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WEEKEND WEB: When the circus came to town

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TIM MACHIN of Long Sutton and District Civic Society with memories of the travelling show...

Late author and journalist Bruce Robinson spent his childhood in Long Sutton and the society has been given permission by his family to publish some of his reminiscences of the town in the 1940s and ’50s. This is the first, edited a little for length.

During those sunlit summers of long ago that we now call childhood, it was very much the case that one had to invent one’s own amusements.

In my case, the end of the War also brought into my circle of interest an entertainment that was to dominate my dreams until I left school: the circus.

Mostly, in our case, it was Fossett, Sanger or Rosaire, but the little shows would turn up in Long Sutton every summer, regular as clockwork, sometimes three or four a year.

They usually found a willing audience, though by the early 1950s, other interests (cars, television, holidays) were taking over and enchantment with the Big Top was coming to an end.

I did not recognise this at the time, but it was plain even to me that some of the shows were struggling. The numbers of animals and acts were reducing, and recorded music was replacing the circus bands.

In our town, the key site for any visiting circus - or funfair, for that matter - was Cinder Ash field, a public area and popular walk next door to the recreation ground; a pleasant tree circled sward approached from the town side by a little bridge which crossed a perennially dry ditch.

The circus vans and lorries had to approach from the other side; but once there, they fitted snugly into the leafy scene.

We would study the circus posters plastered around town and work out on which day the first vehicles, the tent transporters, would be arriving.

Then, we would hover in the background while the vehicles and caravans sorted themselves out, perhaps enjoying the brief glimpse of a couple of listless lions in a wheeled cage, some of the horses, or very occasionally, spotting an elephant stretching its legs in the sunshine.

We were looking for jobs, of course; volunteer jobs which, if we were fortunate, might lead to a free ticket. The trick was to wait and keep our distance until the king poles had been hauled upright and secured and the Big Top canvas sections had been unloaded, sorted and laid flat in position on the ground.

This was the signal for us to move in closer and start chatting to the roustabouts. The circus folk had a very boring job ahead of them. They had to lace all the panels together before they could be hoisted up the king poles, and it was a tedious business. So this was the point when, if we were lucky, they would beckon us across and ask for assistance.

You had to start at the top end of two canvas panels and then, on one’s knees, push one rope loop through the loop on the opposite side and so on all the way down until the two panels were laced together.

Then when the job was finished and the Big Top had been hoisted and secured, they would (sometimes) reward us, either with a closer look at the animals, some sweets, or better still, a free ticket for one of the performances.

Small beer nowadays, of course, but something looked upon at the time as a major experience.


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