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High-fliers chill out in the big top

How many of us have dreamed of leaving work behind and running off to join the circus? Most of us, if we're honest, have our own customised escapist fantasies, but few have the courage - some would say the stupidity - to carry it through.

Rachel Caine, 37, a former marketing manager and now a clown, is the one-in-a-million exception. To show that she means what she says, she has put her Clapham flat on the market and plans to join Zippo's Circus, initially on a six-month training contract. Going under her stage name of Miss Hippo, she will live in a camper van with her dog, Fifi.

What brought about the change of direction? Mainly, it was the accumulation of dissatisfaction and frustration in her well-paid City recruitment job. "I was a marketing manager in charge of 100 people, with quite a high- powered position and a flash car.

"I turned 30 and had been doing it for six years, working my way through the City. But I knew what I was doing was not really me; there was a part of me that was just pretending. It wasn't really fulfilling on the soul level, and I knew I had to do something else. I was working long hours and putting a lot into it just from habit; my heart just wasn't in it," she says.

An "alternative" holiday in Greece helped her decide to make the break. "I got heavily involved in doing a cabaret, directing it and enthusing other people. It was probably the most instrumental thing to help get me out of my job. I left in 1991 and have had five years of exploration. I initially thought I would have five months."

Going back to an original love of dancing and movement, Rachel signed up for training with clown Didier Danthois after taking a circus skills workshop.

"So many people live in their heads all the time. Clowning is about being truthful, real and open; it's spiritual."

Living mostly on income support, she has spent time working with a group of adults with special needs, and wants to use clowning as a tool for healing and therapy.

"The only way I would go back to corporate work would be as a clown to entertain, or as a therapist to show them how to lighten up and do something for their bodies."

She says support from her parents, an Oxford don and a classicist, has helped enormously, but admits life hasn't been easy. "When I first left my job, there was no understanding from my parents. It was just not a normal thing to do. You don't leave your job not knowing what you're going to do," she says.

"But I took my mother to see Zippo, and it was like being with a six- year-old. There's a part of everybody that wants to run away to the circus."

Rachel was also inspired by a workshop run by Nick Williams of Alternatives, an organisation based at St James' Church in Piccadilly, London.

Steve Nunn, 30, attended a similar workshop, and decided in March this year to give up his job of 11 years in Lambeth's housing department. He is now setting up a course of workshops in healing, prosperity and success.

"I managed a control centre with 12 staff. It was difficult because a lot of people working with us were resistant to change. Managing it, and being pro-change, caused me a lot of stress. I went to the Alternatives talks and got interested; it seemed a sanctuary."

What caused him to make the final break? "I was inspired after having a very vivid dream. Somebody came up to me and said: 'Just do it.' I woke up and thought: 'Oh, all right then.'"

Giving up a pounds 30,000 income has not been easy, particularly as he still has two children in their teens to support. But the change has brought unexpected advantages. "People mostly admired my courage. My children think I am a bit odd, but in the long run I think they are going to look at me and realise I've followed my dreams.

"The money I used to get I didn't enjoy - it went through my hands like water. The money I get now I put to very good use. I am earning it much more joyfully. I enjoy buying people lunch; I didn't enjoy that when I was earning thirty grand."

The Alternatives workshop, 'Creating the Work You Were Born To Do', by Nick Williams, is on Sunday 23 November, 10am-4.30pm, cost pounds 25: tel: 0171-287 6711.