance behind the float. Take a moment between dancing to sample some jerk chicken or other Caribbean dishes sold on the street.
Navigating the narrow streets of Notting Hill, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea with this rowdy crowd can be challenging, and if you have an aversion to crowds, this festival might be your worst nightmare. But, you can try and get invited to a balcony party, offering a birds-eye view of the festivities. After Carnival shuts down at 7pm, there are massive after-parties in nearby clubs and bars. On Saturday night, house parties are the best call if you can score an invite (and that’s a big “if”).