Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Little tent, big experience: Go to Giffords Circus

I had to have my arm twisted to go to Giffords Circus the first time. “I don’t like circuses,” I said. “They feel sort of sad, and well, a bit tacky.” The performers do amazing things, but I feel distant, and unamazed. Even the kids seem more interested in the popcorn and the glow sticks for sale.

These days, I’m the one doing the arm-twisting. “Giffords is different, Giffords is special,” I babble, adjectives tumbling out my mouth. "It’s vibrant, engaging, theatrical, characterful, classy, eccentric, uplifting. It makes you feel GOOD." 

It also has an intriguing backstory. Nell Gifford, the owner and ringmaster is an Oxford graduate. When she was a teenager, her mum had a horrific horse-riding accident and was left permanently and seriously brain-damaged. What did Nell do? Stop horse-riding herself? Wrap herself up in cotton wool? No, she ran away with a circus and learnt all kinds of dangerous and daring horse-back skills. Then she started her own circus.

Each summer, Giffords travels from village green to village green across the Cotswolds, and beyond. The Big Top is in fact quite tiny – and twinkly and cosy and intimate, with fairy lights and chandeliers. 
The performers live in a collection of adorable vintage caravans.
And I love the little scenes of backstage life you catch between them. 
The enticing ones.
And the surreal ones. 
(Yes, that is a cockerel.)

There's even a caravan-tent restaurant called Sauce, where, if you have a few extra bob, you can eat a three-course, candle-lit dinner after the show. 
On spotty crockery. (Nell's sister happens to be the potter Emma Bridgewater. Creativity runs in the family.)
The acts are as high-quality as any circus: acrobats, flame-throwers, a contortionist ... But they do occasionally make mistakes – which simply jolts you into full appreciation of the skill and difficulty of what they're doing.

There are animals too. Not elephants and performing seals of course, but huge horses and performing doves, horse-riding dogs and (semi!) obedient dalmations. Oh, and a turkey. Simply that. A turkey doing a slow waddle of the ring. 
Giffords has a deliciously quirky and dry sense of humour. 

Which brings me to Tweedy the clown, a central character of Giffords, who surely has the most expressionful face of anyone on the planet. (He also has a pet iron called Keith.) 
All the costumes are hand-made and gorgeous.The music is by a live and very lively band. One year, they were a bunch of French buskers that Nell stumbled upon and plucked from the streets of Paris, she liked them so much. 

And finally, when the show is over, the audience are invited into the ring to dance with the performers. Like a wild, Bohemian party. 
Yep, this is a happy circus. 

Visit the Giffords Circus website here. On July 23rd 2016 in Oxford, you can also have a behind-the-scenes tour of the circus or watch an open rehearsal.


  1. Fairy lights,chandeliers and vintage caravans. They need to come to Ireland, sounds like it's right up my street!

  2. Lovely post, looks like lots of family fun :) x

  3. Wow! What a great post! :D Keep it up :)