You don’t hear of kids running away to join the circus anymore but Jon Miller did! It was a breezy and bright September morning in 1976 when the founder of Jay Millers Circus first realised that we don’t always pick the paths we follow or the lives we lead, sometimes they pick us!

“I was a 14-year-old riding my bike across a field in Woking when I noticed that the circus had arrived overnight,” explained Jon.

The circle of brightly-coloured circus trucks and caravans looked to the youngster’s eyes that they had traveled from another time and place.

When a man who was marking the area where the big top would be staked into the earth, asked Jon if he wanted to help out during the week with a few odd jobs in exchange for tickets, it was one of those simple twists of fate that can change a person's world.

During the next five days, Jon helped out in the evenings after school and slowly became intoxicated by the aroma of candy floss, popcorn, and sawdust, bewitched by the bright lights, and seduced by the spectacle.

However, it was the characters of the circus which made the deepest impression. Their talents and abilities appeared to Jon to take on a superhuman nature when the curtain rose, the crowds roared and the air was heavy with the expectancy of the impossible.

The unsparing tedium and drab reality of the school day could not compete with this traveling theatre of the incomparable.

His soul was burning up with all things circus and only a life spent in that world could quench this new-found thirst for a life outside the confines of his community.

When the big top was pulled down, packed up, and left the town life a fading dream of something that might or might not have happened, Jon jumped in the back of a straw wagon and went with it.

Yet no one said the destination signposted destiny was an easy road to travel.

The romance of being an outlaw and living outside of convention is often at loggerheads with reality, and Jon’s parents weren’t exactly happy about their son’s choice.

As his legal custodians, they brought him home, gave him a good talking to, and insisted he finished his education.

Jon put his circus dream on the back burner, went to college, and qualified as a civil engineer. Yet the promise of a life of reinvention and limitless horizons that the traveling tent offered was always on his mind.

“I worked on fairgrounds during the weekends and the holidays,” explained Jon, “But it was a poor substitute for my time with the circus.”

Then one fateful day in 1982 the circus arrived in the town where Jon was working. He threw caution to the wind and asked if they were looking for anyone to help out. They were. In a matter of days, Jon purchased a caravan and he ran back to the circus.

Jon spent four years familiarising himself with the intricacies of circus life before he decided to make a go of it himself.

“I brought two lorries, an old generator, and a small tent and found a handful of performers who all believed in what we were doing and on March 1987 Jay Miller’s Circus put on its first show in a small field in Broughton, Hampshire,” explained Jon.

Two years later they made their Abergavenny debut.

Jon Miller with a bear
Jon Miller started his circus with the bear necessities! (Picture supplied ) (Jon Miller started his circus with the bear necessities! (Picture supplied ))

Between then and now, there have been a lot of changes but one thing stays the same, Jon remains fiercely committed to bringing the magic, that so captivated him as a child, to a world that can benefit more than ever from a couple of hours spent in the welcoming arms of the big top.

“We love the Welsh crowds. You really get into the circus this side of the border and don’t need much encouragement,” explained Jon. “Abergavenny has always been one of our favourite places to visit. When we first started coming here we used to travel with all sorts of exotic animals. In fact, I’ve got an old picture of me and a bear cub in the little stream in Bailey Park. But then in the early 1990s, it got very political to have animals in the circus and we began to travel with domestic animals only, such as horses.”

However, the winds of change would soon blow and Jay Miller’s became an act-only circus.

“In the old days, it used to be act, animal, act, animal, and so forth, but although we didn’t mistreat the animals, back then, as far as some were concerned, the banner of circus was another word for animal cruelty. So we had to adapt and make production our strong point,” said Jon.

Liz Miller
For Liz's snake! (Picture supplied ) ( For Liz's snake! Pic supplied )

Alongside the endless health and safety legislation hoops that they are now forced to jump through, (the hay bales are out and theatre seating is in, etc), the other big change Jon has noticed is the effect the internet, streaming services, and smartphones have had on live entertainment.

He told the Chronicle, “It’s funny because, in the old days when we came to Abergavenny, it could get quite lively. The youngsters would get a bit rowdy trying to get in for free. Either that or they’d offer to carry crates and stuff because they wanted tickets. These days they’re no trouble. They just sit on the benches and stare at the phones. But it’s the phones we have to compete with.

“It’s also hit advertising quite hard. There’s no point putting posters in shops anymore because half of them have closed down. We’re in a situation where we need to hit the internet to persuade people to leave the internet.”

In an age where entertainment is downloaded and drama is digitalised, for a generation who are used to watching things from behind the prison cell of a screen, the circus has perhaps even more capacity to enchant and engage than ever before.

As is evident from all the punters who enter the big top for the first time a little nervous about what awaits, but depart wrapped in that strange air of wonder that comes from watching others do what most people can’t.

