With the World Cup highlighting all sorts of Brazilian traditions in the summer of 2014, the idea of celebrating Carnival is in everybody’s collective consciousness now. But you don’t have to venture out all the way to the beaches of Ipanema or the streets of Sao Paolo to get a good glimpse of this hot-blooded tradition.
In fact, London has been celebrating its own Carnival tradition for many decades now and can easily hold the candle to any other global city’s masquerades, whether you compare it to Rio, Venice or New Orleans. While the London tradition isn’t linked to the anticipation of Lent, it at least takes part in August at the height of summer, which is bound to get people into the right mood.
A staple in the calendar since 1966, the Notting Hill Carnival celebrates London’s Afro-Carribean heritage in all colours of the rainbow while having also a strong element of 1960s hippie culture in its inception. Today, it is less about “Flower Power” and more of a statement pertaining to multicultural fun, but nevertheless the event still attracts a strong following of alternative love gurus and incense-loving granola-bar worshippers as well. So from feather-boas to yoga mats, you’ll see a plethora of exciting folks out there.
The Carnival is built around the summer bank holiday in August and usually takes up all weekend, giving you plenty of opportunity to decide when you best want to join in.
The entire family is welcome to this colourful display of London’s West-Indian ethnic make-up, which glorifies everything from Akee and Saltfish to Reggae music and much, much more. However, the event Sunday is designed with children in mind, while the bank holiday Monday event is designed for adults, and would only allow children on its sidelines. While the Notting Hill Carnival may not be strictly policed on all fronts, you may not enjoy a lot of respect from other revellers if you don’t adhere to these rules. For the sake of fair play, it’s best to choose your day of attendance accordingly.
The Carnival takes place in the form of a parade that meanders through the streets of Notting Hill in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea on each of the event days. It takes up all day and features costumes, music, dancing, acrobatics and so much more. Each year, there are new surprises and fun inventions, as the different pageant participants try to outdo each other, but all in good, competitive spirit.
With delicious food stands, jewellery markets and other curiosities to enjoy, you don’t have to stand along the parade route the entire time to get the most out of the event; however, if you’ve found a sweet spot to observe the spectacle, you may not want to lose it again either.
Safety should always come first, and you should bear in mind that this is one of the biggest events of the year in London. There is a lot of pick-pocketing is reporting each year, and the police are on high alert with an effective ban on holiday leave across the Metropolitan Police for that weekend. A number of violent attacks over the years have given the Notting Hill Carnival a bad name; but as with most things, if you take precautions and use your own common sense, you should be safe to enjoy the spectacle in all its colours.
You are literally looking at masses of tens of thousands of people attending the event annually; in fact, to some members of the West-Indies community in London, the Notting Hill Carnival is arguably more important than Christmas, as it connects them to traditions from back home. So the best thing to do is to come prepared and to stick to a game plan to get the most out of it. Here are some important rules to follow:
- Hydrate! It is summer and the weather is prone to change suddenly. The afternoon sun can be treacherous! You may want to wear sunscreen according to you disposition as well. Shops in the area are likely to run out of water, so take at least one large bottle of water per person with you in a backpack; you will thank us later for this piece of advice.
- Never part from your group! You might not be able to join them again later. The police have been known to spontaneously change routes that people are allowed to cross, so while you think you’re just going across the street to a shop to buy gum, you may end up having to separate from your group or family for the rest of the day. Please stay together, especially if you do not know London, as it is mayhem out there.
- Mind your belongings, and don’t carry many items of value on your person. Your fancy digital camera WILL be stolen. If you can help it, don’t even take a smartphone with you but rather opt for a cheap, old model if you have one lying around in a drawer at home. Bring cash, as little improvised stands don’t accept American Express, but don’t flash money around; thieves are on the lookout at the carnival. Only take one bankcard with you; you don’t want to have your wallet with all your methods of payment and forms of ID stolen.
- Plan an itinerary. There may be a few other places you may want to see along the route. Notting Hill is full of historic buildings; look up and learn about the city’s history as you go along. Stick to your plans and make sure that all members of your group know what your intentions are for the rest of the day.
As for transport, the best way to get to the Carnival is the London Underground. It will likely be packed, but it will function seamlessly. The best stops to get off at are Notting Hill Gate, Royal Oak, Ladbroke Grove and Westbourne Park. However, pay attention to all information on the Underground, as stations may be closed on account of overcrowding (in which case you will have to walk a little bit more from the next station down the line) or there may be diversions of public pathways in place in order to manage crowds on their way to the big event.
Follow these instructions and you’ll be sure to have an unforgettable Notting Hill Carnival.