Run away to Giffords Circus

A travelling circus that tours one of the most picturesque corners of Britain and boasts hits of nostalgia and world-class showmanship in equal measure? BRITAIN needed no encouragement to hit the big top.

© Jonathan West

The tip of the big top peeks over an overgrown hawthorn hedge making it just visible from the winding country road. A few minutes later, the entire scene is laid out before us: old-fashioned wagons painted in burgundy surrounding the tent, stalls selling candyfloss, sun shining, blossom blooming and ponies greedily grazing.

We are at Daylesford Farm in Gloucestershire, home to the famous organic produce and the epitome of bucolic Britain, to see a traditional travelling circus, Giffords, which tours the south west of England throughout the summer months, moving on after a week in each place. Giffords was started in 2000 by Nell and Toti Gifford, whose vision was to create an experience of yesteryear: vintage costumes, rearing horses and creaking harmonicas.

© Jonathan West

The circus is anchored in the fields beneath the main house and farm shops of Daylesford – all built from distinctive soft honey-coloured Cotswold limestone. Outside the big top, circus staff in red velvet jackets studded with gleaming golden dome buttons, usher the audience into the tent.

The seating is in the round, as you would expect, with quaint hand-embroidered decorations featuring animal motifs around the inside ‘walls’. On either side of an entrance curtain for the performers is a traditional gypsy roulotte and an ‘orchestra’ of instruments, including a lovely mahogany grand piano which has, like everything else, an understated, faded glamour. On a blackboard backdrop behind the orchestra, constellations are marked out in chalk. There is a strong but not unpleasant smell of sawdust and horse manure.

© Jonathan West
© Jonathan West

Tweedy the clown welcomes us with a hearty dose of slapstick, which sets both children and adults in the audience off into uncontrollable peals of laughter. It’s a joy to see this sort of silliness done so well and a reminder of how hard it is to get right.

We are then introduced to Nell Gifford, the founder of the circus and its namesake, who rides in on a magnificent skewbald horse that can trot, rear and dance without batting an eyelid as the crowd cheers, along with raucous music from the live orchestra.

© Jonathan West

One of the many things that sets Giffords apart from other circuses is that it’s not just a series of acts shoehorned arbitrarily into a couple of hours. There’s narrative here. Every artiste involved is a uniquely skilled performer, but they are all characters who fit into a storyline, too. Focusing on a dispute between the musicians in a highbrow operatic recital and a band of Transylvanian gypsies, the story allows characters and relationships to develop via jokes and song as well as through some of the most amazing tricks you are likely to find anywhere in the world.

A tightrope-walking faun is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to extraordinary talent. The two fire jugglers, Bibi and Bichu, also manage to perform gymnastics while keeping control of at least ten batons of roaring flames: at one point an opera singer in full voice is caught in the crossfire of a potentially lethal game of ‘catch’ – or would have been if either of the jugglers had had a momentary lapse of concentration. Even magic tricks as old as the hills are done so well, it’s hard not join in and be impressed.

The production is a winner because it manages to navigate diverse audiences – four-year-old children, elderly couples, moody teenagers – effortlessly. Jokes often have a double or even triple meaning but always stay on the cheeky side of offensive. There are elements of the absurd: a goose waddles a lap of the stage and waddles out again, then later, a dancing bear gets the better of a hapless magician.

This is a highly technical production, showcasing a huge degree of skill and yet they have managed to look as understated as possible, because therein lies the charm.

© Jonathan West

The casual, easy atmosphere extends beyond the show, which lasts for around two hours, with an interval. Although there are some refreshment vans serving drinks, candyfloss, homemade pizza and cake, Giffords also offer a 42-seat travelling restaurant – Circus Sauce. After each evening’s show, a delicious three-course feast – made out of local ingredients – is served to both artistes and audience members.

With Giffords, there’s the feeling that even if the tricks were not slick or the musicality was poor, or there weren’t men jumping through skipping ropes on the back of cantering shire horses, you’d still want to be there soaking it up, such is the nostalgic, unspoilt and dreamlike atmosphere that’s created. It is an escape into an innocent, romantic fantasy world that will make you feel thrilled you ran away to the circus, even if only for a couple of hours.

Giffords Circus runs until 22 September. For venues, dates and showtimes, please click here.
Photographer Jonathan West is represented by The Pure Agency.

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