As one of the largest street festivals in Europe, Notting Hill Carnival has quite a reputation. The festival began in the 1960s as a way to lift the spirits of the West Indian community of London, following the murder of a young Antiguan immigrant. Tensions were high between the white English and immigrant communities, as attacks on the homes and businesses of West Indian people were not uncommon. The Carnival was therefore brought about as a way of bringing everyone together, and to release all the pent up frustrations through the mediums of song and dance. This unique spirit of harmonious unity still surrounds the festival today, as people of all ages come together to enjoy the music, the food and to watch the carnival.
Despite having spent two years in London, it was both my friend and I’s first time attending the Notting Hill Carnival, and we expected great things. We donned two of our more vibrant outfits and a headpiece each to get ourselves in the festival mood. A crowded tube journey from Mile End to Notting Hill later, we emerged from the underground to be greeted by massive crowds being ushered by police towards Portobello market. The festivities weren’t as obviously placed as we thought they would be, and after our attempts to follow the crowd failed, we ended up befriending a few policemen who pointed us in the right direction.
Food was top of our priorities, and we spent a lot of time surveying the abundance of West Indian cuisine on offer. Most stalls offered some variation on jollof rice and jerk chicken, and so we settled on the stall with the most promising portions. In typical London fashion, however, prices were anything but cheap.
The streets were crowded with an array of musical genres. Every corner you turned hosted a new DJ playing dance, hip hop, or reggae. People of all ages and colours could be found dancing, drinking and joking on the streets. Strangers were complimenting each other on their outfit choices, striking up conversations and hugging people that they’d only just met; the infectious friendliness created a truly inclusive, heart-warming atmosphere.
The Carnival itself circles the Notting Hill area and is a wash of colour and flamboyancy. Crowds of people lined the streets to watch different floats and dancers jingle and dance through the Hill. Given that we went on the Sunday, there was an excellent family atmosphere, and the carnival provided vibrant entertainment for children and adults alike. We only viewed the festivities briefly before making our way over to the street hosting the ‘Pineapple Tribe’, which was by far the liveliest. This is where we spent the remainder of our day, battling crowds for space on the street to boast our dance moves.
The only real obstacle that we encountered came at the end of our day: the toilets. With masses of people waiting in what appeared to be the slowest moving queues ever, the large number of portaloos hardly made a difference. Neither of us can comment on the cleanliness, as we didn’t personally use them, but what we can assure you is that if a friend leaves you to join one of these engulfing, static groups of people, do expect to spend the next hour or so desperately trying to find them and fighting for any phone signal in a place which has next to no connectivity. Hardly the most exciting activity, but when nature calls…
All in all, it was an exciting day, a great experience and a wonderful excuse to wear something a little more out there. We didn’t encounter any violence, danger or overly drunk fools and despite (or perhaps thanks to) the excessive number of flashing signs letting carnival goers know to be aware of thieves, it seemed fairly safe. What’s most touching is that despite the fact that the original motives for the creation of the Carnival are hardly its driving factor today, the sense of unity, community and multiculturalism that it thrived so hard to promote against great adversity has absolutely prevailed. The open minded and inclusive attitude of this two-day carnival is just as alive today as it has ever been.