London’s Notting Hill Carnival is miles away from the cute streets in the film, Notting Hill (metaphorically speaking). Over the two days in August – Sunday 24th to bank holiday Monday 25th 2014 – it transforms into an all-consuming, raucous street party full of the most colour you’ll probably ever see in London in one go.
Your eyes are treated to costumes of feathers, glitter and sequins, coming in hot pink, orange, electric blue, yellow… you get the idea. The vibrant colours are so striking to take in, but the soft texture of the feathers makes the costumes flow, perfectly echoing the shimmying bodies of those within the outfits.
And my god, they can shimmy!
But if you don’t go prepared, you could miss out on just letting loose and taking it all in.
First thing’s first: everyone should know what the Notting Hill Carnival is all about, so here are a few need-to-know facts:
- The festival has been celebrated since 1964 by Afro-Caribbean communities
- It’s mainly live music – reggae, salsa, steel bands
- It’s also about the food! So much jerk chicken! Plus more food stalls, drinks etc
- Both days start at 9am
- Parade route: starts on Great Western Road, then to Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove, and down Ladbroke Grove
- Traditionally, the Sunday is the children’s day, so it will be tamer. This is pretty much a warm up for Monday when things really go wild
Right, so now you’ve got the bare facts, I’ll move on to my top tips. It’s pretty easy to have one of those moments where you feel you should have thought about bringing or doing something in preparation but is now too late. I’ll do my best to get rid of that happening for you – some points might seem obvious but I’ve fallen prey before!
Take out money before you get anywhere near the carnival
You may think you’ll be fine to just take out money once you’re in the area… this was my main mistake from last year and it affected the whole day! The cash machines not only have long queues of people – once you finally get your turn, it’s not uncommon (actually very likely) for the ATM to be out of money.
I spent time searching for one (and there aren’t many around anyway) and it took me away from the parade, which was a real bummer.
It’s a terrible thing to happen because of course, the carnival has so many food carts, and this is absolutely where you want to eat and drink from – and as you’d guess, you have to pay in cash. Otherwise, you’re not getting the full experience of the festival.
Wear sensible shoes!
While I might be at risk of sounding like a bore with this motherly bit of advice, it’s so true. You’re going to be doing a lot of walking; there are no seats except the floor; hopefully you’ll be dancing like nobody’s watching; and there is so much litter on the floor by the end of it that you really don’t want to be wearing some nice shoes.
No sandals if you care about hygiene/getting your toes trodden on.
Bring the essentials: water, toilet roll, sanitiser
Do you remember at university and/or going to clubs and the toilets would get clogged and the only toilet paper in existence would be welded onto the sticky, sodden floor? Well, it gets like that at the carnival – and in portoloos. So the best thing to do is to take a big bag and stuff a toilet roll, sanitiser – and of course water. Not just because it’s always a good idea to take water wherever you go (it’s been a saviour on trains when I’ve had a tickly throat) but because if it’s one of those hot London days, it’ll be so necessary. You don’t want to spend your time searching for water.
Wrap up warm
Endurance is the key to Notting Hill Carnival, and whereas the dancers get to shimmy through the day to keep them warm, you won’t be as consistently active (I won’t stop you from trying, though!). The parade finishes about 7pm and there can be a notable chilly shift in the air once the peak of the party has gone.
Eat jerk chicken
Just do it. The more family-owned the food cart/stall looks, the better.
Public transport and crowds
Don’t try to get here by bike – there won’t be anywhere nearby to dock it. Your best bet is by tube – Notting Hill Gate is the nearest, but it’ll be exit only between 11am and 6pm. Admittedly, we couldn’t handle the crowds when we left, so we hopped on a random bus that took us in the direction of Camden – it was practically empty. Bliss. (There are no buses on the parade route, so head to Notting Hill Gate or Harrow Road)
Tube: Ladbroke Grove will be shut on the carnival days. Check Transport for London’s website for up to date news before you head off!
As for crowds, they’re inevitable. This is a free event after all. Just try not to walk against them – you’ll get nowhere!
Let your hair down
I really mean it. This is not the place to be insecure. I’m a little shy (some people are probably thinking “Um, what?” right now…) so it took me a while to get used to the openness and flamboyance of the event. Then again, that’s what I love about it. This is the culture, this is what you come for. It’s such a celebration of Afro-Caribbean attitude – everyone’s happy and smiling and feeling free in their movements. London can be a reserved place sometimes, so it’s amazing to see part of it encourage everyone to come out of their shells and truly live in the moment.
I fully recommend getting in the middle of it and dancing with the paraders – it’s one of those moments that you’ll always remember and as long as you let go, it’s a fun thing to share that lets you feel even more involved.
Even the policemen love it: