Oxford with a twist: Cowley Road Carnival

Cowley Road Carnival, undoubtedly my favourite annual Oxford event, took place on 2nd July this year. Carnival might not be something you immediately associate with the city mainly known for its historic buildings and their dreaming spires, river punts and and publishing houses, film locations of Lewis or Inspector Morse, and students roaming the streets in their graduation gowns. Samba dancers, street bands, and Caribbean food don’t seem to go together with this image of academia and old-time charm. However, Cowley Road has a completely different look and feel from the rest of the city. This area with its shabby charm and an “anything goes” attitude is home to colourful street art, music venues, vast range of places to eat and drink, independent businesses, great community feel, and residents from all walks of life and all parts of the world. Pick a language, pick a nationality, pick a cuisine – you are likely to find it there. A street festival does not feel at all out of place.

On the carnival morning Cowley Road as well as some adjacent areas are closed to traffic to create room for all the food and information stalls, activity and children’s zones, music stages, and of course the fabulous procession in which hundreds of people from various schools and community groups take part, often with their hand-made costumes, puppets, and props. (I saw one upset taxi driver who was not happy about having to take a detour instead of driving straight through. Sorry,  it’s the same rules for everyone!) I always try to get to the area early to see everything being set up before the main crowds pour in. Being short, I often miss a lot of the details during the actual procession so a sneak peek beforehand is useful, especially for photography! This year’s theme was ‘technology and industry’ which had inspired creations ranging from robots to an F1 car and a huge Bin Bot called Colossus, made of purple plastic bins.

In true carnival style, the procession is an explosion of music and colour with dancers, bands, drummers, flags, paper mâché puppets, and creative costumes. Those living above the businesses lining the road have the best view from the windows, roofs, and balconies. Why go anywhere else if you can soak up the atmosphere right there?!

Of course, you need refreshments on a hot day as well as bite to eat to give you energy. With the choices from burritos to jerk chicken, curries to crêpes, and burgers to Japanese dumplings, you could almost eat your way around the world. Many grocery stores were selling huge water melons, and those with a sweet tooth were also catered for by the various coffee and pastry shops. As I’m trying to avoid disposable products in general and single-use plastics in particular, I took my own lunch box, ready for any temptations I wouldn’t be able to resist. It didn’t take long for me to get a portion of vegetarian dumplings with a bit of chilli oil that I devoured whilst I watched bands play on a nearby stage.

Every year the carnival provides a real cornucopia of music: rock, folk, reggae, country, hip hop, dance, dub, latino and more was found at pubs and on the various stages throughout the area. Something for everybody to both love and hate! I happily listened to my friend’s band’s rocking set and the samba groups drumming away, felt energised by the cheerful, catchy tunes of a community brass band who played in front of the brand new mural depicting them in action, and checked out a couple of singer-songwriters’ performing in a pub garden before I slowly made my way home. Of course there would have plenty more to see and do but at events like this I prefer to just ‘randomly wander’. I didn’t need anything else on a sunny summer Sunday.

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