I am constantly in awe of creative people, artistic types, who can create anything with their ideas and their hands. They have a dream, a determination to follow their hearts, follow their beliefs. Nell Gifford is a perfect example of this. She studied English at Oxford but always knew that for her life was about creativity, entertainment, sharing. She thought about her childhood; ponies, dogs, dressing up boxes, and decided to recreate these memories. The result is the charming, eclectic and delightful Gifford’s Circus – founded in 2000 by Nell Gifford. It is a traditional, old-fashioned, summer circus that moves from town to town, during the summer months.
GIFFORD’S CIRCUS – JUNE 2017
Each summer Gifford’s Circus is on tour, visiting the village greens, parks and commons of Southern England. A few days ago they struck camp in the University Parks, Oxford. The wagons, gypsy caravans and trailers, many vintage, are all painted in a uniform dark brown, with cream trim. Emblazoned on the side of each vehicle, in bright blue lettering are the words Gifford’s Circus. The big top, a large white tent, is situated within the protective circle of the wagons and trailers. Gifford’s offers a show that includes horses, dogs, clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists, dancers, singers and a live band. It is Nell Gifford’s interpretation of an old-fashioned circus event. Even the arrival of Gifford’s Circus and the setting up of the ‘travelling show’ attracts attention and builds anticipation. The Box Office, in a gypsy caravan is set up and it’s open for business. Roll up, roll up, buy your tickets here.
Towards the back of the site a blacksmith tends to the hooves of a cast member. A very handsome pony, steel grey in colour with a long, luxurious mane. There’s a tent specifically for the horses, complete with individual stalls inside. This is home to at least half a dozen equine pals. They graze at their hay nets or doze contentedly. The space is light and bright. The horses look relaxed, content, happy, rueful even. Just behind the Box Office muscular young men lift weights and practise their juggling technique. The message is clear ‘the Circus is in town’ and anything can happen.
This year the show is entitled ‘Any Port in a Storm’. The entertainers are truly international, there’s a Ukrainian ‘flyer’, a stunt rider from Hungary and a team of performers from Cuba. In the days leading up to the first night cast members – in full costume – are out and about, drawing attention to themselves – drumming up business! Look – the language even exists today – now! Drumming up business…roll up, roll up. This is the language of showtime. Immediately I’m thinking of the constant references to ‘circus’ in our culture. I think of John Irving’s book ‘A Son of the Circus’ and his description of the ‘Great Blue Nile Circus’. I think of the circuses of my childhood, Barnum’s, from the United States of America, then closer to home Billy Smart’s Circus. The notion of ‘life on the open road’ moving from place to place. Always romantic, constantly changing. As a child I grew up with adventure stories of children who hated school and spent their days dreaming of escape, adventure and discovering new and different places. Running away to join the circus was a very appealing option.
I think the idea of community is very strong too. The troupe, the cast are on the road together for weeks and months. They live together, perform together, eat together. The success of the circus and the performance is in everyone’s hands. In this sense it is a community project. Collaboration and co-operation are key. If the show is successful the performers thrive, confidence grows, team morale is high. Audiences sense this camaraderie and want to share and enjoy the spirit, drama and joy of the circus. There is fun, laughter, music and excitement. The seating in the ‘big top’ in a circle or semi-circle around the stage, encourages audience involvement. The more engaged the audience, the better the show.
Nell Gifford’s determination and imagination created Gifford’s Circus. She has single-handedly revived the fortunes of the circus, as a family show, in England. For me Nell Gifford is a ‘Capable Woman’ a person with direction and the single-minded intention to make a dream come true. Gifford’s Circus taps into our desire for adventure, excitement, drama and fun. I strongly recommend a trip – even if it’s years since you’ve been to the circus. You won’t be disappointed.
TRAGEDY – In December, 2019 the indomitable Nell Gifford died of cancer. For me she was the perfect example of a ‘Capable Woman’ a person with direction and vision and the single-minded intention to make a dream come true. Gifford’s Circus lives on, enriched and shaped by her legacy. The circus concept fuels our desire for adventure, excitement, drama and fun. Nell Gifford sprinkled her magic into the air, and so many of us enjoyed it, inhaled it deeply and carried it away in our spirit and our imagination long after the final act had left the Big Top.
- Nell Gifford founded Gifford’s Circus in 2000, she was a writer, performer, wife and mother, to twins. She was also an accomplished artist. She died in December, 2019.
- Nell Gifford’s obituary from The Guardian, Dec 2019: https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2019/dec/23/nell-gifford-obituary
- In Summer, 2017 Gifford’s Circus performed ‘Any Port in a Storm’ – a Baroque inspired show with an international team including a Cuban troupe, a Hungarian Csikos rider and a Ukrainian flyer. Household favourite Tweedy (the clown) was a key character too. The show ran from May to Sept, 2017
- This article was written when Gifford’s Circus was at The University Parks, Oxford. 15th-26th June, 2017
- I write regularly about ‘Capable Women’ you can browse this blog and read about female travellers, artists and archaeologists. I’m always happy to consider exceptional women as a subject for an article. Recent subjects have included: Freya Stark – and Asolo, Italy (traveller and writer). Leonora Carrington (surrealist artist, poet, writer and costume designer), Peggy Guggenheim (art collector, patron of the arts, 20th century art collector and owner of a fabulous palazzo in Venice).
- You can contact me at: Janet Simmonds, Educated Traveller
- My blog is: Educated Traveller
- Article written: June 2017
- Updated: November, 2020