4 years, 7 months ago
Round about February you can’t swing a fistful of cheap beads without hitting a Carnival somewhere in the world. From expensive and utterly outrageous Rio to louche New Orleans and deliciously sinister Venice, the universal hedonism that precedes Lent is endless. Sin and repentance, excess and abstinence are prevailing themes. There are plenty of macabre customs woven into the works. And, colourful or not, there’s always an undeniable whisper of desperation in the days leading up to Mardi-Gras, Ash-Wednesday and the big door on fun being slammed shut for 40 days.
But one of the world’s biggest Carnivals bucks all those trends. It’s held on the last weekend in August, doesn’t have anything to do with self-sacrifice and everything to do with Caribbean music, dancing, food and looking fabulous. Welcome to Notting Hill and probably the wildest two days in London all year.
If all you know about Caribbean music is steel bands and Calypso-light, Notting Hill’s broad church of sound is determined to make a convert of you or die trying. 38 Sound Systems across two days cover everything from classic Carnival anthems and gospel to D&B, Reggae, Soca, Dub and, yes, even Disco – Calypso and Steel Bands are in there too, naturally. If you don’t like loud, relentless and big on horns and whistles, this is not the Carnival for you. And that’s fine, going on previous experience the legendary selectors, DJs and crews won’t be short of audience this August. Knowing where you want to go and getting in early is one way to work Notting Hill. But most visitors are just happy to move with the crowd, pick up on what sounds good, stay for a bit, then on to the next thing. The trick is not to be too determined, especially later in the day when it’s madly busy. And remember, it’s essentially a vast street party, so just relax into it.
Go hungry to Notting Hill and eat everything in sight, it won’t be sedate but it will be incredible. Jerk chicken, rice and peas are the Carnival standard and consumed by the ton, so think of that as your basic starter – corn and plantain on the side. Then you can just follow your instincts, nose and the starving masses. It’s a matter of pride to bring the best country cooking to Carnival so the competition is fierce and friendly, servings huge and eating’s mostly a hand’s on affair. It’s August and could be warm – even in London – so drink plenty of water is our advice, of course. But should you find yourself enjoying the odd glass of rum you won’t be alone – fresh, zingy rum-based concoctions are sinfully refreshing and a bit sneaky, so pace yourself.
Traditionally, Sunday is for families. It’s not really any less noisy or wild than Monday but the Kids’ Parade is great fun and spaces are set up for a quiet moment if you need one. Chocolate or paint isn’t a choice you often have to make, except at Notting Hill. The custom of smearing people with melted chocolate is a London take on ‘jouvert’ and it’s alive and well on Sunday. But purists still stick to the original ‘jouvert’ and throw colourful, powdered paint instead. Either way, if you want to stay shiny clean, it’s easy enough to avoid.
Monday’s Parade starts at 10am and is over 5km long. This is the big one and it doesn’t disappoint. With almost 16,000 different costumes and months of choreography, the legendary Mas Bands are unforgettable. Staple Carnival themes are feathers, sequins, glitter, body paint, sexy or satanic – some of the Devil Mas are truly fierce. Regulars like the Grenadian Short-Knee band and amazing Moko Jumbie stilt walkers are highlights. And an astonishing number of man-hours goes into making this one of the most spectacular Carnival parades on the planet. Go early, get a vantage point and show your appreciation – loudly.
It might be Europe’s biggest street party but being a bit organised is a plan, especially if you’re taking kids. Work out transport well in advance. Check the weather and bring a jumper, just in case. Don’t wear sandals (your feet will get filthy and trampled). Bring ear-defenders for small children – this is essential, Notting Hill is bone-rattlingly loud. Carry cash and don’t rely on local ATMs, they run out fast. If you can avoid using a buggy for little ones, do.
And, make sure you’re up to speed on dates and times. This year’s Notting Hill Carnival is Sunday 30th and Monday 31st August from 10am to 7pm . Local bylaws insist all music is switched off by 7 but hard core carnival types can still play at the famous After-Parties – we’ll leave it up to you to find out all about those, it’s not that hard.