Over every August Bank Holiday weekend since 1966, London’s Notting Hill neighborhood has turned into a giant Caribbean extravaganza. The Notting Hill Carnival is Europe’s largest street festival, and I always miss it because I’m traveling.
But this year my plans to leave London for the long weekend never materialized. I found myself enjoying a bit of a staycation in Hampstead while the city emptied out for the bank holiday. It was the perfect opportunity to check out the Notting Hill Carnival.
I woke up early this morning to make my way to Notting Hill. Having heard stories of colorful costumes, non-stop music, and Jamaican jerk chicken, I was excited for a day of festivities and food.
My boyfriend and I arrived at the carnival early to avoid the massive—and sometimes violent—crowds about which we had heard rumors. The Notting Hill Gate tube station was relatively empty at 11:15am, but the streets started to fill up quickly.
We made our way north to the parade route, stopping for a heaping plate of curried chicken and rice en route. While we ate we noticed that almost every storefront was not only closed for the carnival, but securely boarded up. Even the restaurants that kept their doors open covered their windows. Graffiti decorated the sheets of plywood, making the side streets look like war zones as the police stood at attention.
We felt safe, though. We walked uninhibited along the roads and through the crowds of people eating, drinking, and dancing. Once at the parade, we watched the dancers in their bright purple sequins, yellow feathered headdresses, and gold lamé dresses. Music blasted from huge trucks that drove slowly through the streets, offering each group a unique rhythm to dance to.
When the last of the procession passed, we started to wander through the neighborhood. I was surprised at what a huge area the carnival covered, and how many vendors were out selling every kind of food imaginable. Even enterprising locals were offering hot meals from the windows of their flats.
We stayed at the carnival for a few more hours, walking along the streets, eating sweet fried plantains and drinking water straight from large green coconuts.
Eventually we came across some of the more elaborate costumes in the parade. These were so large that the wearer often had to be supported by a wheeled brace just to stay standing. The costumes ranged in color from translucent white to striking red to dark purple, and came in shapes that varied from butterflies to skulls.
When we had seen the best of the costumes, we headed to the overground to get back to Hampstead. I was glad we were in town for once during the Notting Hill Carnival, and I might just stay in London for next year’s August Bank Holiday to see what the festival comes up with for its 45th anniversary.