My Life In Travel: Gerry Cottle, circus owner and entertainer
'We stayed with friends in a three-ring circus'
Friday 16 March 2012
First holiday memory?
Welcombe in North Devon. I went with my mum, dad and sister Jane when I was about 13 and met my first girlfriend there, who was a farmer's daughter. I'd already been helping the circus at Chessington Zoo on weekends – learning to juggle and roll the barrel – so I'd show off to people on the sand. It was really old fashioned when I look back.
When I started my own circus in the Eighties, we took it to Hong Kong and made so much money that we were able to go on holiday in California for four months. We bought a brand new campervan and a caravan to go behind it, and had a fabulous time travelling all around the state. Our children were young, so we went to lots of theme parks.
We stayed with friends in a big three-ring American circus at one point. I've got fond memories of San Francisco from that trip too – it's got a very cosmopolitan feel to it.
Favourite place in the British Isles?
I'm a Londoner, really. I've moved to Somerset now, but before that I went to school in Wimbledon and then lived by the M25, despite travelling all over the world with my circuses over the years. The other place I like is Edinburgh during the festival. I go nearly every year. I'm a junkie for live entertainment, musicals and shows.
What have you learnt from your travels?
Don't plan too much. Most of my life, I've spent travelling from one place to the next, from Hong Kong to Singapore to Malaysia for nearly two years, then all over the Middle East and South America.
My business has been tied up with keeping prior arrangements. Now, I try not to make too many appointments. It stops you wandering around the back streets.
Ideal travelling companion?
I don't mind travelling on my own. It was always a big adventure travelling with the great British circus in the old days – all the animals and the feathers and the glitter and the beautiful girls and the big flying trapeze acts. We were treated like royalty. But I think after taking the whole group with us, time and time again, it's now quite nice to just go by myself or with my girlfriend.
Where has seduced you?
South America. I took the Circus of Horrors there in the Nineties and travelled around Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. I could have stayed there – I liked the atmosphere. It's a great continent; volatile and a bit dangerous in some places, but full of adventure.
Better to travel or arrive?
Arrive. I went to Budapest with a budget airline recently and it was so
squashed, with lots of queuing and shoving – I didn't enjoy it at all. I've been on Concorde, cruises liners, planes and trains, but I've now got to the stage where I'm not madly keen on travelling unless I must.
Worst travel experience?
When I travelled with the Moscow State Circus in the Eighties, I found the bureaucracy in Russia quite tiring. I think things have changed a bit now, but you would arrive at the airport and get sent from one desk to the other, for passport checks, visa checks and a different one to be issued a stamp. It always felt quite miserable.
The hotels in Las Vegas are fabulous. My favourites are the Bellagio or the Wynn, but I try a different one nearly every time. They've all got rooms that are twice the size of anywhere else; they're fun, great value for money and most of them are right on the Strip.
Along the Pacific Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco, or the other way around. It just goes on and on, with so many twists and turns. There are all these fabulous elephant seals along some parts – it's just beautiful.
Best meal abroad?
Nothing beats arriving in the States and going to Denny's for a "grand slam" breakfast. Normally I'm not a big breakfast person, but there they serve pancakes, eggs, crispy bacon and the full house. It's wrong, but I love it.
Route 66. I've travelled a lot in the States – I've done California; been to Florida and down to the Keys; travelled all around the East Coast; and up to the Great Lakes. But my dream trip would be to drive through the southern belle states. Every corner you turn in America, there's something new to discover.
Las Vegas. It's terrible, but I once saw 16 shows in six days there. I saw Don Arden's Jubilee at Bally's, which has been going for 30 years. I saw all the magic shows and the big spectacles. I even went to see The Phantom of the Opera, which is great in London, but you see it in Vegas and it just knocks you out.
My son has been accepted to train at a circus school in Vermont, so I want to go up there and visit him and all the family-run theme parks in New England to see if there are any new ideas. Then we're off on the road again with our circus, touring southern England.
'Gerry Cottle's Circus: 50 Acts in 100 Minutes' starts in Portsmouth (5-15 April), and moves on to Guildford (18-22 April) and Farnham (25-29 April). Tickets cost £10 (gerrycottlescircus.co.uk).
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