One of Britain's most traditional circuses has arrived in London for the first time in ten years. Giffords Circus, which features horses and dogs alongside Ethiopian jugglers and a human cannonball, will be appearing in its intimate big top in the grounds of Chiswick House, West London, until June 24. Giffords Circus, which recreates the appearance and atmosphere of a small village green circus from the 1930s, is the brainchild of 42-year-old mother of twins, Nell Gifford.

Circus runaway

The Oxford educated Gifford ran away with Santus Circus as an apprentice elephant groom in the 1990s, to escape the emotional pain of a riding accident that left her mother with brain damage. Under her maiden name, Nell Stroud, she wrote a book about her travels called Josser - which is the circus word for an outsider who joins their world.

In 1999, Gifford was invited to talk about her book at the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival, and talked the organisers into booking her circus. At the time, Gifford didn't have a circus. Her new book, Giffords Circus - The First Ten Years, relates how she and her husband Toti went about creating their own big top show from scratch.

With no public funding, the couple ran up a £100,000 debt and were forced to move out of their rented cottage and sleep on a pub floor. But their show was the hit of the Hay-on-Wye festival and has since gone on to become one of the most successful in the UK, touring mainly in the Cotswolds.

City Circus

Chiswick House is the circus' first engagement in London since it appeared in Hoxton Square in 2003. On that occasion, the circus' long journey to the capital was almost thwarted in its final yards when its collection of painstakingly restored vintage showman's wagons wouldn't fit through the gates to the square. With the rush hour traffic becoming grid-locked around them, Toti ripped the Victorian gatepost out of the ground with his bare hands and the wagons were pushed inside.

The company's latest show is called Moon Songs and is set in a Victorian fairground called Luna Park. The line-up includes gymnastics from Kenya's Konjowech acrobatic troupe, Ethiopian jugglers Bibi and Bichu and Tweedy the clown.

Circus Animals

Befitting the circus' old-time appearance, horses and a traditional sawdust ring are central to the 90-minute show. The use of animals in circuses is always contentious, but Gifford writes in The First Ten Years, "If there ever came a time when we could not have horses in our show then we would not do a show at all. The horses' welfare is paramount. They are kept in peak condition and their needs are met. They come first."

After the show each evening, the big top will be re-configured as the Circus Sauce restaurant where the audience can enjoy a £25-per-head dinner beneath the canvas.

Following its London engagement, Giffords Circus will be at University Parks, Oxford, from June 26 - July 6.