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What Is The Notting Hill Carnival Really Like?

In the vibrant tapestry of London’s social calendar, where each day brings its own unique charm, there’s one event that stands out amidst the crowd – the Notting Hill Carnival. It’s a moment of cultural celebration, a time when we come together in the joyful embrace of unity.

However, beneath the colourful façade lies a much darker narrative which often creeps up across all social media platforms annually. Rampant and heavy drug use, outbreaks of gang violence, and frequent incidents of sexual harassment have become par for the course, or so many believe.

But is this an accurate reflection of what unfolds at the carnival? What is the Notting Hill Carnival really like? Let’s delve deeper into the fabric of the event to uncover the truth.

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A Brief History of the Notting Hill Festival

The vibrant roots of the Notting Hill Carnival can be traced back to the swinging 1960s. Decades prior, the UK saw a huge influx of immigrants from their Commonwealth lands in the West Indies. The neighbourhoods soon bloomed into one of teeming life and vibrant culture as the Caribbean influence infused itself into the local fabric. Against this colourful backdrop, the seeds of what would become the Notting Hill Festival were sown.

In 1966, a local visionary named Rhaune Laslett recognized the need to bring these captivating cultures together and celebrate them loudly and proudly along the streets. She orchestrated the inaugural outdoor festival, and thus, the Notting Hill Carnival was born.

Crowds of people flooded the streets adorned in dazzling costumes, swaying to the infectious beats of steel drums, and indulging in mouthwatering Caribbean delicacies.

what is notting hill carnival
At the heart of the festivities

Over the years, the Notting Hill Festival has continued to evolve into a global sensation and has always adapted to the changing times. Now the streets are filled with the rhymic beats of powerful sound systems pumping out reggae and dub tunes. The festival has become a hub of musical innovation, paired with spirited revelry and the occasional rum-infused mixer.

Today, this two-day extravaganza lures millions of revellers from all corners of the world. However, at its core, it remains a spirited celebration of cultural diversity and unity – a vivid testament to the strength of community bonds.

What Happens At the Notting Hill Festival?

As the festival approaches, the streets transform into a mesmerizing spectacle of vibrant colours and resounding waves of music. Parades take centre stage as they make their way past an endless stream of captivated onlookers. Dancers adorn themselves in breathtaking costumes and extravagant feathered headdresses that sprout like a palm tree.

The festival’s heart throbs with pulsating music that beckons people in with its infectious beats. Whether it’s the traditional rhythms of Caribbean calypso or the sounds of reggae and dancehall, the festival ensures you’re never far from a dance floor. Complete strangers spontaneously break out in dance-offs or erotically embrace each other to the rhythm of the beat.

what is notting hill carnival
Time to dance

As you continue walking along, you’ll undoubtedly be enticed by the mouth-watering aromas of cuisine from nations which are proudly represented at the festival. Whether you’re craving jerk chicken, fried plantains, or freshly made roti, you’ve come to the right place. To quench your thirst, why not also try some fresh coconut water or tropical fruit juices await, or better yet, add a little dash of rum?

Local Entrepreneurs

You can’t help but empathize with the residents who call these streets home. For two days of the year, their entire neighbourhood involuntarily turns into a booming festival. While some choose to fortify their homes, board up their business windows and secure their properties out of fear of potential vandalism or worse, an endless stream of pissing patrons, others see it as an opportunity.

what is notting hill carnival
Time to stock up

Local residents have taken it upon themselves to offer a wide range of services to cater to the millions of patrons who line their streets. Alcoholic beverages and homemade brews are sold at an inflated price, and tenants rent out their bathrooms at £3 per use – a surprisingly lucrative venture it seems.

However, for others, the occasion is the perfect opportunity to offer more clandestine goods without fear of prosecution. Thick hazes of the finest Cali fill the air and the unmistakable hiss of nitrous-filled balloons echo louder than any sound speaker.

The Tale of Two Days

The Notting Hill Festival is a multi-day celebration, offering a distinct and captivating experience each day. Curiously, each one of these days is a completely different animal.

On Saturday, the festival caters primarily to children and families. It provides a platform for youngsters to shine, as they don charming costumes and have their faces adorned with vibrant colours, all in the spirit of celebrating their diverse cultural backgrounds.

With children and families present, there’s much more of a heartwarming atmosphere as the younger generation immerses itself in the cultural heritage of the Notting Hill Festival.

what is notting hill carnival
Party atmosphere

Sunday is the crescendo of the entire event. The streets come alive with a mesmerizing display of gleaming costumes, towering floats, and megalithic speakers. It’s also a day when alcohol is free-flowing and inhibitions are freely lacking.

Creating a secure environment for young festival-goers by dedicating a single day to the children was a thoughtful approach on the part of the festival organisers. Ultimately it ensures that families can fully enjoy the Notting Hill Festival without any concerns for the well-being of their children.

