The streets in Portobello Market were so packed that we had to plough through the masses of people to make headway through the crowds. Police officers, locally referred to as bobbies, were handing out flyers, making the public aware of the danger of pickpockets. They graciously agreed to have their picture taken with many of the tourists.
A friendly bobby with a tourist
In the early afternoon we had arranged to do an interview with Michael Williams, one of the organizers of Notting Hill Carnival, London’s annual Carribean festival. We arranged to meet in a small café near Notting Hill Gate to find out more about the city’s biggest street party. Michael initiated us to the history of this annual event which first happened in 1967. The carnival is the world’s second largest street festival after the carnival in Rio de Janeiro and has attracted up to 1.5 million spectators.
Michael Williams explains the history of Notting Hill Carnival
Michael provided us with a historic overview of Caribbean immigration in London. During World War II in particular, a lot of black immigrants from West Africa and the Caribbean arrived in London, working as sailors and in the armed services. During the 1950s and 1960s Britain experienced heavy immigration from English-speaking Caribbean countries, in particular Jamaica. Many of these immigrants worked in transportation, hospital services and railway development, significantly contributing to Britain’s post-war rebuilding efforts.
St. John’s Notting Hill Church
The initial Notting Hill Carnival was actually held in 1959 as a response to the poor state of race relations. Racial riots had taken place in Notting Hill in 1958 when white working class youths attacked houses of West Indian residents. Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian political activist and community leader, founded Notting Hill Carnival in 1959 in order to showcase the talents of the Afro-Caribbean community in Britain. Her Mardi-Gras celebrations turned into an annual event. From 1965 the event was held annually in August and became a popular street festival. During the 1970s there were often tensions and riots, reflecting the uneasy state of race relations, but in recent years British authorities have come to view Notting Hill Carnival as a very positive addition to the London’s annual event calendar. Recent estimates indicate that Notting Hill Carnival contributes around $200 million to London and the British economy.
Streetscape in Notting Hill
After this fascinating introduction to London’s Notting Hill Carnival and the historic circumstances leading up to it, Michael had to leave. Andrea and I set off to explore the local neighbourhood. Notting Hill came to international fame as a result of the 1999 hit film of the same name that starred Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant. From the houses we walked by we could see that this is a very affluent and fashionable neighbourhood.
Street life in London
Historically the Notting Hill area was used for clay brick-making, and it also featured a large number of pig farmers. The main development of the area got started in the 1840s by the Ladbroke family who were major landowners in the area. A main street in the area is still named after this family. In the early 20th centuries many of the large mansions were converted into rooming houses, and during the post-war years Notting Hill became a low-income area dominated by a number of slum landlords. The neighbourhood came full circle in the 1980s when affluent families started to move in again and began to gentrify the area. Today, Notting Hill is one of London’s most popular areas.
Funky retail stores abound
By now it was mid-afternoon and we wanted to expand our explorations so we hopped on the Tube again – what a convenient way to get around – and went to another unique London neighbourhood: Edgeware Road. Also often referred to as “Little Beirut” or “Little Cairo”, this area is one of London’s ethnic neighbourhoods in the western part of central London. The entire street has a distinct Middle Eastern flavour; stores and pharmacies feature signs written in Arabic; Middle Eastern men sit in patio cafes, smoking water pipes, and many kebab and shawarma restaurants line the street. Being such a vibrant, diverse metropolis, London has many different ethnic neighbourhoods that invite locals and tourists alike to explore other cultures without ever leaving the city.
Locals smoking waterpipes on Edgeware Road
We had already had a great start to exploring the city, and our next destination was a true London landmark: Hyde Park!