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A Proper English Experience: London & Notting Hill Carnival

After using Airbnb on several trips in 2014, we had become fairly savvy users. The flat we booked in Notting Hill was by far the most amazing place we'd found by then and still possibly one of the best ever. I knew Notting Hill was an attractive part of London but I really hadn't imagined that neighborhoods this beautiful actually existed. The only word that I can think of to describe Notting Hill is immaculate. Our street had endless rows of tall cream-colored townhouses, while other blocks had multicolored or brick houses in a variety of styles. The one constant was the pleasant congruence of homes on each block and an awe-inspiring classical beauty. The apartment itself was surprisingly spacious and well-appointed with high ceilings and hardwood floors, and decorated idiosyncratically with colorful furniture and repurposed hardware.
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Of course we hadn't chosen Notting Hill just for its architectural allure. The whole reason we had chosen this particular week to come to England was to be there for the world famous Notting Hill Carnival, an annual celebration of Caribbean culture since 1966. The genesis of the Carnival was as an event to promote cultural unity after the race riots which had occurred in the neighborhood in 1958. The festival has grown dramatically over the years and it is now one of the world's largest street festivals, attracting over two million people to the neighborhood every year. We were incredibly fortunate to have found such a magnificent flat on the very doorstep of the festival just a month in advance, a stroke of luck I can only ascribe to Airbnb still being a fairly new mode of accommodation at the time. To do the same in the 2020's one would likely have to book a year in advance and pay easily twice as much.

We had three full days in London but we expected the Carnival to occupy most of the first two, while the third would be free. As soon as we stepped out of our building we could smell the smoke of barbecues and hear pounding bass from speakers that were blocks away. Strollers were out of the question so Mei Ling had Ian strapped to her back and I had a carrier for Cleo, although she had sensed the energy and was eager to walk and explore on her own. The first thing we did was find ourselves a breakfast of jerk chicken and Jamaican rice with beans. Foot traffic was fairly light at ten in the morning but the streets began to fill up quickly. As we walked we began to encounter larger crowds and some impressive parades with music trucks and floats. Mei Ling really got into the spirit of things and became an attraction in her own right dancing through the streets with Ian on her back and Cleo in her arms.
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The crowds continued to grow but were never really oppressive thanks to the wide avenues that were all closed to traffic. The atmosphere was great with people of all cultures and races mingling together. Eventually we found our way over to Notting Hill's renowned Portobello Road where we stumbled on an energetic display of the Brazilian martial art capoeira.
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The Carnival would have been an amazing scene anywhere with the parades, the dancing, and the joyous celebration of Caribbean culture. However, what made it truly incomparable was the setting among the magnificent rows of pristine town houses of Notting Hill. The juxtaposition was incongruous and somehow ideal at the same time.
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At first it seemed that we could keep strolling through the streets for the entire day, but after a few hours the weight of the kids started to wear on us. I could have put Cleo down and carried Ian myself but the crowds were getting to the point where I was nervous to let her walk even holding my hand. Eventually we decided that we'd seen enough and returned to the flat for the stroller. We headed in the opposite direction from the clamorous festival and soon found ourselves in quiet lanes and green spaces with little trace of the energetic crowds we had left behind.
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After a few blocks we found ourselves in Kensington Gardens, home of Kensington Palace. Cleo got a thrill feeding the geese and swans with some crackers we were fortunate to have with us. It seemed like a typical summer afternoon in London with no trace of the wild carnival taking place a ten minute walk away.
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Notting Hill Carnival takes place over two days, with the second day being the Summer Bank Holiday. We were prepared to spend a few more hours at the festival but as luck would have it it was raining fairly briskly when we stepped out of our building. The dark skies didn't promise much hope of better weather any time soon, so we decided to chuck the whole idea and take the Tube to Camden Market instead. We really didn't have anything to complain about as we had had a blast on the first day and there probably wasn't much left for us to see anyway. We'd loved Camden Market the previous year and we were glad to have another opportunity to explore it. Unfortunately it was clear the rain had reduced the market to a shadow of its usual self. We were ready to go but the energy simply wasn't there.
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We were wondering what to do next when I noticed the staircases that descended from the market down to the water level at Camden Lock. I thought we might see something interesting down there and we discovered a fascinating path along the canal. We had accidentally discovered Regent's Canal and began to walk westward in the direction of Notting Hill. We had no idea we were about to see one of the most beautiful urban landscapes we've ever encountered. The canal winds its way through northern London a level below the city streets, making it an enchanted respite from the furious activity above. The water is carpeted with algae blooms and the sides of the canal are home to eccentrically-decorated houseboats. Set back from the banks are weeping willows and the rear facades of stately mansions and museums. It was probably the best place we could have been on a rainy day in London, with the light drizzle accentuating the verdant and colorful landscape. The best part was that we had never heard of the canal and stumbled upon it completely by accident, making us feel like we had made our own remarkable discovery in this incomparable city.
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We walked for what seemed like miles along the canal, only emerging when we couldn't ignore the growling in our stomachs any longer. London's amazing multicultural character came to the rescue with an Iraqi restaurant in the middle of Lisson Grove, a cuisine we'd never previously encountered. We continued the walk at ground level all the way back to our neighborhood where we could here the sounds of the resurgent festival that we were far too exhausted to return to.
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We had one last full day in London and decided to walk all the way to the Tower of London, a good three hour walk with the strollers. Our first stop was for breakfast at a very cute cafe with a glass ceiling on Portobello Road. Then we set off eastward through the drizzly, congested streets of central London until we reached the Thames where it bent northward at Covent Garden.
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At the river we came across Somerset House, an enormous 18th century Neoclassical building built on the foundations of a decayed Tudor palace. In the late 20th century the site was expanded with new buildings and converted into a center for the arts. The splendid main courtyard remains open to the public.
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Despite the persistent drizzle the walk along the Thames was very enjoyable. Along the north bank we passed an eclectic mix of ultramodern and historic buildings. A few oddly-shaped skyscrapers dotted the skyline. We were surprised to encounter a footbridge spanning the Thames with a very contemporary design.
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When we finally arrived at the Tower of London, the moat had been turned into a sea of red by hundreds of thousands of ceramic poppies, an artistic installation called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red that commemorated close to a million British servicemen killed subsequent to the outbreak of World War I a hundred years earlier. We were fortunate to have stumbled upon this very evocative display purely by chance as it was only in place for a few months. The breathtaking expanse of poppies revealed the enormity of the war's toll much more than could have been accomplished by any list or monument.
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The tower grounds were pleasant to stroll through, although we made the mistake of waiting on line to view the Crown Jewels which were nowhere near as dazzling as I remembered them from my childhood. The medieval complex was quite formidable and amazingly well-preserved. The iconic bridge that crosses the Thames adjacent to the Tower of London is the Tower Bridge, although it is commonly misrepresented in photos as London Bridge. The famed Old London Bridge that was lined with multistory buildings was demolished in 1831, and the current iteration is a rather low, unadorned span of concrete that most visitors don't look at twice. The Tower Bridge is quite medieval in appearance but was actually built in the late 19th century and its design was quite controversial at the time.
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With that our brief English vacation came to an end. It had only been a week but we had seen and done more than we would have in a month of our regular lives. We haven't been back in the six years since, mainly because it's simply too difficult logistically to get around by train with three small kids. As soon as Spenser is old enough to carry his own pack we'll be back for a full six weeks to give the British Isles the full exploration they deserve.

Posted by zzlangerhans 15:58 Archived in England Tagged london england travel family notting_hill_carnival blog regents_canal travel_blog Comments (0)

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