It had been decades since I’d last gone to the circus, my memories of the Ringling Brothers still fresh in my mind. The sweet smell of cotton candy, the sound of two thousand excited people waiting for the show to start and the drumroll as it all began. The setting was decidedly different from previous experience. The backdrop, Daylesford Organic Farm in the Cotswolds, rolling green hills, fresh air and of course a herd of cows lazily chewing on grass. As I made my way from the car park to the grassy field where the tent peaked out above the hedge row, the excited giggles of children caught my attention. As soon as I entered the campground I could tell that Giffords Circus was a different experience than other circuses. Nothing looked shabby or hinted at a life on the move. From the ornate costumes decorated in sparkles and gold embellishments to the beautifully painted circus caravans, there is no detail that has not been handled with care.
A characteristic that stood out to me from the show was just how many families were a part of the circus and just how young the cast members can be (the youngest is under ten!) An astute decision by Nell Giffords, the woman who ran away to start her own circus in 2000 with her husband Toti. From their humble beginnings they have now gone on to entertain over 650,000 people. My day with Giffords Circus with one of magic and infectious exuberance. I was lucky enough to interview the creator of it all, Nell Giffords and ask her about her inspiration for the vintage English circus and her advice for living on the road.
How did you first think of the idea for Giffords Circus?
Myself and Toti Gifford worked on a circus in Germany in 1998 called Circus Roncalli and in many ways this was the first idea for Giffords Circus.
What were you doing before you created Giffords Circus?
I was working on other circuses, writing and working with horses.
What makes Giffords stand out from other circus performances?
I don’t know if Giffords does stand out from other circus performances but I think we have made a name for presenting very English vintage circus.
What are you most excited about in the 2018 show?
I love the whole of the 2018 show – I love the performing Dachshunds, the miniature ponies, I love Nancy Trotter Landry and Tweedy who are very funny.
I love the concept of having a live band as a key part of each performance. What was your thought process behind that decision to bring them more into the forefront?
In my view a live band is as good to watch as any live circus act so if you have a great band that you can see then you are halfway to making a great show and what could be nicer than watching great musicians playing lovely musical instruments
I noticed that a lot of the performers were family members. Was this done on purpose? How does it change things behind the scenes?
Circus is generally always made up of lots of different families. Behind the scenes people have their groups, their family life, it does not really change anything because people naturally form groups and families. It is lovely this year as there are lots of children living on the circus and that is nice as my children play with them and it provides a great energy.
Living a nomadic life can be difficult, especially with a family in tow. What are the positives and negatives for you?
Sometimes my children do become a bit bored at the circus, this can be a bit difficult because it is quite a structured way of life but at the same time we get to see lots of lovely places and they live in a community that genuinely love them and there is a lot of skill sharing
Not only do guests get a show when they visit your circus, they also have a selection of delicious food. What are some of your favourite food options?
I love our travelling restaurant Circus Sauce. They serve incredibly delicious food especially wonderfully inventive puddings made with lots of herbs and spices and fruit
It must be challenging coming up with new material each year. Can you describe your process a bit?
It is not actually challenging! I just can’t stop thinking about different shows so it is more a case of focusing on one thing. It is always exciting to start working on a new show and I work closely with our director, choreographer, musical director which is like a conversation and the fitting together of the pieces of a puzzle.
Describe your morning routine.
I get up usually start very slowly in the morning as I am not very well at the moment and I tend to find the mornings a bit tricky. It is so hot at the moment I go straight into a paddling pool. But it could be seeing people, riding, being with the children, painting.
Running a circus and moving around, life must be hectic. What are some simple things that you do to slow things down?
I do a lot of painting with incense burning, I listen to a lot of music, I love having lit fires.
When on the road you must have to pick and choose what is essential to bring with you, what are three things that you’d always bring with you?
I always say that the essentials of the circus are wellington boots, a torch and a leatherman. But having said I bring just about everything else, including the kitchen sink!
What would you say to someone at a crossroads between choosing what they love to do and choosing the safe option?
Chose what you love to do, don’t make decisions drunk or hung over…
Giffords Circus is coming to a town near you!
Shows are running until 30th September 2018. Take a look at their website and book your tickets.
Ariana Ruth has been living and working in London for the last five years in the food, lifestyle and publishing industry.
Ariana has also collaborated on workshops with creatives such as Marte Marie Forsberg and Local Milk. After working for the last two years in the events industry, Ariana turned her side hustle into a full time career. She is currently Managing Editor of the travel & lifestyle magazine, In Clover as well as Editor in Chief of the food magazine, Table.