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Notting Hill Carnival

At the end of August, Britain has something called a bank holiday Monday. This means that most people get Monday off work and can enjoy a lovely, long weekend. Two million of those people will descend on a smart West London borough called Notting Hill for Europe’s biggest street party: the Notting Hill Carnival.

The carnival is second only to Rio de Janeiro’s carnival in size and is something Londoners enjoy: only 20% of the attendees are tourists. The rest are all Londoners looking to party.

The carnival takes place over two days and features street parades of floats and marchers dressed in colourful costumes and, as DJs and local residents set up over 40 sound-systems, there are a lot of street parties. With another 70 stages for performances from steel-bands and reggae groups, Notting Hill Carnival is LOUD. And a LOT of fun.

On Sunday, the children’s parade takes place and hundreds of local children take part. The atmosphere is family-friendly and Sunday is a more sedate affair than the adult parade on Monday which is when the party really starts.  On Monday, the main parade starts at 10am and continues until 11pm, although most parties carry on until the early hours.

People work all year-round to produce the most dazzling, hand-made costumes and there are usually over 15,000 of them in the whole weekend. It takes over a million man-hours to produce the huge collection of fabulous frocks and around 30 million sequins, 15,000 feather plumes and 30 litres of body paint get used. This stuff is serious: there is always a prize for the best costume and competition is fierce.

But where did it all begin? The roots of the carnival may surprise you.

In 1948, Britain and its economy and were in serious trouble. The war, which had finished three years earlier, cast a long shadow over Britain: money was scarce and there was massive unemployment. Huge parts of the country were bombed-out zones and there was a need for people to help rebuild the country. Because of this, the UK put a call out to all the members of the Commonwealth: come and work in Britain, and we will look after you!

Because of this, a ship called the ‘Empire Windrush’ arrived from Jamaica carrying 492 Jamaicans who had come to Britain for work. It was the first of many ships to arrive from the Caribbean, Africa and India, bringing a new workforce to Britain and changing the face of Britain forever.

But it wasn’t an easy introduction and there was a lot of resistance and bad feeling from some British people towards these ‘invaders’. The new migrants were settled in the most run-down and poorest parts of London (like Notting Hill), increasing tensions with local people. For ten years, an uneasy peace was maintained but the social neglect, the slum landlords and increasing racial tensions resulted in the Notting Hill riots of 1958 when for six days, Notting Hill burnt as black migrants fought white racists on the streets following the killing of a black man by white racists.

One year later. A ‘Caribbean Carnival’ was held as a reaction to these riots. Held indoors in St Pancras Town Hall, this was a revival of the nineteenth century Caribbean carnivals which celebrated the end of slavery and the slave trade. However, it wasn’t until 1966 that a carnival was held which resembles the carnival of today.

It was the brainchild of a lady called Rhaune Laslett. She was a social worker and organised a street festival to promote local diversity and encourage integration. A white woman, she wanted to see the different ethnic groups of the Notting Hill area getting on better with each other. The carnival started with a street party for children but when the nearby steel-pan band went on a walkabout, people left their homes and began to dance on the streets. The Notting Hill Carnival was born.

By 1970 there were two music bands with over 500 dancing spectators. In 1973 the first costumed bands played and sound systems were introduced. With corporate sponsorship arriving in the mid-1970s, more bands and DJs began to play at the carnival. By 1976 more than 150,000 spectators lined the streets for the carnival, and although the British press tried to make the carnival look bad (with many famous people like Prince Charles rushing to defend it), each year, the carnival has grown bigger and bigger until it became the massive event it is today.

So, if you’re in London for this bank holiday weekend, head over to Notting Hill to enjoy London’s biggest party. It’s completely free! Just head for the nearest Underground station, follow the crowds and the sound of the music, and it won’t be long before you’re in the middle of one of the biggest parties on the planet!

By Lee Arnott

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