I love Notting Hill Carnival. With abandon. There’s something about dancing in the streets of this great city that gets me every time. I’ve sought out good parties all over the world, but this annual hometown bash is The One.
Our Carnival might have proud Caribbean roots, but it’s the London influences that lend its unique and dynamic flavour, from mental drum & bass soundsystems to the pleasing juxtaposition of trucks piled with huge walls of speakers rattling the windows of multimillion pound villas.
Yet despite this uproarious celebration of London’s bass-loving musical and inimitable cultural heritage, every year the press coverage is ridden with the most lazy clichés. The dancing policeman/ the beaming befeathered dancer / Norman Jay on a Chopper / the arrest statistic.
In fact, the sensual overload of Notting Hill Carnival is best experienced first-hand, so ignore the hackneyed old angles. Instead, here are 10 altogether more leftfield tips and suggestions to help ensure you enjoy this life-affirming communal cheer to all that’s great about this metropolis for what it really is.
1. Don’t just go on Monday That’s when it gets most hectic. Ease your way towards that crescendo slowly with a visit on Sunday too. It’s a lot easier to get around and see more things, eat/pee without queuing and practice some soca dance moves with the kids in the parade. Or try going on Saturday night for the epic steel band panorama.
2. Go early The main parade starts at 10am, when the streets are almost empty. It might feel keen, but there’s a special magical anticipation in the air and plenty of smiles and jokes to be had as everyone gets ready.
3. Try walking there It’s only an hour from K-Town and you could well beat the progress of those poor souls crammed onto the 31 bus. The canal is the most direct route by foot and it’s lovely. For the way home, we recommend the less mobbed northern exits. The Overground from Kensal Rise is always a winner, or if you’ve stayed until the wee hours, busses from the Harrow Rd/Elgin Avenue junction are really quick.
4. Look out for the chocolate The Trinidadian contingent spend much of Sunday slapping handfuls of melted chocolate onto each other in one of Carnival’s more deliciously carnal, hugely messy traditions. It’s food fight-tastic after a couple of rum punches though.
5. Crash a house party (politely of course) – Sunday night is all about meeting new friends by procuring an invite to a local’s home. The mood at this halfway point in the festivities is joyous; perfect for for a major living room shindig. And it’s the one night the stereo can be cranked right up. Monday is better for DJ-led dos in pubs, but it’s advisable to buy tickets in advance for these – party crashing tactics are hard to pull off on the firm but fair door staff.
6. Forget the map I’ve honestly never seen a good Carnival map. The area is crisscrossed with inaccessible roads, railways and waterways so they are pretty much useless for navigation anyway. Smartphone apps like Flaregun, which send a text message containing your exact GPS coordinates to mates can be good for hooking up, but the networks won’t cope with the load on Monday. Keep it analogue and use the celebrated brutalism of Trellick Tower as a compass.
7. Bring something to wave It’s easy to lose friends when things get crowded and the phones are jammed. Having something unique to identify yourself with when held aloft can save the day. For many years I chose a big inflatable hammer. Ridiculous? Absolutely, but it was social dynamite. Friends I hadn’t seen for years descended like moths to a flame, often bearing welcome alcohol supplies. Bingo!
8. Commit to your spot In recent years the police have been employing cunning ‘kettling lite’ tactics, which mean each big soundsystem is effectively cut off to become an inaccessible party island by around 4pm. If you haven’t got to where you want to be, the rest of the afternoon will be spent milling around frustrated. Head to who you want to hear, and stay put.
9. Follow a rogue float At one time the procession of trucks used to continue on the route late into Monday night. It was edgy, but some party. These days the curfew is 8:30pm. Still, jumping around behind a float is definitely something that should be done, and following one as it peels off down a swanky Ladbrooke Grove side street is still one of the many unreported joys of Carnival.
10. Dance to Norman… and the others If Norman Jay telling his Carnival history sat on a Chopper is a cliché, his Good Times system is still a quintessential experience. Having had to cancel his first one for decades last year, he’s back in 2012 and well worth visiting. As are party starters Sancho Panza round the corner, the dub attack of Aba Shanti-I down the next turning, or the jump up madness for those that can handle it over on All Saints Road. The long established soundsystems – working tirelessly to rig up their corners and give us a totally free party every year – are the booming heroes of Notting Hill. See you there. Warm beer, rice ‘n peas and questionable inflatable in hand.