Four people offer different perspectives on the circus. Ron Cross remembers seeing the animals and acrobats parading up from the station in the 1950s, Olga Brandt Bull was moved by a sick child’s visit, Gerry Nichols was in the audience, and Tony Hopkins, a circus director, explains why the Downs is just right as a venue.
One thing that I do remember was when the circus came to town. It used to come in by train to Clifton Downs station at that stage, and then there would be a procession. Now I pride myself that I must be one of the dwindling few that have seen elephants walking up Blackboy Hill, and they used to put on all their finery, and they had acrobats and trapeze artists on the back of a lorry doing their thing, the tigers, lions, they had had them in cages on great big lorries. The clowns all going up and down the crowds, and there were crowds, I mean there were crowds all the way from Clifton Down station right the way up Whiteladies Road and the Blackboy to the Downs, and then they set up the circus. I mean we didn’t have the money to go to the circus but this was our treat, to see it going on. When they finished the show, or during the day, for sort of a penny a time you could wander round the back of the circus and see the animals in their cages.
Olga Brandt Bull:
Of course in those days it was a circus. You had seals with balls on their noses, you had the most beautiful horses, and you had… I think we had a lion once. Billy Smart was wonderful, I worked in the hospital for about 13 years after the war, a lot of cancer patients. There was a little boy who used to come down every morning to see me, he was dying, but he was allowed to come when he felt like it. So one morning he said to me “I’m so excited, I’m going to the circus” – it’s the one thing he always wanted to do. And do you know what they did? They made the elephants bow to him, they made the horses go down on their knees to him, they meant everything to that child. He died the following week, but you should have seen him when they came back. The nurse that took him she said “I never saw the circus, the tears were in my eyes all the time”, and I thought that was wonderful. Circuses in the old days were magical to a child.
I don’t think the first circuses came on the Downs until 1952. I used to go to Sunday School in St Johns, Apsley Road, and we were allowed to go out in the middle of Sunday School and watch the elephants walking by. You were quite interested to see how these people were living and the size of their caravans, and of course with a lot more animals in those days you were also conscious of the smell of lions and elephants and everything else they used to have., As an eight year old going into the circus and the smella and the sights and everything else, it was something very exciting. There was no television at home so here was a real audio visual sensual experience, and normally they were selling out most nights and that’s why they came back because it was a very good pitch.
Circus ring master:
And now what you are going to see is a very difficult and dangerous trick and is only performed by a few people in the world. Arnaldo will fly into the air and attempt a triple somersault. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, the flying Cosmos.
I’ve been bringing my circuses to the Downs since 2001. We’ve got a comedy trampoline act in this year which seems to be the thing that most people are talking about. Then we’ve got a guy who walks upside down on the ceiling. The flying trapeze is something that students and people of that age actually quite like to see. I do feel a certain sense of tradition bringing the circus here because I know that circuses have been coming here since sometime in the 50’s. I think the Downs is a great place to have a circus, for lots of reasons. It’s well known and I don’t think there can be any people in the whole of Bristol that don’t know where the Downs are. The circus visually looks appealing on here and we know that the tents are probably not going to blow away while we’re up here cos the ground’s actually firm, so from that point of view also it’s a good site for us. It’s a lovely area. This is the only venue in the whole of the UK that I bring our circus to for a period as long as three weeks, its just Bristol’s always supported the circus.
I like the man on the upside down table in the sky.
I really enjoyed the man on the trampoline, he’s really funny especially when his trousers fell down.