“What’s nice about getting to this age,” revealed Jon, “Is seeing the people who once came as kids bringing their kids to the shows. That’s three generations getting hooked on the circus. It’s reaffirming that as long as there’s people there’ll always be a big top.”

Yet the mythology of romance, mystery, and glamour that has settled on the circus like mist on a mountain masks a fundamental truth - behind all the flash, dash, and panache lies a lot of grunt and groan.

“I learned very early on about all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes,” explained Jon. “People don’t understand it’s a lifestyle, not a job. Someone will ask about hours, and when do I have a day off? But it doesn’t work like that. You may be asked to help out through the night and in any conditions to make sure the show goes on. We all pitch in with every task, performers and all. It’s a team effort.

"For example, it takes from about 7.30 am to 1 pm to set the tent up, and it's all hands to the pumps. It comes down a lot quicker and people are often surprised that after seeing us put on a two-hour show we’ll be back on the road that evening. It’s a tight schedule and we need everyone doing their job properly if we’re to succeed.”

Jon added, “People also often make the mistake that from November to March we’re sitting around twirling our thumbs waiting for the season to start. When in fact we’re doing essential maintenance jobs carrying out rehearsals, paperwork, and planning. The circus never sleeps.”

Jay Miller’s Circus is very much a family affair. Jon’s three daughters, Paige, Jodi, and Charlotte and son Jay Jay are all accomplished circus performers, as is his wife Liz who is now the show’s artistic director and choreographer.

Paige Miller
(Jay Miller's turns a Paige with the next generation! Pic by Andrew Payne )

However, at the moment, Paige Miller is the only one of Jon’s children who is still touring with the circus. He told the Chronicle, “My wife and I always said, we’ve got to give the kids the space to decide what they want to do and at the moment for three of them it’s not performing in the circus, but they’re still involved behind the scenes.”

As an aerial contortionist who has been performing since the age of 11, Paige Miller is still very much at front and centre. She shares every ounce of her father’s passion for the circus and as someone born and raised in that world, she cannot imagine leading a life outside of the big top.

“I love the performing and the lifestyle of the circus,” Paige told the Chronicle, “It’s hard work and definitely not for the faint-hearted. Yet that moment where the crowd goes silent, and holds its breath, before breaking into 30 seconds of applause, validates all the sweat, blood, and tears. For me, there’s nothing quite like traveling around the country and bringing joy to people.”

Jay Miller's Circus
(Waiting for the magic to happen! Tindle News)

It takes years of practice, immense discipline, and superhuman focus to become a successful circus performer. There are no shortcuts to the circus ring, no corners in which to hide, no computer-generated trickery involved, no second takes. Just a lot of bravery and the joy of attempting something, the outcome of which, as always, is up in the air.

Paige is keen to stress that she was lucky enough to have been taught a lot of what she knows by a lady from Hungary called Monika who used to tour with Jay Miller’s Circus.

Paige explained, “Monika used to support herself on a balance bar whilst shooting a bow and arrow with her feet. It was pretty incredible stuff and I was fortunate enough to have her as a teacher and mentor.”

Training 25 hours a week, Paige like all her sisters and brother still found time to fit in a full-time education.

She said, “Mum was adamant we all got a good education. A lot of circus kids miss school, but not us. She said we needed a backup if ever we got injured. When we were on tour, we’d go to various schools around the country from 9-3, train for an hour when we came home, before doing two shows in the evening.”

The Miller children worked as hard at school as they did on their performances and all left the sixth-from with triple-A stars.

As someone who pushes her body to do the impossible every night, Paige is well aware of the danger that lurks in the shadows of every performance.

Only last year she had to miss three weeks' worth of shows due to broken ribs and when a persistent cough forced her to the doctor’s door in September, x-rays revealed they had still not healed because of her daily performances.

“The doctor asked wasn’t I in an awful lot of pain, but when you’re performing every day and night you become used to the constant aches and bruises and I think the adrenaline just kicks in and you ignore it,” explained Paige.

A circus’s arrival and departure appears effortless. Where once there was the majesty of spectacle and the laughter in the face of the impossible, later that day there is nothing but trampled grass and an empty space.

But of course, this is no conjurer’s trick and like her father, Paige, is keen to stress all the hard work that goes on behind the scenes.

“Take away all the glitz and glamor you’ve got a bunch of people standing in a field in wellies in the early hours, doing boring jobs in the rain!" Laughed Paige. "Between shows you wouldn’t believe the rush to get everything sorted. It’s chaos!

"But if you didn’t get the nuts and bolts right how could the magic ever happen!”

Jay Miller's Circus
(It's a family affair: The Miller clan! Pic by Andrew Payne)