If you attended Notting Hill Carnival yesterday, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it was like any other year. Cans of Red Stripe hung from fishing poles held by innovative off-licence owners while women in opulent Caribbean carnival costumes covered entire streets with their wingspans.
A haze of smoke rose from oil-drum barbecues cooking jerk chicken with rice and peas for the masses, of which there was an estimated two million over the course of two days. Revellers gathered, smoking and drinking, as sound systems like King Tubby’s and Different Strokes blasted out Vybz Cartel and Dawn Penn to a raucous reception. Standard programming, really.
But 2023 wasn’t just any other year for Notting Hill Carnival. It marked the 75th anniversary of HMT Empire Windrush docking at Tilbury, bringing with it a collection of workers from the Caribbean who helped rebuild Britain after the Second World War. As such, a Windrush-themed bus joined this year’s parade, carrying illustrations by artist Baraka Carberry which depicted three generations of those impacted by Windrush. The bus will live on past the bank holiday weekend, too, when it makes a reapperance during Black History Month this October.
As well as the more historical significance, this is also the second year Carnival 2023 has returned since it was shut down due to Covid. Carnival 2022 was the first time it was held since 2019, which meant a slight reduction in attendance, though no dampening in spirit. But now, this year, Carnival is back to its peak, with more than two million attendees over the course of the weekend and famous faces like Lily Allen, Idris Elba, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, Nick Grimshaw and Clara Amfo among the crowds.
Streets were gridlocked, as always, and any first-time-attendee’s naive plans to “meet mates there” quickly fell through as soon as they emerged from Ladbroke Grove station and realised the beautiful ruckus they’d entered into. Off-white sunglasses were in abundance, as well as crochet ‘naked’ dresses and silver cowboy hats left over from Beyoncé’s Renaissance tour.
As usual, colours from Caribbean flags were everywhere, from the black, yellow, and green representing Jamaica’s sunlight, soil, and hope, to the fire and earth of Trinidad and Tobago’s red, white, and black banner.
It’s a good thing that 2023 felt like any other year, 25-year-old attendee Will tells me as we jostle through the crowds on Portobello Road, because it proves Notting Hill’s spirit can never be diluted. “If anything, it’s good that it feels like every other year, it proves it will never die. After two years off from Covid, the spirit is still very much alive,” says Will, who has been attending Carnival every year since his teens.
Between Covid, the Met Police’s complaints about policing the event, and City Hall’s previous attempts to move the festivities away from residential areas and into Hyde Park, people have tried to stem its flow, but each time they are rebuffed. “I know the event has had difficulties over the years, with people trying to move it out of the area,” Will says, “but there really is nothing better then roaming the streets of Notting Hill in the summer sun experiencing the culture. Plus, this area is a cultural home for so many people here.”
Long live Notting Hill Carnival — may it only get bigger.