Capturing the magic of the English circus


Abbie Coombes


The gentle swell of music as dusk falls. An enormous tent – red and white striped, perhaps – appearing as if by magic in an empty field. Sticky hands clutching paper tickets. Loud gasps as acrobats fly through the sky and glamorous women balance on horseback. 

The circus has long captured our collective imagination. From best-selling novels like ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern to cult films like The Greatest Showman, our fascination with travelling performers has infiltrated popular culture. 

So many of us have childhood memories of entering the Big Top, eyes widening as magic unfolds before us. But while the modern circus can include everything from musical numbers to elaborate illusions, its origins in England stem from a single man and his talent as a horse rider. 

The history of the circus

English equestrian Philip Astley is considered the “father of the modern circus”. A former sergeant major and war hero, he later became a trick rider able to ride up to three horses simultaneously while performing ever more daring feats. In 1768, he and his wife Patty (also an expert rider) established Astley's Riding School in London, where Philip would teach in the morning and perform equestrian tricks in the afternoon. 

In 1768, Astley acquired “Ha’Penny Hatch”, a small piece of land on the south bank of the Thames where he established the first of his amphitheatres. While his first shows consisted only of trick riding exhibitions, he later brought in acrobats, clowns and other performers who would thrill audiences in a 42-foot ring. 

It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Astley. His amphitheatre burned down three times in the first 62 years of its history and he had to contend with increasing competition as his reputation grew. But Astley’s legacy lives on today in the form of a new generation of innovators who have taken the idea of the circus and propelled it into the modern era.

The rise of Giffords Circus

Many people dream of running away with the circus – but few actually do it. Nell Gifford was the rare exception. Growing up entranced by images of ponies, costumes and big tents, Nell travelled to the US when she was eighteen to work for Circus Flora and fell instantly in love. After graduating from University of Oxford she worked on several circuses across the world – but it wasn’t until 2000 that she was able to realise her dream of starting her own village green circus.

Giffords Circus – created with her former husband, Toti Gifford – was designed as a “hymn to homemade fun, excess and benign disruption”. Nell and Toti spent every penny they had buying a round white tent, building maroon and gold wagons and hiring performers and dancers from far flung countries including Cuba, Russia and Romania. Nell grew up riding regularly and so, much like Philip Astley’s circus of old, she put horses at the heart of Giffords Circus. 

“Our costumes are handmade, our animals are trained by us, our sets are painted in the barns on the farm”, Nell is quoted as saying on the Giffords website. “We burn the midnight oil to conjure new visions for the show. It’s all we do. Circus is our job, our life, our love.”

The team’s dedication paid off. Since those early days Giffords Circus has entertained over a million people and long-standing performers like Tweedy the clown have become icons in their own right. 

Nell sadly passed away in 2019 after being diagnosed with breast cancer. Throughout her life she remained positive, dynamic and bold – just like the circus she created.

“We would always go [to Giffords Circus] as a family to laugh, cry and marvel at the mind-boggling performers”
— Roger Biles

The ‘At the Circus’ fragrance

True Grace Co-founders, Roger and Philippa Biles, have fond memories of returning to Giffords year after year with their three children. “We would always go as a family to laugh, cry and marvel at the mind-boggling performers”, recalls Roger. “It has a special place in our hearts.”

These precious family memories have inspired True Grace’s latest fragrance: ‘At the Circus’. Conjuring images of hand-painted wagons, ecstatic applause and candyfloss, the gentle scent features sweet vanilla, spices and light woody notes. Light an ‘At the Circus’ candle for a dose of nostalgia – or to tide you over until the next time the Big Top comes to town.

Discover 'At the Circus'