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Swamp Circus, part 1 - Rock - Barefoot

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

I can’t remember how it came about, now. I think Brett must have been told that I was a lorry driver. I suspect that I must have gone to see him at his little circus shop in Penryn. Whatever the circumstances, I found myself being employed to drive his big top circus combo on occasions. He has an ex fire engine that tows an old French big top marquee trailer. The length of the whole combination, not including the overhang of the king poles is a good 65’. The fire engine, an old Scania, according to the log book that came with it, didn’t see much action and the trailer is an old bogey-axled flatbed with very unusual wheel sizes on which the marquee is winched up from and folds back down to. It’s an interesting thing to see, particularly the way the marquee is set up and tacked down.

The first job I did was without the trailer as a small marquee was being used for a function at the rugby club in Falmouth. The lorry was only needed for the equipment it had on board. Brett was pitching the marquee in the car park, hammering stakes into concrete. It was here that I first really got to know Tom, too. At the time I was looking to buy an old coach to convert into a home and Tom had one. Tom had been driving the combo previously, but had had enough.

An easy, straightforward start.

The first indication of any potential issues was en route to something called the Rock Oyster Festival. Brett neglected to tell me that the festival site was actually a few miles before reaching the tiny little Cornish village of Rock. As soon as I arrived in the village I immediately realised that I was in a desperate situation. The village is on the north coast within which the road simply comes to a dead end! So, there I am, sat in 65’ worth of circus lorry in a tiny village that comes to a dead end. Reversing this thing is not like reversing a normal articulated lorry. Let alone reversing back through a village and into a side road so that I can turn round! An absolute nightmare. Right outside a pub too, with a number of spectators. I telephoned Brett, then proceeded with the near impossible manoeuvre. I had managed to get about three quarters of the way through the manoeuvre when Brett turned up. He went off to the end of the village where there is a sizeable car park. He had managed to get some cars moved about, creating a route around the car park wide enough for me to navigate safely.

Having such a large vehicle inevitably had its challenges. Too be honest, the situation at Rock was the only time I really had any difficulty. The challenges were more likely to be for other road users, primarily in country lanes. Generally, reversing was not an option. Even farm tractors had to do the reversing when faced with me coming down the lane.

Probably the funniest situation I ever witnessed driving through country lanes was close to the farm where the circus is based. Kev was with me at the time. We rounded a corner to be faced with a car coming towards us. We both stopped. The driver looked at me as though he was expecting me to reverse. I just sat there. After a few moments, realising that I wasn’t moving, he then began to reverse. Now, all he had to do was reverse about 50 yards back in a straight line and into a passing bay. But! Oh dear. It took him half an hour, first reversing into one hedge, then the other, hitting the rear corner of his car one side after the other. I sat there watching this spectacle in disbelief while Kev was literally crying with laughter! The man simply could not drive backwards in a straight line!

Kev is brilliant. Whenever I see him, we just spontaneously burst into laughter. He’s an Essex boy and a genuine ‘run-away-with-the-circus’ bloke. He told me that when he was 15 the Moscow State Circus arrived in his home town of Southend. When it left, he stowed away with them. He lived, worked and learnt his trade on the road with them. He became, and is, an acrobat and strongman. He is also an ex British arm-wrestling champion. This guy has forearms the size of legs and has never used any form of steroid, nor does he use gyms. He just eats! He can’t walk past an eatery without stopping to eat. I’ve been out with him where he’s had a huge meal, then within the hour he’s having another large meal! Everything he eats simply turns to muscle.

Over the next couple of years or so, I trundled up and down the country with the circus whenever I was needed. More often than not, the marquee was used at festivals. Mostly, it was a great laugh with the crew. Whenever Brett was with us, setting up could be fraught. As soon as he left to do other things, everything smoothed out and became a happy camp. Fortunately, he rarely stayed on site with us. It was also very rare to be invited back! Brett was a huge liability. We had been told by more than one host that we were a great bunch and always welcome, but not to bring Brett with us. We always had to explain that it was Brett’s circus, so had no choice. To which the common response was one of regret.

One time, I managed to spend a day with my aunt in Keighley once I’d delivered the marquee to a site near Skipton for what turned out to be an awful rainy festival on a flood plain. I enjoyed the time with my aunt. Then, it was down to a site near Loughborough for a festival called Barefoot. That was an eye opener. All anyone knew was that it was a dance festival. I just assumed that it was dance as in dance music; techno, that sort of thing. The trailer was set up in the marquee to be used as a stage. Something we hadn’t done before. Once set up, we chilled, sat outside my caravan (whenever I needed to stay with the crew for any length of time, my caravan would be towed by one of the other vans in the crew as the overhang of the king poles on the trailer didn’t allow for triple-towing). As the punters started arriving for the weekend’s activities, it quickly became evident that men were in the minority. It turned out that by ‘dance’ what was actually meant was dancing, as in all forms of. Women outnumbered men by an estimated 7:1! What’s more, our marquee and stage was being used for a burlesque show. Very good it was, too. But poor young Liam, a young acrobat, was just 15. He was like a kid in a sweet shop. He kept on finding excuses to have to go backstage to ‘check’ on equipment!

Photograph courtesy of

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