The big top is back!

Circus ringmistress PETRA JACKSON
Circus ringmistress PETRA JACKSON
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Why did the zebra cross the road?

To get to the circus site.

The circus is back in town. Not that it ever really went away in Blackpool – home of the most distinctive big top of all, Blackpool Tower Circus.

Circus Mondao is that rare thing today, a travelling circus, the giant marquee set up within five hours of arriving on site – but only after the animals have been stabled, fed and watered after travels.

Circus Mondao is here for a month, arriving earlier than booked because its original base at Bolton is more quagmire than pitch.

It’s muddy underfoot at Mondao’s regular base on Norcross Lane off Fleetwood Road South, just off the A585, on farmland regularly used as a car boot sale site.

But the conditions there are nothing to what the closeknit family circus clan has braved elsewhere.

Circus founder Gracie Timmis recalls: “We started in temperatures of minus-16 Fahrenheit in Spalding at February half term, so cold we had to cancel the show, and we’ve only cancelled about five shows since we started in 2007.

“This is a walk in the park compared with that ... just bring your wellies and all will be well!”

The circus can comfortably seat 600 – and it’s surprisingly warm and wind-proof within the big top.

“The first we got was 25 years old when we got it – and falling apart,” Gracie recalls.

“It served its purpose though. And we were packed out. It did us proud for two years – but you could never trust it in high winds!”

The Timmis family took to the road themselves having acquired a menagerie of animals – two bay and two leopard spotted appaloosa stallions, donkey, mule, rabbits, hens, pygmy goats, two camels, two zebra, several llama, dogs – along the way.

Gracie, an aerial artiste, now lets others do the flying for her – her fantail pigeons.

“Well, my back gave out,” she admits. “That was 22 years ago!”

Gracie and sister Carol set up Circus Mandao as they settled down from travelling the world as circus artistes.

“We toured Italy, Greece, all over,” says Gracie. “Then we decided we had so many animals we might as well have our own travelling circus. The first time I sold a ticket – I just ran around shouting I’ve sold a ticket, I’ve sold a ticket. It was tough at times – the generator had a power surge and blew out an amp so much of our profit went on that.

“We also focus on the welfare of our animals. They know when they’re on the move and get really excited. They also know when a show is about to start. They get chill out time each afternoon between shows and resent anyone coming near them then. But they get really bored over winter when we’re not doing anything.

“Our animals have been with us for years – Zebedee the zebra is 27, Sinbad the zebra is 23. Yet the average life expectancy of zebra is 15-20 years, and far less in the wilds.

“Our dwarf Shetland pony Apollo is 27. We have a mule which is 32 years old - which we rescued from slaughter in Italy at four years old. It shows we’re doing something right.

“We despair of animal welfare activists having a go at us or trying to put our customers off because these animals are family to us - we put their interests first. Virtually every circus does.”

But travelling circuses face an uncertain future. Gracie and husband Jason are part of an extended circus clan, the family’s roots in Norfolk and Lincolnshire, but their reach worldwide.

“My second cousins have been on telly in a programme looking at circus but it was twisted to hype up the downside and make the life look really grim,” she admits.

“Yes, times are hard. We don’t so much make a living but this is our life and we can cope.

“We are just plodding along for the time being. But those who love circus stand by us and know what we represent. While there are people like that around circus will never die.

“This is a good site for us - although it’s the first time we’ve done a month here. It will spread the business. We get lots of regulars and holidaymakers who know us from other towns too. We tour until November.

“One of our regulars called to ask when we would be coming back to the Fylde – so she could plan her holidays around her family’s visit. The children love coming to see our children work here too.”

All the Mandao circus members muck in with other tasks, Gracie working front of house selling tickets, her two daughters Cinzia and Madalane presenting equine acts along with their auntie Carol.

Madalane, soon to be 16, has just left school, and plans on making her future in circus. “There’s nowhere else I would rather be,” she admits. “I love going on the road to somewhere different.”

Cinzia, 12, attends school wherever the circus goes, her mother making the arrangements direct with local high schools, under the supervision of a specialist traveller teacher.

“I like it although it can be hard to leave some schools – there are some which may make you more welcome than others but the other pupils are usually really nice and interested in what I do. I think I have to work harder because each week I’m at a different school. It’s great right now with the holidays about to start. I’ll still be working. I love it.”

Shows are twice nightly Mondays to Fridays (5pm and 7.30pm), Saturdays 2pm and 5pm, and Sundays 2pm only. There’s only one show on their final day here, at 2pm, on Monday August 27.

Sundays are the family’s favourite day as they get the evening off.

“We’ve been to see the magic show at the Pleasure Beach – and we’ll go to see the Tower Circus too,” says Gracie. “That’s as good as a day off for us.”

Circus ringmistress Petra Jackson is one of the few members of the circus not to come from a circus background. “I loved being around horses and came to help out as a groom for six weeks one summer in Great Yarmouth – and stayed 20 years,” she explains. “I was the only one who stayed on!”

Circus Mondao tours from February through to November – taking in some 42 towns.

“This is a good place for us but we tried Hambleton one year and didn’t sell one ticket,” Gracie admits.

“We bombed at Westby too. This place works because lots of locals know us and visitors too. There are good shops nearby and lots of places for us to visit and things to do. We like it here.”

Mondao is a traditional circus with showgirls, clowns, aerial acts, magic, daredevil Wheel of Death, canine capers, equine acts and more. The animals get their own billing in the souvenir programme - and virtually introduce themselves in person to visitors to the site. Like the humans, they mix in together, the latest baby llama plays chase with the dogs, the horses, camels, goats and zebra get on.

“Sometimes it feels more like the film set of Babe or Dr Doolittle than a circus,” Gracie concludes. “But that’s what makes it such a happy way of life for us all, no matter how hard times are.”

Local householders have grown accustomed to the sight of camels and zebra grazing just beyond their back gardens – but passing motorists still rubberneck at the exotic newcomers to Norcross.

“This is our best advert,” Petra admits, “just being here in the heart of a community. I think many still secretly long to run away to the circus – and having done just that myself I can honestly say it really is a job not so much with dignity as the meerkat advert says... I’ve fallen flat on my face in the mud too often for that... but a real way of life for those who love it.”

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