About the project

To celebrate Philip Astley’s life and legacy, engaging, entertaining and educational activities are taking place in Newcastle-under-Lyme during 2017 and 2018 – the 250th anniversary of modern circus.

Please click on each heading to find out more.

For general visitor information, please see Visit Newcastle-under-Lyme or Enjoy Staffordshire.

Series of talks

‘In conversation’ with Andrew Van Buren, key figures from the circus industry will share highlights from their careers and the importance of Philip Astley’s ongoing legacy. Organised by the Van Buren Organisation and Staffordshire University, talks will take place at venues across Newcastle-under-Lyme between September 2017 and September 2018.

Exhibition: Philip Astley - his life and his legacy

In May 2018, visitors to the Brampton Museum can follow in the footsteps of a team of intrepid research volunteers who have used their skills, tenacity and commitment to investigate our most burning questions… what is Astley’s connection to Newcastle-under-Lyme? What would his early life have been like? How might this have influenced his later career? The free 12-week exhibition will educate and excite adults and young people alike.


On Saturday 4th August, in Lyme Valley Park, the whole community will gather to celebrate Philip Astley at AstleyFest, a free festival. With performances, exhibitions and activities, everyone will have the chance to be inspired and get involved. Local heritage, arts and community groups will be invited to respond to an Open Call to participate, developing new work to showcase in themed areas which immerse visitors in Astley’s early life, equestrian skills and ongoing legacy.

Circus film screening

In January and February 2018, Staffordshire Film Archive will present a short circus film season at the Stoke Film Theatre. The season will feature: The Greatest Show on Earth (1952, Director Cecil B De Mille), Sawdust and Tinsel (1953, Director Ingmar Bergman) and Freaks (1932, Director Todd Browning). After the screenings, Ray Johnson MBE will host a discussion, drawing out the themes and issues raised by each of the films.

Roll up, roll up

Local people will be invited to work with the New Vic Theatre to develop a brand new performance about Philip Astley, to be performed at AstleyFest, in August 2018. With multiple opportunities to participate from writing to performing to taking part in a community choir, this new performance will be by and for the people of Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Children's poetry and art competitions

School children in Newcastle-under-Lyme will be invited to participate in a poetry and art competition organised by Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council. The work that best captures Astley’s amazing achievements will be shared at an award ceremony at Keele Hall.

Full circle

Students and staff at Newcastle-under-Lyme College will be developing their circus skills in order to bring Astley’s story to life in public performances at the College’s state of the art Performing Arts Centre in spring 2018.

Town trail

A local artist will be commissioned by the Newcastle-under-Lyme Business Improvement District (BID) to develop a town centre trail that includes both historical sites and brand-new art work, illustrating highlights from Astley’s amazing life. Launching in June 2018, visitors and residents can pick up the trail from local businesses, be guided by volunteer storytellers, and revel in the circus atmosphere when town centre businesses decorate their windows, taking inspiration from iconic circus posters.

Astley evening extravaganza

No chance for a quiet drink during this fantastic night to remember in May 2018. Newcastle-under-Lyme Business Improvement District (BID) will bring an array of circus performers to town centre bars and pubs for drinkers to enjoy along with an Astley Ale or Tightrope Tequila…

Sharing Astley's story

Staff at the Newcastle-under-Lyme Library, the Brampton Museum and local Children’s Centres will work with the New Vic Theatre’s Education Team to develop the storytelling skills and knowledge of Philip Astley’s story to be able to share this with children across the borough. Co-produced resources will be made available on the Philip Astley website, creating a lasting legacy for library, children centre and museum staff working in Newcastle-under-Lyme, and beyond.

Circus challenge for schools - V&A Museum and National Centre for Circus Arts (NCCA)

In early 2018, the NCCA and the V&A Museum will set a challenge for schools; children will learn a brand new circus skill and be able to perform it non-stop for 250 seconds. The Philip Astley Project will support schools in Newcastle-under-Lyme to take up the challenge by coordinating a launch and celebration event.

Media and marketing campaign

An unmissable media and marketing campaign will raise Astley’s profile in Newcastle-under-Lyme and promote the project’s events and activities. Newcastle-under-Lyme College, the Van Buren Organisation and Staffordshire University will use traditional and social media to deliver campaign bursts that share key messages about Astley’s life and legacy.

Research reports and evaluations

Our evaluation reports summarise the development and delivery phases of the Philip Astley Project. The report for the development phase captures the learning, consultation and feedback gathered which was then used to develop the activities, events and outputs detailed in the report for the delivery phase (an independent evaluation undertaken by The Audience Agency).

