2018 will mark 250 years of the modern circus, with performances, exhibitions and activities set to take place throughout the UK to mark the anniversary – from Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire, to the V&A Museum in London.
And it’s all down to Philip Astley, who was born in Newcastle-under-Lyme in 1742.
Astley, the son of a Staffordshire cabinetmaker, grew up to become a master equestrian, entrepreneur, war hero, pioneer and showman. In 1768, having acquired “Ha’Penny Hatch” – a small piece of land on the south bank of the Thames between London Bridge and Westminster Bridge – he opened a riding school, creating performances and then developing the 42-foot diameter circus ring. This remains the standard-size ring used in circus across the world to this day.
Bringing together acrobats, clowns and trick riders in a 42-foot diameter ring, for over 40 years, Philip Astley entertained both high society and the general public with a series of acts that combined risky and tense displays of skill with comic relief. Astley himself was at the heart of these performances, simultaneously riding up to three horses while performing ever-more daring tricks. The ‘original’ ringmaster, it is believed that the traditional military style wear of the ‘ringmaster also stems from Astley.
Astley’s Amphitheatre – and his promotional skills – captured the public’s imagination. Building on his success, Astley toured across Europe and had particular success in Paris, performing for Louis XV at Versailles.
The Philip Astley Project has been formed to celebrate the man himself in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and beyond.
Thanks to National Lottery money, and sponsorship from businesses based in North Staffordshire, locals and visitors alike will be able to get involved in workshops, talks, an exhibition, and performances throughout 2018.
Performances, exhibitions and activities will also be taking place throughout the UK to mark this important anniversary.
Newcastle-under-Lyme is one of six key locations identified by the national Circus 250 network (http://circus250.com). The Philip Astley Project is co-ordinating activities, and is working closely with local and national partners, including the V&A Museum in London and the New Vic Theatre’s ‘Circus Past, Present and Future’ project, supported by Arts Council England.
A local artist will be commissioned to develop a new town centre trail in Newcastle-under-Lyme that includes both historical sites and new art work, illustrating highlights from Astley’s incredible life. Launching in June 2018, it will be possible to pick-up free copies of the trail, be guided by volunteer storytellers, and revel in the circus atmosphere when town centre businesses decorate their windows – taking inspiration from iconic circus posters.
In May 2018, the town will bring an array of circus performers to town centre bars and pubs for drinkers to watch while they enjoy Astley Ale or Tightrope Tequila!
There will also be film-shows; and talks, held from now up to September 2018, and led by Andrew Van Buren and other key figures from the circus industry, will help to illustrate the importance of Astley’s ongoing legacy.
From May, visitors to the town’s Brampton Museum will be able to discover more about Astley’s connection to Newcastle-under-Lyme, learn about his early life, and explore how this might have influenced his later career during a three-month exhibition.
And on Saturday August 4 2018 – the highlight in a year-long calendar of events – there will be an opportunity to celebrate Philip Astley in Lyme Valley Park during the AstleyFest – a free festival, with performances, exhibitions and activities aimed at inspiring everyone to get involved.
Full details can be found at http://www.philipastley.org.uk.
And all other tourist information about the county is available at http://www.enjoystaffordshire.com.