A Short History of the Cowley Road Carnival


The origins of Carnival in Oxford lie in the Caribbean Carnival in 1986.

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2000 – Regeneration required:  East Oxford Action worked with local groups to help revive Cowley Road.  Carnival as we know it today was born and the Cowley Road got its groove back.

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2001 – Humble beginnings:  The first Cowley Road Carnival, held in Manzil Way to a crowd of 5,000.

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2002 – Carnival takes shape:  The Cowley Road was closed for a small procession and Manzil Gardens accommodated the main stage.

2003 – First funding:  The Carnival obtained public funding for the first time thanks to Oxford City Council and the Arts Council, and attracted sponsorship from what is now Midcounties Co-operative. The first full procession was staged on Cowley Road.

2004 – Road closed:  The Carnival was granted permission to completely close the Cowley Road for the whole of the Carnival, completely transforming the event and creating a whole new vibe.

2005 – Growth:  By now the Carnival was attracting 25,000 people.  A grant from the Urban Cultural Programme allowed a much larger event, to do more with local communities and involve schools and young people.  Workshops began for creating the spectacular Carnival costumes that are symbolic of the event. Go to the photo gallery. 

2006 – Take a break: A food-focused event without a procession took the event back to its roots, relying on performers and local business sponsorship. MINI Plant Oxford gave support for the first time.

2007 – 1000 years of Oxfordshire:  Thanks to generous funding from MINI Plant Oxford, Oxford City Council and others, the Cowley Road Carnival was back – complete with procession.

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2008 – Giant puppets:  20,000 people braved the rain to be thrilled by the spectacular giant puppets in the procession which had been created by community groups with local artists trained by Mandinga Arts.  Albanian, Czech and Polish communities participated in Carnival, and there was also a focus on South American culture.

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New Beginnings

2009 – East Oxford Action Charity, now Cowley Road Works, was born with the aim to secure the long term future of Carnival and to develop it as one of the region’s biggest multicultural community arts events, widen the involvement of and benefit to local communities and businesses.  This year the Carnival retreated to South Park while the charity took time to establish itself and plan.  The result was a fantastic day for families, with the Park filled with outdoor music, family activities and stalls.

2010 – Roaring success:  an estimated 66,000 people attended across Fiesta in the Park on the eve of Carnival, and Carnival both at South Park and on Cowley Road.  A major fundraising event, Fiesta in the Park, took place on the Saturday evening, where over 1,000 people enjoyed internationally renowned artists Kanda Bongo Man, Grand Union Carnival Band, Reggae vibes from local band Makating, jazzy Arabic film noir by Brickwork Lizards and Reggae, Dancehall and Ska from DJ Count Skylarkin. The Carnival was a fun-filled day for families in the Park and an incredibly vibrant groove all day, all along the Cowley Road.

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2011 – Fiesta in the Park preceded Carnival on Saturday evening, featuring Roots Manuva, Kanda Bongo Man, Brassroots and Carnival Collective. On Sunday 3 July Carnival filled South Park with the procession, music and dance stages, and stalls.

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2012 – Olympic Torch: The Carnival team took a step back as the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations and the Olympic Torch Relay took precedence at Carnival time. We partnered with Fusion Arts in community workshops to create flags and banners to decorate the Torch Relay route down the Cowley Road.

2013 – Sunday 7th July: Carnival was attended by more than 35,000 people with a welcome return to the Cowley Road, with the theme ‘Wheels of Change’. There was a full procession, 12 venues boasting over 100 music and dance acts and food from around the world.

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Pitt Rivers area_2014_JJ Kelly

2014 – Biggest Carnival yet: 45,000 people got dressed up and came down to celebrate Oxfordshire’s best day out of the year. The procession celebrated the theme Oxford Faces and the new Scrapyard Stage at the Cowley Road at the Car Park, just off the Cowley Road was hugely successful. A series of varied monthly events preceded Carnival, helping to raise funds and involve different people in different ways, from Christingles and Carols for Carnival at St Mary & St John Church in December to the Aroma Carnival Cup International Football Tournament in June.

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2015 – Oxford Brookes University led the procession with the theme ‘Creating our Future’. Carnival-goers enjoyed entertainment stretching from The Plain to Magdalen Road with two main stages behind Tesco and at Manzil Gardens with nine themed zones.

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2016 – Carnival was held a week later than usual – 10 July – to alow for Ramadan. The theme ‘All the World’s a Stage’ was chosen in recognition of Shakespeare’s 400th anniversary celebration. The procession was the biggest and longest in its history, with 37 groups and well over 800 participants. Carnival celebrated its widest and most diverse programme of performances and activities at 29 venues.

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2017 – Cowley Road Works won the Oxfordshire Business Award for culture and tourism event. Arts Council funding supported new street art murals and Colossus Awakes which launched the Carnival weekend over 1&2 July. The Carnival took the theme ‘Technology and Industry’ to celebrate Oxfordshire’s world class achievements and successes with a new area dedicated to science. The European Space Agency came. Oxford Brookes University brought their F1 car and Artie the humanoid robot. Templars Square became a new sponsor and the Indonesian Embassy organised a zone with food, dance, music arts and crafts.

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2018 – Icons of Art was the procession theme for 2018. The Carnival provided the focus for several arts projects including new street artwork on walls along the Cowley Road and ‘Freewheeling’ which centred on the role of the bicycle, particularly how it provides freedom for women, in a year which we celebrated 100 year’s of women’s suffrage participating in a march in London and the Carnival procession.

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2019 – A year of improving inclusivity. We were proud to be awarded Bronze by Attitude is Everything  for making Cowley Road Carnival accessible. We initiated and managed inclusive arts training and projects to improve long-term inclusivity in the arts within the city and Oxfordshire. The Carnival theme was Space is the Place and we were funded by the Science Technology Facilities Council l to work with the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford and community groups to learn about space and develop artwork for the procession. Find out more . 

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2020 –  Carnival 2020 was held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The schools projects had already started and Oxford Spires Academy, supported by the Oxford Business Park, completed their amazing recycled octopus. Carnival at Home continued with online resources for schools and people isolating at home. A Virtual Carnival was held online on 5 July, with multiple stages hosting performances throughout the day. As an online event people could participate – wherever they were – and Cowley Road Carnival was beamed into homes all round the world in 44 countries around the world!

2021 –  We celebrated our 20th anniversary year in 2021 with the theme ‘Mother Earth’ to focus on local, national and international environmental issues. Sadly, Covid restrictions prevented our ususal celebration on the streets for the second year. Joyfully, we still celebrated in Carnvial style online with a Virtual Carnival Day. We organised the first House Floats in the UK and communities got together in small street parties.