Steering Group Organisations

The Philip Astley Project is managed by Staffordshire University on behalf of a steering group of local heritage, arts, education and statutory organisations:

  • Appetite
  • Brampton Museum
  • Friends of the Brampton Museum
  • Keele University
  • Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council
  • Newcastle-under-Lyme Business Improvement District
  • Newcastle-under-Lyme Civic Society
  • Newcastle-under-Lyme College
  • New Vic Theatre
  • Staffordshire Film Archive
  • Staffordshire Libraries and Information Service
  • Van Buren Organisation

Staffordshire University

The Philip Astley Project is managed by Staffordshire University.

Staffordshire University is a connected University, dedicated to our students’ and our communities’ success. This is achieved by:

  • Connecting communities: providing inspirational environments that bring communities together
  • Innovative and applied learning: research and teaching that is integrated and applied, delivering real world learning in a global context.
  • Talented people: We are creative, innovative and inclusive, empowering our people to be the very best. We aim to give everyone we work with an edge – from the students we teach to the businesses and organisations we support.


Rob Marsden, Senior Lecturer and Award Leader for drama is working with the New Vic Theatre and the Brampton Museum to develop placement opportunities for Drama and Theatre Arts students, including students on Staffordshire University’s MA in Theatre Practice.

Dr Carmel Thomason, Senior Lecturer in Journalism from Staffordshire University’s School of Computing and Digital Technologies will be researching aspects of Philip Astley’s story, including his link to Newcastle-under-Lyme and legacy in contemporary performing arts. This research will support the development of a Resource Pack for community groups and schools to continue learning about Astley beyond 2018. Students on Staffordshire University’s Journalism degree courses will interview well-known performers and experts in circus history.

Subway art in Newcastle-under-Lyme town centre


Newcastle-under-Lyme is a lively market town in North Staffordshire with a population of over 75,000. Home to the New Vic Theatre and the Brampton Museum, the town has a varied and exciting arts and cultural calendar. The Newcastle-under-Lyme Business Improvement District organises an annual Jazz and Blues festivals and since 2014 has collaborated with Appetite and Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council to bring circus to Newcastle-under-Lyme’s town centre during the Homecoming Festival.

Local citizens are engaged and active in promoting the town’s unique heritage. The Van Buren Organisation has worked tirelessly to celebrate Philip Astley’s heritage in Newcastle-under-Lyme for over two decades. Staffordshire Film Archive’s Ray Johnson MBE lends his skills and expertise to a range of heritage and arts activities across the county. In addition, Newcastle-under-Lyme’s Civic Society has 70 members who meet regularly and plan activities to protect, conserve and improve the character of the historic North Staffordshire town. In recent years, Newcastle-under-Lyme has seen significant interest in its unique heritage. The Heritage Lottery Fund has recently supported the St Giles Heritage Churchyard project and the development of the Belong Heritage Gallery, as well as the Philip Astley Project. Thanks to the collective campaigning of civic society, local councillors and officers from Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council Newcastle-under-Lyme’s town centre now has a number of visual reminders of Astley’s contribution to circus and the broader performing arts traditions including a street art subway, Newcastle-under-Lyme children’s library and the recently renamed ‘Philip Astley walk’.

Young people keen to follow in Philip Astley’s footsteps can study performing arts or business at Newcastle-under-Lyme College and continue their studies at Keele or Staffordshire Universities.

Astley is our Shakespeare

Andrew Van Buren

“After all the years that our family has worked to gain Philip Astley greater recognition, it is fantastic to now see his achievements and legacy being celebrated, not only in his birthplace of Newcastle-under-Lyme, but also nationwide and hopefully worldwide. Little did we realise back in 1981, the scale that the 2018 celebrations would become. Astley’s innovative thinking, showmanship, adaptability and drive, are an inspiration that not only influences me, but also are the building blocks that so many other performers and shows are built upon today. I hope that our plans for an extended heritage trail with the “king pole” centrepiece of a new permanent statue of Astley will take shape, bringing new visitors to the wonderful area of Newcastle-under-Lyme and cementing Astley’s story into the lives of generations to come.”


The Philip Astley Project is supported by National Lottery players through the Heritage Lottery Fund and generously sponsored by local businesses who recognise the benefits of the project for Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Sponsors include: Stanworths Funfairs, Junction15, Enjoy Staffordshire, Robert Moore, HomeTown Plus, PH Production Services Ltd and Belong Villages.

Supporting Organisations

The Philip Astley Project is working closely with the V&A Museum and other members of the national Circus 250 Network.

Circus 250 logo