The arrival of Gifford’s Circus is always a highlight of the summer. And even on a grey, gloomy overcast day, the sight of its pretty big top and vintage showman’s wagons, all done out in that familiar claret tone, sets the heart skipping and the pulse racing.

This is the circus for people who don’t really do circuses. It has nothing in common with the big operators. This is circus with a hint of music festival and the sweet flavour of a village fete.

This year’s show, Xanadu, sees Nell Gifford’s happy crew channelling the swinging 60s and groovy 70s, with a flower power-themed show which took as its reference points Woodstock Festival, the Beatles and Stones’ psychedelic eras and a bit of Austin Powers (“Yeah baby!”).

The attention to detail is fabulous – from the gorgeous costumes worn by the ushers and vendors to the retro snacks and drinks. It’s pure nostalgia.

Read more: Stars of high (and low) culture come out for Oxford Festival of the Arts

There is something magical about filing into the intimate confines of the big top, perched on a cushion on a long wooden bench above the action – band in hippy garb at one end and acrobatic paraphernalia up above.

All the elements were there, with acrobats, juggling and tomfoolery – much of the latter supplied by resident funnyman Tweedy the Clown – whose antics are worth the admission ticket alone. And it was all gently wonderful.

Giffords doesn’t really do animal acts. Even the small troupe of performing dogs who trotted about the ring to great hilarity last year were absent. The big exception, of course, are the horses – who are treated like superstars with healthy rural lives happier than most of ours, I dare say.

Oxford Mail:

The crowd, many of whom I got the impression were annual visitors, cheered as Nell trotted out joined by her daughter Lil Rice. The real hijinx came from the Donnerts, the family riding troupe somersaulting on horseback as their steeds charged around the ring.

More thrills came from the Curatola hand balancers but it was the death-defying acrobats who really stole the show – oh, and that loveable clown Tweedy of course.

It ended with a big old dance in the ring, with the kids invited to join in – everyone grinning and enjoying just being there – performer and guest alike. And that’s the key to the magic.


Giffords Circus continues at:

  • Oxford University Parks, Oxford, until June 24;
  • Stonor Park, Henley, from July 25-29;
  • Barrington, Burford from August 1-12.
  • See