The rise to the big top

Gerry Cottle

Gerry Cottle - Credit: sub

Bernard Bale speaks to the attraction owner who also happens to be one of the biggest names in the magical world of circus.

Wookey Hole Caves is now said to be the biggest show cave complex in Europe since the opening of a new chamber in 2015. This comes as little surprise since the man behind the development of one of Britain’s major visitor attractions is also one of the country’s most celebrated impressarios and cut his entrepreneurial teeth in the magical world of circus.

Gerry Cottle is still one of the biggest names in circus internationally even though much of his effort these days is invested in the excellent Wookey Hole, which he acquired some years ago and has continued to transform ever since.

Gerry has never walked away from circus. He toured a show just a couple of years ago and has maintained a circus theme and performance at Wookey Hole ever since he took it over. He just loves the world of entertainment, whether in the sawdust ring or providing an amazing array of attractions to take the breath away from visitors to his attraction.

“It’s in my blood,” says Gerry. “You can never truly walk away from circus. It is like an itch that you can never scratch. I fell in love with the whole magic of circus when I was about eight and went to see my first circus – Jack Hylton’s at Earls Court. I was just totally carried away by the spectacle, the fun, the thrills, the animals, the whole exotic experience.

“I think hearing the audience reactions to seeing elephants, trapeze artistes flying through the air and clowns throwing buckets of water over each other was a wonder that I wanted to experience again, only with my own circus. I wanted to be Jack Hylton, Bertram Mills, Sanger and all the others rolled into one. I wanted to put on a circus that would wow audiences just as I had been wowed.”

Gerry speaks with passion and that passion has pulsed through his veins ever since he ran away, quite literally, to join the circus.

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“Yes, I did runaway,” Gerry recalls with a smile. “I left a note so that my parents wouldn’t worry and I did telephone them as well, but I went to Newcastle where Robert Brothers were doing a stage circus and I asked to join them for a few days. If I was smitten before I was certainly smitten even more by spending those few days doing the most menial of jobs. I loved it.”

That was how it all started and since then we have seen Gerry Cottle as a performer. More importantly he learned the trade and, after proving himself with a small marquee which he tented with partner and friend Brian Austen and their wives, Gerry went on to take circus not only all over the UK but to the Middle East, Far East, Iceland and many others that might feature on a HitchHikers Guide to the Big Top.

His many involvements with televised spectaculars, films, documentaries and innovation in the circus ring have made him a household name in the UK, even to the point of being a guest on Desert Island Discs, that long-running radio show which features only the most acceptable of people.

Thus we find Gerry Cottle today, daily hands-on with the running of Wookey Hole but also an elder statesman of circus with that same passion that started it all back in the 1950s when he saw his first circus and was bitten by a bug that smelled of greasepaint and brought with it the roar of the crowd.

“Yes I am passionate about circus and the whole world of entertainment and I love coming up with new ideas to give families a really good day out at an affordable price. I have never lost sight of the fact that for many families a good day out can be beyond the reach of their pockets. When we started Cottle and Austen’s Circus we bought a marquee by putting £20 down and paying a £1 a week. We bought a truck for £40 and that was us on the road. We didn’t have animals at the very start but managed to buy a couple of Shetland ponies after a few weeks. That was a big deal for us and as exciting as buying a whole herd of elephants.

“We used to go out day or night and do billing and fit everything around the shows. We used to go to small villages where they had never had a circus before and were delighted to see us. It was a very different world then. We had to be very careful with our spending and I think that helped me recognise that if you want people to come to see what you have on offer you must make it possible for them financially.”

At Wookey Hole the star attraction is the amazing cave complex, which attracts visitors from all over the world, but there is so much more to enjoy, from circus performances to dinosaurs, pirates, crazy golf, play parks, Victorian penny arcade and many more attractions, too numerous to mention here.

“Opening up the new cave during this year has been the result of several years of planning,” Gerry explains. “It has been a fantastic experience just to see the experts turning what was something only accessible by divers into a marvellous extra cavern now available to all.”

The project cost around £3million to complete and no detail was left to chance.

“We had to do some blasting but that was done at night so that it did not disturb the bats which live there,” adds Gerry. “When they returned from their night flying they found the caves even easier to access. It’s nice to please everybody.

“Cavern 20, as it is known, is also called King Arthur’s Beard. Cave explorers who dived and found their way to the cavern through water gave it that name some time ago because of a rock formation they discovered. Visitors can now walk there of course but they soon see why it is called King Arthur’s Beard.”

Are there more plans for Wookey Hole?

“There are always plans,” Gerry adds. “We are always looking for that further ingredient that will fire the enthusiasm of the public. Our latest projects include the very latest sensation in cinema and some superb log cabins. I constantly try to put myself in the minds of the visitor and think of what I would like to take my family to see. What would excite me? I always have ideas and when I hit on something that might work I can feel the blood pressure rising even thinking about it – so watch this space!”

Wookey Hole caves have been there for thousands of years but Wookey Hole the visitor attraction continues to move at a pace in the 21st century, thanks to the showmanship of Gerry Cottle.