The Notting Hill Carnival – the best attended spectator event in Britain each year which, ironically, as well as being a tribute to its street roots, also generates £100 million worth of economic activity.
Having started in 1966 as a purely local festival, established by the West Indian immigrants of the Notting Hill neighbourhood, more than two and a half million people now throng to the area for one of the world’s biggest multi-cultural celebrations.
Back in 1966, the Caribbean immigrants, predominantly from Trinidad, organised for a steel band from the Colherene Pub in Earls Court to participate in a street festival in Notting Hill. The rest, as they say, is history.
Now, every August Bank Holiday weekend, people come to celebrate alongside the locals – and nowadays there are faces of all colours enjoying the atmosphere alongside each other.
The Carnival has always adopted the slogan of ‘Every spectator is a participant’ and, although you might not be able to match the colourful costumes of some of those taking part in the parades – this is still a most apt saying; no-one comes to carnival just to stand and watch – the atmosphere doesn’t let you.
So how do you go about trying to define the spirit of the Notting Hill Carnival?
Well, to television viewers, the first thought will probably be of the parades. More than three miles of parades of colourful, original floats, group and individual dancers, street entertainers and musicians meander their way along the route. Sunday is traditionally Children’s Day whilst Monday, with more people present, is the day of the main parade. And it’s no longer just a steel band from an Earls Court Pub – now musicians and participants come here from all over the world – notably Africa, South America and, naturally, the West Indies.
One of the joys of the parades is to see the exuberant costumes which have been painstakingly created during the previous months Professionally produced or totally home-made, they all bring vibrant, evocative images to the London streets.
Much of the atmosphere generated at Carnival stems from the music which pounds through the streets. As well as the calypso, soca, reggae and steel band music you’ll hear on the parades, there are now many static stage systems pumping out an eclectic mix of contemporary dance sounds.
And, of course, what would Carnival be without the food? This is where you’ll find the best jerk chicken outside the Caribbean – 5 tonnes a year is eaten someone estimated. In addition, amongst the 300 or so stalls you’ll find Nigerian, Chinese, Thai and many, many more varieties – the smells alone will drive you crazy.
The Notting Hill Carnival’s reputation for public safety has improved immeasurably over the last decade. Although you would be foolish to carry around signs of conspicuous wealth, as in any large gathering of people on the streets you have to be wary of pickpockets, it is now a generally safe environment. People are too busy having fun and the overall ambience is joyous, not threatening.
When you go, it is advisable to take the latest edition of Time Out magazine, as that always has a good map showing where all the different stage sound systems can be found. Also, make sure you have some sunscreen, water, an easily carried waterproof top and a good pair of walking shoes.
It’s as well to check the transport system in advance, too. You’ll find that many of the local Underground Stations are closed for at least a part of the day. Ladbroke Grove, for example, is usually closed on Carnival Sunday and Monday and Notting Hill Gate has limited access. The bus service is probably the easiest way of arriving, with route numbers 7, 18, 23, 27, 28, 31, 36, 46, 52, 70, 94, 148, 295, 316, 328, 390 and 452 all taking you right to the edge of the Carnival’s streets.
There is more information about the wonderful Notting Hill Carnival on the official website, www.nottinghillcarnival.biz . It’s a great way to spend an August Bank Holiday in London.