As one of the most eagerly anticipated events in the London social calendar, the Notting Hill Carnival has been entertaining crowds in the capital every August Bank Holiday since 1965. Yet the origins of this festival are much more complicated than many of us might think.
While today the Carnival is a colourful, noisy and fun-filled event attended by thousands of revellers, it began life with a much more serious tone. The first event took place in 1959 amid rising tensions due to negative race relations in the capital. Migrant communities were suffering from a low employment rate, inadequate housing and a general struggle to fit into London life. After increasing hostilities culminated in the Notting Hill Race Riots in the late summer of 1959, the first Notting Hill Carnival was organised by members of the Trinidadian migrant community. Political activist Claudia Jones played a significant role in this first event, which was designed as a response to the tension and a way for minority communities to express themselves and their cultural traditions.
Photo credits: Kalexander2010
Notting Hill Carnival was popular from the very beginning and an extremely significant event for members of the West London migrant community. Its success reached new heights in 1966 when it was held outdoors for the first time. It was around this time that the hippie movement became involved in the event, too, adding another dimension with a laid-back, chilled-out vibe that naturally fused with the distinctive Caribbean identity that has remained within the heart, soul and spirit of the festival from the beginning.
The festival is so unique as it is a way for West Indian migrant communities to bring their Caribbean energy into the streets of London and pay tribute to the traditional carnivals of the early 19th century, which celebrated the abolition of slavery and the discovery of newfound freedom. To this day, some festival-goers whiten their faces with flour or wear masks to mimic the faces of their former masters. This is a tongue-in-cheek addition to a festival that plays a significant role in the promotion of cultural unity in London.
Let’s face the music… and dance!
Photo credits: Kalexander2010
The Notting Hill Carnival procession also had its defining movement during these years, when a steel pan band took to the streets of London to play their music — the first event of its kind in the UK and an action that unified all members of the community, bringing previously alienated minority populations into the mainstream in truly energetic style. Things continued to go from strength to strength, and by 1976 there were more than 150,000 people flocking to Notting Hill for the annual event in comparison to the 500 attendees at the inaugural carnival.
Today, Notting Hill Carnival retains a seemingly endless energy, which bubbles its way to the surface of Notting Hill in a wild celebration of colour, music and cultural diversity. The modern-day procession starts out from Emslie Horniman’s Pleasance — a park in the W10 postcode area — and makes its way through the Notting Hill neighbourhood. There is a very firm nod to the festival’s origins, with the steel pan bands out in force, adorning floats and accompanied by dancers and revellers dressed in brightly coloured costumes.
Photo credits: D B Young
Today, Carnival (as it is commonly known) is the second largest street festival in the world (after the Rio Carnival) and an event that is renowned for its cultural significance and pure, unadulterated fun. While some past events have been marred by tensions between the local community and the police, relations today have calmed significantly and Carnival is a relatively trouble-free event with many families, young children and tourists coming to join the party.
Notting Hill welcomes around one and a half million people across the two-day festivities, as well as more than seven thousand performers who bring the sounds of the Caribbean to the streets of West London with soca, dub, reggae, jazz and calypso tunes.
There’s also plentiful opportunity to enjoy the taste of the West Indies, with Carnival’s 300-plus food stalls offering such authentic foodstuffs as jerk chicken, Jamaican patties, deep-fried plantains, rice and peas. There’s also fresh mango and coconut while past events have seen around 25,000 bottles of rum consumed.
Sequins and body paint
Photo credits: Kalexander2010
It’s easy to see why the festival has such a wide and diverse appeal. Welcoming people from all walks of life who come for the delicious food, great music and brilliant dance party, where they can let their hair down while celebrating the multiculturalism and social solidarity of the UK capital. ·
The costumes also deserve a special mention, for their colours and intricate detail bring something extra special and that real ‘wow’ factor to the celebrations. The performers will be decked out in lavish outfits with more than 30 million sequins and 15,000 feather plumes for decoration, and around 30 litres of body paints used for some truly outlandish sights.
This year, Britain’s biggest street party will kick off with the Carnival Bands at 9 am on Sunday 30th August and the same time on Monday 31st. The procession will last until around 8.30 pm and involve more than 60 bands.
We’ve just got one final tip. Don’t even think about driving to Carnival, as the streets will be packed. Take the tube either to Notting Hill Gate or Latimer Road Underground stations, or take the short walk from High Street Kensington or Holland Park.
All that’s left to say now is… let the party begin!
Where to stay
The best hotel from which to enjoy all the colours and sounds of Notting Hill Carnival is La Suite West. Located in Bayswater, within close proximity to Kensington and Notting Hill, the hotel features a beautiful, minimalist design with a touch of Japanese chic, while the peaceful gardens are a welcoming haven from the bustle of the Carnival.