Centrefold: Wot, no horses?: Circus supremo Gerry Cottle is not a happy man

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Indy Lifestyle Online
'Circus started with horses, in London in 1768,' protests Gerry Cottle. He's referring to former cavalry officer Philip Astley's displays of trick riding on Half Penny Hatch near Waterloo and he's protesting because now London doesn't want horses in circuses. Despite his natural ebullience, this son of a Surrey stockbroker who went to the same school as John Major and then founded one of the country's biggest traditional circuses, is feeling defeated. 'The last few years have been very tough,' he says. 'I'm willing to change, I'm very progressive. A few years ago, because of animal rights, we got rid of all the animals. All we had was a duck. One performing duck in the show - and Battersea wouldn't allow it. Ken Livingstone didn't mind keeping newts but he wouldn't have animals in the circus.

Gerry was on the point of giving up, but his three daughters Sarah, Polly and April have stepped in to take over the running of the circus, now known as The Cottle Sisters Circus. Having been brought up on and around horses, their special skills are equestrian, and the centrepiece of the new show is the trick riding and the dancing liberty horse, Star. Sarah Cottle (right) rattles off the technical terms for the tricks in her repertoire: standing, back standing, kneeling, side-seat, twist and vault, vault to knees, one leg post, jumping through the hoop and so on. She can't remember the first time she stood up on a galloping horse - she was riding as soon as she could walk, and standing soon after. 'It's just getting the balance right,' she says. 'It's not really scary, except when you see a kid running towards you and the horse swerves and you can see yourself falling, and it all seems to take forever, and you know it's going to hurt like hell.'

Sarah and April are two of the Zincalli Riders, a troupe of three juggling and tumbling riders assisted by 12 knife-throwing, fire-eating, whip-cracking, rope-spinning assistants. They will not be performing at Alexandra Palace. 'But they allowed the Moscow State Circus to bring their horses,' says Sarah. 'They ride just as we do. We were prepared to take out the liberty horses, but they wouldn't agree.' North London audiences will either have to travel to Southend to see the horses, or content themselves with the space wheel, the trapeze acts, the acrobats, the jugglers, the clowns and the roller-skating on the big top roof. But not even a duck in sight.

The Cottle Sisters Circus is at Alexandra Palace Park 7-19 June; Southend-on-Sea 21 June-3 July. Info line 0836 222232.

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