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Local Concerns About the Notting Hill Festival

Within the flamboyant tapestry of the Notting Hill Festival, there exists a narrative of intriguing contrasts that delves beyond the carnival’s bubbly surface.

While the festival serves as a dazzling celebration of culture and unity, it’s not without its challenges. A considerable portion of the city’s population, particularly the residents of Notting Hill itself, grapple with persistent problems that come with the festival each year.

Overlookers. Photo by Philius, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The influx of visitors on a massive scale raises a lot of legitimate concerns about safety and security. A considerable number of police officers must attend the event to maintain order, with numbers almost reaching 10,000. Throughout the festival’s history, there have been numerous instances of crimes and sporadic conflicts, which seem to be increasing in number by the year.

Businesses and homes board up their windows in anticipation of damage. Mountains of litter are blatantly pilled up along the streets without any concern. Worse yet, people make morbid predictions about the number of people who will be stabbed at that year’s event.

The Sheer Lawlessness of the Notting Hill Festival

Despite the vast police presence, there’s always an undeniable feeling of lawlessness lingering in the smoke-filled air. It’s a peculiar event where activities that would normally result in you being put into a jail cell are noticed yet go unpunished.

Police officers will be witnesses to blatant crimes and not do a single thing to stop them. It’s a place where individuals can also achieve an altered state of consciousness induced by elicit substances while riot police glide past without a second glance. Officers will voluntarily stand amongst plumes of second-hand cannabis smoke, a treat they are rarely allowed.

Puff, puff. Photo by elsaolofsson, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Countless pills and gas cannisters will be consumed and raucous sexual encounters will get all common once the lights go down, voluntarily or otherwise.

The authorities have to prioritize their resources and choose not to clamp down on what they may consider minor indiscretions. They rather catch a youthful fool with a concealed blade rather than fat splif- certain matters take precedence.

Violence at the Notting Hill Festival

The Notting Hill Festival has an unfavourable reputation in some circles with many Londoners staying clear of the entire event. There’s a good reason for this, as the festival has a pretty notorious reputation for violence.

Since the festival’s inception, a concerning array of criminal activities has marred its history. These offences span from the possession of dangerous weapons to assaults on officers and, regrettably, instances of sexual misconduct.

As well as that, the festival has witnessed a distressing pattern of altercations among attendees, with multiple documented cases of physical assaults, including incidents involving stabbings, occurring on an annual basis. Tragically, since 1987, this violence has led to the loss of six lives connected to the carnival.

During the latest two-day event, there were a total of 275 arrests, with a significant portion – 165 arrests – occurring on Monday. In total, 8 people were stabbed with two individuals left in critical condition.

Reading Into the Statistics

While the numbers may appear shocking at first glance, it’s essential to contextualize them within the broader scope of the festival. Despite its reputation for crime, Notting Hill Carnival’s arrest rate relative to attendance is similar to other UK festivals.

Take, for instance, Glastonbury, the United Kingdom’s largest music festival, which hosts approximately 200,000 attendees over a five-day celebration. At this year’s festival, a total of 120 incidents were recorded, including 27 thefts, 20 drug offences, and seven sexual assaults. The previous year witnessed 205 reported crimes.

This year’s Notting Hill Festival drew in an impressive crowd of over 2 million attendees. Compare that with the relatively low incidence of criminal activity and considering the unique environment of the festival, many observers don’t find these figures to be alarming.

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Why The Notting Hill Festival is the Perfect Storm

Violence, unfortunately, remains an undeniable reality during the Notting Hill Festival. It’s a fact that’s tragically acknowledged by the local community, authorities, and event organizers alike. But what underlying factors contribute to the festivity’s tendency to become a breeding ground for such unrest?

This annual event stands out as a day when near-lawlessness prevails and the streets temporarily become one of the biggest events of the year. Red Stripes, weed and the strongest MDMA known to mankind are free-flowing throughout. Needless to say, it has everything an unscrupulous character would ever need.

what is notting hill carnival

Groups of impressional youth will invariably share the same streets with rival gangs. Top Gs become eager to make a name for themselves and display their insecure male bravado for the world to see. Ends will be represented, and blood will be shed.

Clashes are not likely, they are simply inevitable. It’s an undeniable tragedy that tarnishes the reputation of a festival which was originally conceived to celebrate the rich tapestry of diverse cultures and promote unity and togetherness.

Unity is Eternal

Despite the Notting Hill Festival earning a less-than-stellar reputation by many, it is still a vital piece of London’s cultural fabric and one that should continue to be celebrated. The event organisers have ensured by dividing the festivities across two days that it is an event that can be enjoyed by all, and allows certain behaviours to be segregated, though not eradicated.

As for the few bad apples that sour an otherwise delectable Caribbean punch, their actions should not and cannot represent the true spirit of the festival and its attendees. At heart, the festival will remain what it always set out to be – a vibrant celebration of immigrant culture that has ingratiated itself in the local culture, brotherhood and unity amongst all.

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