Guest Blog: Andrew Van Buren – Philip Astley Monument

The unveiling of The UK’s First Permanent Monument to Philip Astley & his legacy of the Circus

By Andrew Van Buren
Images by Andrew Lewis

Thankfully it was a gloriously sunny day for the unveil of the country’s first permanent monument to Newcastle-under-Lyme born Philip Astley, the original Ringmaster & creator of the modern day circus and his legacy.

I had been working towards 21st April 2018 for a good many months, wanting to pull together a number of threads to celebrate World Circus Day in Newcastle-under-Lyme and this monument was the icing on the cake.

Realise Foundation Charity, which encompasses Aspire Housing and PM Training had agreed to create and house the monument. During several meetings designer Candida Kelsall created the image, which was then built by 17 year old PM Training apprentice Liam Robinson.

It was placed on its St George Street (ST5 1JX) site on the boundary of Newcastle-under-Lyme and Stoke on Trent in February, but with the weather being so cold, wet and snowy everybody agreed with me that the official unveil should be later and tied in with World Circus Day.

Things couldn’t have gone any better. BBC Midlands Today ran a news item about the monument, Philip Astley, his legacy and Newcastle-under-Lyme. For the unveil we had attending circus proprietors, performers, friends, a delegation of members of the Circus Friends Association, representatives from local business, MPs, Members of the Lords, heads of Realise Foundation, members of the Philip Astley Project, plus the press all travelling to be at the unveil. Numbers visiting had to be within reason limited due to the close proximity to the road side, but attendance was excellent. I was especially pleased that Mrs Zsuzsanna Mata, who is the executive director of Federation Mondiale du Cirque, had flown in especially for the day. Also it meant a lot that Cllr Wenslie Naylon could be there – she had co-created the Philip Astley Project with me, which has brought together groups, organisations & individuals who are working towards a common goal. It was wonderful that my parents could be there – Fred Van Buren & Connie Greta, who all of those years ago began the campaign raising awareness of Philip Astley and over the past 37 years had worked on three tries to gain Astley and his legacy recognition.

Bringing the event and our lives full circle was the attendance of Carol Gandey and circus artists Chico Rico, Jacqueline and Gina Morales, Brandon Nava, Romy Bauer and Joel Hatton, all of whom are not only close friends but also continue the family ties with the Gandey Organisation. It was Bob Gandey who nearly 80 years ago introduced my dad as a youngster into Showbusiness.

The monument is magnificent, comprising of three 15ft high steel sculptures – two horses & between them the original ringmaster in silhouette, plus a long welcome to Newcastle-under-Lyme sign that states 'Birthplace of Philip Astley' on it.

I made a short speech of thanks and then was joined by our Mayor Simon White, and Zsuzsanna for the actual unveil. Lots of photos were taken, the Circus Starr and Gandeys Circus Artistes introduced wonderful colour, sparkle & glamour to the photo opportunities, especially when sitting on top of the sign – along with our Mayor.

I didn’t expect that the unveil could be topped, but later in the day one more thing happened that really touched me. I had organised a day of vintage circus films being shown at the New Vic Theatre plus expert talks. Circus friend Alan Coates had just finished interviewing myself & my dad, which had been wonderful and allowed us to explain how much these celebrations meant to us as well as dad talking about his early years on Bob Gandey’s Circus, being great friends – like a brother to Joe Gandey – and our two families continuing into the future alongside each other through Philip, Carol & the new generation of Mariska, Hayley & Coral – then Zsuzsanna dropped the bombshell.

For the past few months a separate project has been running. Launched in Monte Carlo earlier this year a set of specially commissioned Juggling Clubs began a filmed journey around the world, being juggled in circus schools from Afghanistan to Australia, America to Russia and many countries in between. A mammoth task with each country filming a short film of their new generation future performers and students juggling these very special clubs. I was proud to have myself juggled them, filming key Astley locations around Newcastle-under-Lyme plus featuring Newcastle College Performing Arts Centre students that I had taught.

It had been agreed that the start of the tour being in Monte Carlo – the modern home of circus – it would be amazing if the clubs' journey had their closing ceremony in Philip Astley’s birthplace of Newcastle-under-Lyme. We premiered the edited film of their journey, which truly is inspiring. Afterwards Zsuzsanna and I explained the clubs' journey to the audience, then I officially handed them back to Zsuzsanna to take home to Monte Carlo. But I was caught totally off guard as she passed them back to me announcing that they would stay at home – here in Newcastle-under-Lyme!

When our Brampton Museum extension is completed and the permanent circus exhibition is in place these famous clubs will make an amazing and inspiring display that I hope will show worldwide collaboration and unity through the help of circus arts.

It was a joyous occasion that added massively to this year’s celebrations of 250 years since Philip Astley began his journey creating the modern day circus.

For me personally it has been an emotional and draining rollercoaster of a journey, this third attempt to raise awareness and celebration has been tough, personally frustrating, time consuming and costly, but oh so important to do. From childhood dad wanted to gain Astley recognition, the first try was in 1982, second in 1992 and in 2010 I started this latest push to make people aware of this year’s anniversary. I was determined to make it happen.

The unveil of the monument, journey of the Juggling Clubs and our events on World Circus Day, surrounded by friends and family really did make me realise just how worth it this personal journey has been. With talks, exhibitions, plays, plus more, so much has been achieved, but there is far more to do. Newcastle-under-Lyme needs tourism, the circus industry needs a shining light to unite, for both I keep saying – Philip Astley is our Shakespeare!

Here is to the future of adding to Astley’s Legacy…

Andrew Van Buren 
Professional Performer, Showman & Ambassador.