London: Celebrating Steel Drums and Sound Systems at the Notting Hill Carnival.
Updated: Aug 27, 2019
For over 50 years, London's Caribbean community throws the biggest party of the year. The Notting Hill Carnival celebrates the cultural diversity of this great city with feathers, sparkles, jerk chicken and a serious amount of heavy bass. For 24 of those years, I have lived near the parade route that demarcates the carnival's parameter. Carnival is never dull.
Photos borrowed from the Notting Hill Carnival Resident's Booklet
The carnival takes place, rain or shine on the final Sunday and Monday of the summer; Bank Holiday August.
Carnival activities include sound system stages, live act stages, a judging zone, street trading and, of course the parade.
Over 2.5 million visitors squeeze into a residential area 3 miles square. As locals, we pray for rain. It's not that we want to poo-poo all the fun, but the police force is usually on horseback and, well, the smell can be a bit overwhelming when the weather is hot.
In 1995, brand new to London, our first carnival was an eye-opener and a treat. Living inside the parade route on Northumberland Place in Notting Hill, we had the best seats in the house. We enjoyed our first taste of Caribbean street food at the food stalls on Chepstow Road.
We had close access to the parade, and we had freedom of using our own toilet. Our daughter, two at the time, enjoyed the steel drums and MAS (masquerade) costumes of the Children's Day Parade, Sunday. As the sun went down, we watched in surprise (and shock) at the many different ways to pee in public. Carnival was loud, crowded and very smelly, but it was a lot of fun.
A few years passed and two more daughters joined our crew. We moved to Chepstow Villas, which intersects Portobello Road. Still inside the parade route, we now could watch the parade from our window.
One year, our three beautiful daughters set up shop and sold cookies from our front garden. Drunks will buy anything, especially from cute little girls in princess dresses. They made over 800 pounds in one weekend!
Other entrepreneurial Notting Hillbillies sold water and beer from their ice-filled rubbish bins. Some even went that extra mile and sold trips to their loo for one pound a go. The lines were around the block and they made a fortune!
But, like most locals, we soon found the need to flee Notting Hill on Bank Holiday August. It became too loud and too crowded. We moved outside the parade route, and prayed for rain.
Now every year, local pundits discuss the Carnival, and how it can made safer. Local shops along Ladbroke Grove, Golborne Road and others board up their shopfronts to guard against vandalism. 40,000 volunteers and 9000 police patrol the streets. Parking is restricted, though few people worry about the parking tickets they will receive for parking on a yellow line.
Alcohol and drugs are plentiful. There is occasional violence with an average of 300 arrests per year; mostly for disorderly conduct. The biggest fear for many, though, is over-crowding. The streets of Notting Hill are narrow and it is very easy to get stuck in a crowd with no hope of getting out. And if you get stuck inside the parade route and need a wee, well you might be out of luck.
With all it's faults, The Notting Hill Carnival remains one of the most iconic events on the London summer calendar. The carnival and parade celebrates the Caribbean 'Windrush Generation' that settled in the Ladbroke Grove area of Notting Hill after WW2. It spotlights London's diversity and it's appreciation of the many melting pot cultures that makes London the best city on Earth.
At 1:00am,14 June, 2017, a fire broke out in the 24 floor tower block, Grenfell Tower. Located in the heart of Notting Hill, this tower block had been recently renovated and encased in cheap cladding that proved to be highly flammable. The fire, triggered by a faulty refrigerator, took 72 lives, injured 70 further and burned for 60 hours. While inquiries continue, the Notting Hill Carnival honours the residents of Grenfell Tower each year with 72 seconds of silence to remind us all that inequities exist, disasters happen, and victims should never be forgotten.
Festivities begin at noon, so it's a good idea to get to Notting Hill before, and leave early in the afternoon. Visitors must, know their limits, remain vigilant and remain safe.
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