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Giffords Circus


Running Away to the Circus

One of the pleasures of living abroad is being in a time zone that’s inhospitable to watching live television coverage of key events in America’s presidential election cycle. Having missed the circus that was the Republican National Convention, I made up for it yesterday by spending the afternoon under the not-so-big top of a real circus, one with clowns and acrobats and animals whose sole aim was to do the exact opposite of what appeared to be the objective of America’s Grand Old Party: to make people smile.

Giffords Circus is a summer institution in the Cotswolds, touring village greens and commons with its distinctly throwback-style of entertainment. This year’s show, The Painted Wagon, is a wild-west themed extravaganza—a metaphor all too fitting for behavior last week at the RNC in Cleveland. Dodge City Saloon proprietress Sarsaparilla Sal was our hostess for the afternoon, while the house band led by Handsome Eddie provided the musical accompaniment for a variety show that included a lassoing cowgirl, juggling barkeeps, and gasp-inducing aerial hoop dancing. Tweedy the Clown and his pet iron, Keith, were also on hand to keep the laughs coming. There was even a baddie sheriff who tried to arrest the whole audience for eating gold chocolate coins that had been robbed from Wells Fargo by El Gifford. Perhaps in Cleveland he could have been deployed to arrest an effigy of Hillary. It’s as if the Giffords—the circus is the brainchild of Nell and Toti Gifford—anticipated the political climate in America and built the perfect antidote of an afternoon. Now if only they would consider touring it in the states.

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The General and his do-si-do-ing horse

Looking at my blog posts from the last year, it occurs to me that my afternoon at the circus fits a theme of how I like to spend my free time these days. From Kelmscott Manor to the whimsical Welsh village of Portmeirion to the London Tweed Run, I’m most interested in those activities who have no higher aim than happiness. I’m drawn to the creators of the world who’ve embraced this, from William Morris to Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis. A look over the headlines for the past month explains my newfound affinity for pursuits unburdened by any objective other than delight. More than ever, we need the Giffords of the world. An afternoon at the circus deserves a permanent spot on the curriculum for being human, especially if you’re running for president.

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Summer in the Cotswolds

Summer in the Cotswolds means Giffords Circus, an old-fashioned village green circus that’s the brainchild of Nell and Toti (yes, Toti) Gifford. You can read all about it here and, better yet, book a ticket. Here are a few pictures from our visit last weekend to see Moon Songs, the title of this year’s sublime show, on the grounds of Sudeley Castle in Winchcombe.

Circling the wagons under the horse-chestnut tree
Dog and a bear on a horse. Just because.
Tweedy the clown gets loaded into the canyon

Giffords Circus: The Anti-Cirque du Soleil

The Cotswolds sometimes seem lost in time, a relic of a simpler way of life. Each summer this vibe is heightened by the appearance of Giffords Circus’ burgundy-painted wagons winding their way along the country lanes. Apart from the occasional surreal touch—the cotton candy vendor, a live turkey for an oracle—this traveling circus is firmly rooted in the past.

Cotton candy for Surrealists

This year’s Greek-god themed production, The Thunders, features a ballerina dancing en pointe atop her partner’s head, acrobats catapulting off an over-sized seesaw, and a clown pretending to throw knives at a blindfolded audience member. A pair of rescued dalmatians, after much cajoling, jump through a hoop, a dog rides a pony, and there’s a goose, just because. All frivolity is to the accompaniment of a live band.

Interval tea served in a proper mug

After the show we joined 40 other audience members at the Circus Sauce restaurant in a tent set up outside the chow wagon. Here we feasted family-style on a meal of pease pudding and pork belly served from atmospherically chipped Emma Bridgewater pottery. The cooks put on a marionette show, but the real entertainment at our end of the table was provided by two women doing a very convincing impression of the French and Saunders country ladies (start at 1:02 here)

The Sauce Restaurant tent

Don’t miss it. Remaining dates on this year’s tour are here.