She may not have been born to the life of the Big Top.
But the circus was Nell Gifford’s raison d’etre, the drug that — even when more conventional therapies floundered as breast cancer took hold — kept her spirits up and fuelled her zest for life.
Blonde-haired, full of deep-voiced warmth and exuberance, Nell, 46, was the girl who really did run away to join the circus; deferring a place at Oxford at 18 in favour of joining a U.S. travelling show.
Nell, who shared her farm in Stroud, Gloucestershire for part of each year with her circus coterie, had been told earlier this year that the disease had spread to her bones and lymph nodes and that she had 12 months to live
She adored circus life so much that 19 years ago she co-founded her own with her then-husband, Toti — the eponymously named Giffords Circus, a deliciously traditional affair that captivated audiences with acrobatics, jugglers and most of all, horses, the animals closest to Nell’s heart.
Just three weeks ago she was in France, with her beloved twins Red and Cecil, nine, looking for new horses for next year’s show — an event that will mark the 20th anniversary of the circus she created.
She was planning a suitable showstopper right up until she died on Sunday, surrounded by her family, immediate and circus.
So much a part of Nell’s life was the circus, that her favoured home was not her beautiful farmhouse but a vintage circus wagon, decorated in deep blues and greens, which she used while touring
First diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago, Nell, who shared her farm in Stroud, Gloucestershire for part of each year with her circus coterie, had been told earlier this year that the disease had spread to her bones and lymph nodes and that she had 12 months to live.
Upbeat to the last, she promptly continued planning the Giffords summer show, in which she appeared on the back of a white horse, a long blonde wig hiding her cropped hair (she lost it three times with the bouts of chemotherapy she endured).
‘Cancer is boring,’ Nell would tell visitors. She was, nevertheless, always open about the disease that kept coming back for more.
Even her twins — conceived via IVF — knew what their mother was facing.
‘It’s a lot for the children to take on, but if they didn’t know, they wouldn’t be processing it, and they will have to sometime,’ she said in an interview in the summer.
Nell did offer a glimpse of her inner turmoil, in a short interview with the BBC last month.
‘Sometimes I get really scared and I think: ‘God, I’m going to die really soon and I’m not going to see the children get married.’ Sometimes I cry and feel really lonely and really bleak and think why is this happening to me . . .’
The circus buoyed her up — as it always had.
‘It’s a support system, I’m the happiest I am here on the show,’ she said.
‘It probably props me up more than I prop it up. In the most calamitous times it’s been what I’ve turned to and what’s contained me and where I’ve felt safe. It’s the community, being by the horses; knowing you have your tribe; it’s cool.’
Upbeat to the last, she promptly continued planning the Giffords summer show, in which she appeared on the back of a white horse, a long blonde wig hiding her cropped hair (she lost it three times with the bouts of chemotherapy she endured)
Hardly surprising that the circus — in all its riotous, retro joy (Animal welfare officials once came calling after reports of a brown bear performing, only to discover it was a performer in costume) would be such a lifeline for Nell.
Growing up in Wiltshire, Nell’s childhood was blissfully Bohemian. Her father, Rick Stroud, was a television director and she lived with younger sister Clover and three half-siblings from her mother Charlotte’s first marriage, including the ceramicist Emma Bridgewater.
Nell was the ‘dramatic’ one in the family, breaking bones riding ponies, keeping a menagerie of rescued animals and flirting with dreams of being a monkey trainer.
Then, when she was 18 life was turned on its head when Charlotte fell from her horse, suffering a severe brain injury that left her in a coma for months and permanently brain damaged.
She died in 2014, having required nursing care for the rest of her life, and later Nell would say that her mother was lost on the day of the accident.
‘She went from a bright, energetic, hospitable person, with lots of friends and children, to a walking shell.’
Blonde-haired, full of deep-voiced warmth and exuberance, Nell, 46, was the girl who really did run away to join the circus; deferring a place at Oxford at 18 in favour of joining a U.S. travelling show
Some teenagers would crumble or cling to home in the midst of such devastating upheaval.
Nell — at her older half-brother’s suggestion — joined the circus. (His wife’s family owned it.)
‘I loved the visual elements,’ she would later say. ‘The tents, the sawdust, the elephants but, most of all, I loved the fact that it was really quite orderly.
‘My own family life had been railroaded by the accident. To walk suddenly into this complex world, which was all about families, was just great.’
Later, she would write about her time there in her first book, Josser: The Secret Life Of A Circus Girl. A ‘josser’ is a person from the outside world, who isn’t born into the circus. She was also intoxicated by the culture, ‘the multilingual travelling feel’.
Nell flirted with conventionality and returned to complete an English degree at New College, Oxford, but on graduating it was the circus that called: her first job was selling popcorn for the Chinese State Circus.
She drove elephants, rode horses, donned a top hat and tails as the ring-mistress, but also put in the hard graft.
‘Behind the scenes I was also driving lorries, swinging sledge hammers and raking sawdust,’ she wrote.
‘Struggling through mud in the middle of the night, my throat burning with the fumes of elephant pee wasn’t exactly what I had in mind.’
In 1999, she married landscape gardener Toti Gifford, who she had met on a friend’s farm the same year. They immediately decided to start their own circus.
There was an incentive to get things moving quickly, in the shape of the Hay-on-Wye Literary Festival; Nell had persuaded organisers to book Giffords Circus even though it barely existed.
The couple spent every last penny pulling a spectacle together and the show went ahead to sell-out performances and great acclaim.
The twins were born in 2010 and seamlessly slid into the fabric of the circus (performers like their mother, they sometimes appear in the show).
So much a part of Nell’s life was the circus, that her favoured home was not her beautiful farmhouse but a vintage circus wagon, decorated in deep blues and greens, which she used while touring.
Nell flirted with conventionality and returned to complete an English degree at New College, Oxford, but on graduating it was the circus that called: her first job was selling popcorn for the Chinese State Circus
Endlessly creative, she published her own memoirs and a children’s book, sewed costumes and was often sketching or painting.
Then, in 2015, came the discovery of the first lump in her breast. Nell was struggling with the breakdown of her marriage at the time.
After a year’s remission, she developed the same cancer in her right breast, then in January this year came the shock of learning it had spread.
Ever the optimist, she said: ‘I’ve had lots of really heavy diagnoses, which each times makes you stagger, and you think you’re going to collapse because there is just no way to process it.
‘For me, that mental turmoil lasts about two weeks. Then you get more information and develop more understanding, and within a few weeks, the world stops spinning and I get control back.’
Her Instagram page is peppered with videos about treatment, staying positive and, recently, the ‘relentless rollercoaster of health’.
She once said her motto was ‘take things to the extreme’. ‘Push your ideas as far as possible, you cannot overdo things. The most far-out ideas very rarely seem that bold when you put them into practice.’
A Giffords Circus spokesman said yesterday: ‘It is with broken hearts that we announce the death of Nell — the co-founder, driving force and visionary behind our circus.
‘We know many tears will be falling as Nell touched so many hearts. Her vision for Giffords Circus was to bring happiness, imagination and enliven people’s souls.
‘Giffords Circus shall continue to do just that. Whilst the world is a dimmer place today, Nell will continue to live through the circus.’
She may have been a ‘josser’, but to anyone who watched and loved one of her circus spectaculars, Nell Gifford represented everything there is to love about the big top.